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Debbie MacConnel


About Debbie MacConnel

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We All Navigate Our Own Journeys in Riding

Photo by Joan Davis / Flatlandsfoto.

Today I find myself thinking about my riding career and realizing that I have always ridden hugely talented capable jumpers who for the most part have taken care of me. They have been willing to do the job asked of them despite my faults. Oh sure I experienced the occasional run-out or stop, but for the most part they knew their jobs and took care of me. I started some OTTBs over the years and had success with them each presenting a different set of challenges, but above all they had willing and kind minds.

Ms Shae is a fantastic athletic mare who has taught me more about myself and my riding in the past two years than the previous 20 years. She is quirky, easily escalates and completely feeds off of her rider. If I look down or question something, guess what she does? If I drop my shoulders, hers don’t leave the ground. If my hands get to harsh she actually speaks (not kidding it’s a verbal reprimanding) and tells me to stop it! If my center is off or I perch she goes on her forehand. She is a true reflection of my riding. It’s like looking in a mirror and not always loving what you see!

As an equestrian we are always learning and growing (hopefully). This mare was entrusted to me by her owner Cindy Bauer in November 2018 after most of a year off due to an injury. She had one sanctioned event under her belt at Starter plus some dressage and hunter shows.

So I legged her up, she presented with head shaking and general neurosis including tightness in neck and poll. There were rides where I literally had to minimize contact on the reins in order to not get tossed out of the tack. Days of spooking at her own shadow, flexion behind the vertical and running around on her forehand were all part of the process of legging up. By the time spring of 2019 rolled around I took her to Course Brook for a derby schooling questioning whether I could even ride her ….

And guess what, I could! So we started our season with Spring GMHA after a long dry spell of competition (one show from 2016 to 2019) with two horses boarding the trailer bound for Vermont. I entered the dressage ring with a Hail Mary and a fire eating dragon under my seat laying down a 47.2 in the Beginner Novice division. Thrilled to have survived the dressage phase I looked forward to the other two phases to see what her mind was going to be like in a show environment.

Photo by Joan Davis / Flatlandsfoto.

My other horse was first to compete, so after a great stadium round on Four Fours I headed out for Training cross country. I felt a bit dizzy while warming up but thought it was adrenaline, given a long time had passed since I last competed. So off I went on my faithful OTTB with sleep deprivation due to the cross country loop in my header and worries of the darn WAGON table!

After a great round (albeit slow) I pulled up to find that I had no balance and was concerned I might not make it back to the barn sitting on my horse. I tell you all of this, so you understand why it became necessary to withdraw Ms Shae from the competition. After a visit with the paramedics, a shot in the bum and instructions to NOT ride my second horse I took a long nap waking up well enough to load the horses and drive them home!

In order to redeem myself I entered Shae at the following weekend’s mini trial at Course Brook where we ran Novice, finishing 4th with a boat load of electrolytes in my body.

And so began my journey with Shae who ran Novice at four sanctioned events in 2019. After one more dressage performance in the 40s we moved into the upper 30s range, still very tense and heavy in my hands we persevered to complete the season with a 5th and 6th place finish in hand. Toward the end of the season, I started getting frustrated that she was still tense, on the forehand, spooky and just generally a difficult ride. Complete with stops in show jumping here and there I questioned my abilities and whether she was the horse for me. Shea is bold and forward with immense talent on cross country so our partnership though still tenuous remained. She is everything I never wanted … gray, cribber and jumps with her tail in the air but every outing on cross country made me love her more!

Photo by Cheryl Szczepkowski / Flatlandsfoto.

Fast forward to 2020, Covid lockdown and no competitions for which to train. Amazing things began to happen. I started listening to Ms Shae — now when she speaks I stop and analyze why she is speaking. When she starts to escalate I slow things down and figure out why she was escalating. Suddenly I have gears and when I half halt she responds. I can now breath and sink deep into the saddle to enjoy this lovely mare. The head shaking is gone and the running aimlessly on the forehand is a thing of the past (mostly).

We have managed to get out twice so far this year. The dressage scores are dropping and I don’t think we are far from moving into the 20s. We have had two double clear stadium rounds and two almost double clear cross country rounds (ok speed faults on one since we are shooting to move up to Training and a TE on the other due to my walking the water backward oops). I have learned to ride in the moment and not let my nerves get the best of me (thanks, Andrea Monsarrett Waldo). Do I still occasionally perch or tighten my knees? Well I am not perfect BUT I continue to improve and break old habits.

And the most amazing news is that through Covid I realized the horse I look forward to riding is Ms Shae! My trusty OTTB Four Fours has gone on to partner with a beautiful Young Rider and I now own Ms Shae!

