David O’Connor Works His Magic at West Coast Training Sessions

Tamie Smith and Matt Brown rode with Coach David O'Connor in the first USEF Eventing High Performance training sessions of the year last week at Tucalota Creek Ranch in Temecula, California. Read on as Tamie gives us a behind the scenes look at the training sessions.

Tamie Smith and Twizted Syster. Photo by Mackenna Shea. Tamie Smith and Twizted Syster. Photo by Mackenna Shea.

It was an excellent week riding with U.S. Team Coach David O’Connor in the first High Performance training sessions of the year on the West Coast. I was nervous coming into these sessions, as this is my first time I’ve been put on an official “list.”

I have been listed on the Developing Rider program with Capt. Mark Phillips and ridden with David before; however to be one of those “listed” riders — this is the scary reality of being careful what you wish for. Are my horses going well enough? Are they going to be sound for the vet evaluations? What are my plans for 2015? Needless to say, I was a bit wound up preparing and wondering how it would be different this time I was a “listed rider.”

The vet evaluations — although I experienced them for the 2011 Pan American Game selection trials — there was a different feel, a different meaning behind them this time. Luckily, they went well, and they are behind us. Dr. Susan Johns was amazing and so open, and Dr. Emily Sandler, my veterinarian, was there to hold my hand. You just never know what you’re going to see when the ultrasound probe gets whipped out.

Now for the fun stuff: The lessons with David were incredible! He has a very good technique in explaining what he wants and putting the exact amount of pressure on the horses, who progress and improve by leaps and bounds daily. It is not every day that I just throw out compliments to trainers that I take a lesson from. There have been a handful that I can really say do their “magic”; David definitely did some magic this week, which is good, since he is “The Boss” for our eventing team.

Matt Brown and Happenstance. Photo by Cecily Brown.

Matt Brown and Happenstance. Photo by Cecily Brown.

The first day, I rode three horses with him. We worked on getting the horses moving with all of their parts — shoulders and hind legs, mostly on a circle. The lessons were very simple and back to basics.

David got on Twizted Syster, “Chloe,” and spent about 15 minutes figuring her out and what she needed. He was happy to feel what she felt like, as I think it was different from what he saw on the ground. I love that about David. He isn’t afraid to get on the horses and feel what is going on underneath you.

We worked mostly on stretching down and out to the contact in all three gaits. When I got back on her, she felt like a different horse. I could see subtle things he did to make her change, but they were very calculated and clear. His lessons were just the same — calculated, clear and fair. That is how horses learn.

Each day we had more progression, and by the end of the training sessions, we schooled cross country in a snaffle. If you saw what I ride her in cross country or if you have ever seen Twizted Syster run out over those solid jumps, you will understand what a huge accomplishment it was to be able to have the rideability in a snaffle.

The best part of training this past week was to be able to ride with David with multiple horses, as well as watch Matt Brown ride his horses. It makes you stop and focus on yourself and learn. I have found myself teaching his lessons, and when I rode with German eventing team coach Christopher Bartle this past weekend for the USEA ICP West Coast Symposium, it was an extension of all of David’s lessons.

The biggest thing I learned from David was that my aids needed to be very clear. He said this with his angry face. Oops! I quickly applied his tactic, and life became very easy.

Watching the Eventing 18 and Eventing 25 riders was also great and fun to see how new Developing Rider Coach Leslie Law will put his stamp on the up-and-comers. We had very talented riders in that session, and it was impressive to watch how disciplined they all were. (Click here to read Helen Bouscaren’s E25 recap and here to read Madison Temkin’s E18 recap.)

I have my homework to do and am working hard to be way beyond where I was when “The Boss” comes back next month.

Thank you to Joanie Morris and USEF High Performance for creating an amazing opportunity, and thank you to Alan and Kay Needle, the owners of Tucalota Creek Ranch and home of Next Level Eventing for providing a first class facility. Hosting the training sessions is an event in itself, and it makes me always appreciate our organizers that much more.