The Right Stuff
- Nov 1, 2004
David O'Connor and Leon Harrel come from two totally separate equine worlds and compete in disciplines that have very little in common. They also are far removed from each other geographically. O'Connor, winner of the individual Olympic gold medal in three-day eventing and also a member of the contingent that won the team bronze at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, lives in Virginia during the summer and fall seasons and moves to Florida during the winter, while Harrel, twice a winner of the prestigious cutting horse Futurity Championship, hails from Oklahoma and headquarters today in Texas, but also conducts cutting clinics in Colorado.
Despite the differences, there is a commonality between these two men. Both are superb horsemen and excellent athletes. Both know and understand their respective disciplines, and both have excelled for a number of years.
There apparently is another thing they have in common. They know good horses. And once those horses have been selected for the discipline at hand, they know how to feed and care for them to keep them healthy even during a rigorous campaign. They also have the right touch when it comes to training and conditioning, and that touch results in champions.
The type of horses one of these men selects for his particular discipline will have little in common with what the other chooses.
The horse O'Connor rode to the gold medal in Sydney was a 17.2-hand dark bay Thoroughbred gelding. The horse, named Custom Made, was 15 years old at the time.
The horse Harrel rode to the National Cutting Horse Futurity Championship in 1987 was barely 15 hands high. She was three years old, and her name was Smart Date.
There are major differences in the disciplines in which the two men compete. Eventing tests both a horse's ability and endurance over three days of competition. Cutting involves 2 1/2 minutes of intense effort per competition.
At the highest level of eventing, the competition starts on the first day with dressage. The toughest test comes on the second day when the horse is required to go at a measured pace for several miles (roads and tracks) before and after galloping a steeplechase course. This is followed by a veterinary check to make certain that the horse is capable of tackling the major challenge of the day--jumping between 28 and 30 fences and obstacles, some of which will involve more than one jumping effort, over a course that covers several miles. On the third day of competition, the event horse must compete in stadium jumping, where he is asked to clear a series of high, difficult jumps in an arena.
Cutting is strictly a judged event. The contestant rides his horse into the herd and pushes out a cow. The horse then is given free rein and must prevent the cow from returning to the herd. The horse is judged on how well it accomplishes this task and is penalized for any mistakes made.
What follows concerning their approach to picking and campaigning horses for their respective disciplines stems from interviews; Harrel's book Cutting, written with Randy Witte, who today is the publisher of Western Horseman; and information garnered from their respective web sites.
The location of the two men for telephone interviews underscored their differences. Harrel was in Pagosa Springs, Colo., where he was conducting one of a series of six 5-star cutting clinics at the Ricky Galles Ranch. O'Connor was at his summer headquarters in The Plains, Va., awaiting word concerning selection of the three-day event team for the 2004 Olympics.
First, we'll have some background on these two extraordinary horsemen so that we can better understand how each has arrived at the pinnacle of success.
David O'Connor was born Jan. 18, 1962, to Sally and John O'Connor. As the son of a renowned dressage judge and equestrian, O'Connor became a part of the horse world at an early age. When he was 11 years old, he went on a three-month trek across the country on horseback, traveling from Maryland to Oregon with his mother and brother.
O'Connor and his wife, Karen, began dating in 1986, when they both represented the United States in Poland. They moved to England and stayed for four years, competing against some of the best eventers in the world. In 1994, Jacqueline Mars, a friend of the O'Connors and owner of several horses they were riding, relocated to The Plains, Va., and purchased Stonehall Farm. She asked the O'Connors to manage it for her. They accepted, and they remain there today, although they spend their winters in Ocala, Fla.
He and the former Karen Lende were married in 1993, and at the Sydney Olympics became what is believed to be the only husband-wife duo to win team medals on two occasions in Olympic equestrian competition. They were also part of the three-day event team that won a silver medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. David rode Custom Made in the individual competition at Sydney and a horse named Giltedge in the team event. Karen was aboard Prince Panache in Sydney, a horse about which we'll learn more a little later.
O'Connor followed up on his Olympic successes by winning the four-star Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event in Lexington for the third time, again riding Giltedge, a horse who has since been retired. He also won the 2001 United States Equestrian Team (USET) Fall Eventing Championship at Fair Hill International.