Riding is a journey. If it were easy we wouldn’t put our hearts and souls into it! Enjoy each and every ride! If you get frustrated slow things down and find the root cause of your frustration so you can address it! I am learning and great things are starting to happen! I have the right horse at the right time in my life! Never stop learning!

A Groton House Farm H.T. Dream on Hold

Debbie MacConnel and My Echo. Photo by Lyndsey Adams.

This week’s announcement that Groton House Farm H.T. (June 26-28 in South Hamilton, MS) is canceled is heart wrenching. OK maybe a small exaggeration but let me explain….

Groton House is magic to me and I have NEVER had the pleasure to participate. Way back when I lived in Boston and then the North Shore of Boston, I rode out of Myopia, fox hunted, did some jumpers and played over the cross country jumps in the woods. I started dabbling with the idea of eventing. I watched Groton House but hadn’t taken the leap into what I now call my home sport, eventing. Eventers are the VERY best people in the whole wide world and my only regret is that I didn’t become an eventer until I was just shy of 40 years old.

Back in 2002 I lived in Ipswich, MA, on a funny little corner lot where three roads intersected. It was a triangle of land with just enough room for a single paddock and two stalls where I kept my horses. I had wonderful access to the Essex county trail association. My own little slice of paradise! It was there that I started thinking that I wanted to event but never quite took the leap and in 2003 life took a turn which included a swift kick to the head that nearly killed me — lucky for me my farrier Steve was there to call 911 to come to save me. After recovery I made a bizarre choice and moved to Lexington, KY, and Groton House became a dream…

In the spring of 2003 I entered a barn in Lexington, KY, called Champagne Run and told trainer Maggie Wright that I want to event this horse! Maggie said, “What’s he done?” To which I replied, “He jumps and he’s a little quirky on the flat, picks up right lead from the walk and left from the trot but you can’t switch them around!” She laughed saying, “There is a show in two weeks time, I can get you in, what would you like to do?” My reply, “Well, Novice of course!”

Debbie MacConnel and My Echo. Photo by Lyndsey Adams.

Two short weeks later I walked my first cross country course convinced that those Novice fences looked mountains, I innocently ask, “What should my goal for this horse be?” Maggie’s priceless reply without hesitation, “Well a CCI* (now **). I ran home and googled CCI* and to my dismay realized this trainer thinks I am going to take this horse Prelim and participate in a long format three-day. I was pretty sure that Maggie had lost her mind and oh what a sleepless night I had that night!

And so began my love for eventing, ad with clear cross country and stadium rounds and less than stellar dressage score I conquered that first event! Fast forward 2 1/2 years to MidSouth Team Challenge at the Kentucky Horse park where My Echo and I conquered the CCI* long-format (and won)! Intermediate was the next logical step until I realized a month later that I was pregnant with my now 13-year-old son.

So back to Groton House, in June 2017 we packed our bags and headed back to Massachusetts. Excited for the opportunity to finally do Groton House my show cloths were optimistically packed in the trailer for the trip. That first summer was occupied with house hunting and plans to compete quickly moved to 2018. 2018 arrives and wouldn’t you know it I had a perpetually lame horse due to one misbehaving hoof and being new to the area couldn’t find the right farrier to help with the problem. Finally in 2019 I made it back to competing with two great mounts and cobwebs firmly planted in my brain! My goal to ride at Groton House was again postponed due to my nephew’s wedding in Oregon.

Coming into 2020 all plans revolved around competing at Groton House! My son’s camps, potential family vacations, visits to Oregon to see family, the entire summer planned around Groton House! And well we all know what is going on in the world with social distancing and lock downs everywhere. What struck me in the cancelation of Groton House is the “hope” that we will be on the other side of this soon. No one knows what the coming months will bring. No one knows if the kids will go back to school or whether summer camps will take place or when life will return to normal. No one knows if we will even have an eventing season in 2020.

Photo by Lyndsey Adams.

All that I know is that if we do I’ll be ready as my horses live in my backyard. I truly feel for everyone affected but this with barns closing to boarders and life as we knew it coming to a quick halt, I am taking this time to slow down, listen to my horses and the most miraculous thing is happening. I am now introspective in my riding and all the things that my trainers, Stephie Baer and Lainey Johnson, have worked with me on over the past year+ are sinking in.

In slowing down I have begun to interpret the meaning of things that weren’t sinking in cause I always had a “show to go to or a clinic to ride in or a GOAL to reach.” I want to use this time to reflect, regroup and slow down to focus on the good. Forgetting about competitions to focus on my partnership with my horses is truly a gift (though still wish I had Groton house in my headlights).