In 2002, O'Connor led the U.S. eventing team to a gold medal at the World Equestrian Games in Spain aboard Giltedge. He followed that up with another win at the Fair Hill International aboard Custom Made. Later that year, he was named Rider of the Year by the U.S. Equestrian Federation (USEF).
O'Connor has competed internationally for the USET since the late 1980s. He has earned three Olympic medals, one of each color; two Pan American Games medals; and two world championships. He has won Rolex twice as a three-star event and once as a four-star event. He won Fair Hill International (a three-star event) five times and, in 1997, he became the second American in history to win the coveted Badminton four-star event in England.
However, his involvement in the non-riding part of eventing also has been strong. Currently, he is president of USEF, the national governing body of U.S. equestrian sports.
Last year, O'Connor was awarded the prestigious Wofford Cup, an award presented to individuals who have made outstanding contributions to eventing in a non-riding capacity. O'Connor was the first rider to be awarded the Wofford Cup.
In 2003, O'Connor was selected by the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) as the 2003 Equestrian Developmental Coach of the Year. The selection was in recognition of O'Connor's work in helping the USEF's eventing program by working with young, future eventers.
For more information on the O'Connors, see their web site at www.oconnoreventteam.com.
Leon Harrel was born on the grassy plains of Oklahoma. Both his father and his grandfather farmed the land and raised cattle. It was during this early period of his life that Harrel began the dream of being a world champion cowboy.
He followed that dream after the family moved to California, and as a young high schooler, he was heavily involved in rodeo as a bull and bronc rider. The rodeo dream lasted until 1962, when a near-fatal spill ended his rodeo career. A bull threw him and stepped on his right arm, shattering the bones. That was the arm he used to keep himself aboard. He tried riding bulls and broncs left-handed, but the handwriting was on the wall. His rodeo career was over.
By then, the young man had graduated from high school and gone to work for the Triangle T Ranch, owned by G.D. Turnbow and located in Chowchilla, Calif. The prime focus of the ranch was raising Quarter Horses for racing. Those that didn't become racehorses were trained for cutting or some other equestrian activity.
"At that point in my life," he recalls, "I thought cutting was about the slowest moving thing I'd ever seen."
Then the head trainer at the Triangle T gave Harrel an opportunity to train a cutting horse. That did it. He was hooked and a new dream began to form--he would train world champion-caliber cutting horses. In 1972, he and his late wife Myrna purchased a training facility in Oakdale, Calif. (The Harrels became the parents of one son and three daughters. Son Lance runs the training stable in Kerrville, Texas, while Harrel frequently takes to the road for clinics and competitions.)
The Harrels later purchased a larger facility in the San Joaquin Valley and remained there until 1983, when they moved to Kerrville, Texas. Harrel says the move was because Texas was the hotbed of cutting activity, and remains so today.
Harrel won the 1977 National Cutting Horse Association (NCHA) Futurity on Doc's Yuba Lea, but perhaps is best remembered for winning the 1987 Futurity on the sparkling filly Smart Date.
Harrel was inducted into the NCHA Riders Hall of Fame in 1988, qualifying in five of seven categories, an achievement held by only two other cutting horse legends--Buster Welch and Matlock Rose. He was recently honored with a lifetime membership in the NCHA.
In addition to winning the NCHA Futurity twice, he has qualified for the finals in 23 of the 28 years he has competed there.
For more information on Leon Harrel, go to www.leonharrel.com/aboutleon.htm.
Looking for Mounts
What kind of horses do these competitors choose or desire?
O'Connor first: "I'm looking for a horse with a lot of Thoroughbred blood because of what we do and the speed required. I want a horse with extremely good legs and high withers. I want good length in the rear legs from hip to hock because that is where the power is. The horse also has to be a good mover at both the trot and the canter. And the horse has to have a good mind. I don't want a nervous, flighty horse. I want one with a good, solid mind."
Harrel looks for something a little different, although there are similarities when comparing desirable leg conformation. He, too, wants a horse with good legs and feet. He has this to say about his ideal horse: "The first thing I consider is breeding. What is working well and winning? What is popular with the judges and cutters? I do think a person is smart, after he is really into cutting and begins to pay more money for horses, to stay with the real popular bloodlines. If you ever need to sell the horse or trade up, it's easier to get people interested in buying a popular bloodline than it is for a horse that is just 'out of Oklahoma by trailer.'
"I want a horse that is balanced and appealing to the eye," continues Harrel. "I want a decent neck on that horse, coming out a little low in the withers. I don't want a horse that's real straight behind. I'm looking for low hocks and short cannon bones in the rear legs because our game is all about doing big stops. There are big horses that win, but I prefer a smaller horse. I don't like a horse bigger than 15 hands; I'd like that same horse better if he was 14.3 hands. A bigger horse has to really get down in that dirt and declare himself when he turns; it's harder for him to present the same picture that a little smaller horse can show the judge."
Training and Conditioning
Once the selection has been made, there is the matter of training, conditioning, and overall preparation for showing. The age factor differs a good deal in eventing and cutting.
O'Connor points out that in eventing, a horse isn't allowed to compete until it has reached four years of age. With Harrel's cutters, one of the major big-money events is the Futurity, held each December in Fort Worth, Texas, that is restricted to 3-year-olds. This means that many cutting horses are started under saddle as long yearlings and are into full-bore training as 2-year-olds, while the event horse is apt to be brought along more slowly.
There is a similarity between the regimens imposed by O'Connor and Harrel when it comes to preparing horses for competition.
While an event horse is allowed to compete after reaching his 4-year-old year, he likely will be near the end of his 6-year-old year before he is placed in demanding competition, O'Connor says. "It takes them that long to coordinate their strength." An event horse, he adds, normally doesn't reach his peak for Olympic-level competition until he is about nine years of age. Generally speaking, he says, the horse will remain at that optimum level of performance until about age 13.
Of course, there are exceptions to every general rule. As mentioned earlier, Custom Made was 15 years old when O'Connor won the individual eventing gold medal in Sydney. Custom Made was formally retired at the 2004 Rolex.
When the event horse is in training, O'Connor says, he will be ridden nearly every day. "We like to give them one day a week off," O'Connor says. Both he and Karen ride and train a group of horses each day. An individual training session normally will consume 1 1/2 hours of riding.
The fact that the event horse is ridden each day doesn't mean that he will be put to jumps every time he is ridden. Normally, O'Connor says, the horses will be galloped twice a week and put to jumps once a week, unless more schooling is required, such as with developing horses. During the other rides, there is a lot of trotting and some dressage work.
There is a difference between the way in which Harrel handles Futurity horses compared to veteran cutting horses. The Futurity prospects are ridden five days a week and are worked on cattle three to four times per week. Veteran horses normally won't be worked on cattle more than two or three times a week. Harrel also seeks to have the horses ridden outdoors doing ranch work and covering new country to keep their minds fresh and alert.
"After a year of training," says Harrel, "if the horse is a good one, he is ready to cut any kind of cattle."
With both men, keeping their horses sound in demanding disciplines is crucial. With O'Connor's horses, the prime concern is with the front legs because of the trauma involved when landing after a high jump. With Harrel's cutting mounts, the prime concern involves the rear legs because of the hard stops and sharp turns that a cutting horse makes in stopping a cow.
Often, says O'Connor, a limb problem with an event horse will involve the front fetlock joints. "We use a lot of liniments and poultices," he says. "We are strong on preventive maintenance."
Many of Harrel's competitors are four, five, and six years old, and the wear and tear of ongoing competition takes its toll on rear leg joints. "They are high-maintenance," he says. We use a lot of joint supplements."
In addition to keeping legs strong and sound, the O'Connors and Harrel stables are strong on other forms of preventive maintenance. "We vaccinate for everything you can think of," Harrel says. "We deworm every 90 days. I guess I'm a little old-fashioned, but I have our horses tubed with dewormer at least once a year. We have the teeth checked at least twice a year. We have an excellent farrier. Our goal is to keep the foot as natural as possible. We don't do a lot of corrective trimming or shoeing. We use a lot of hoof dressing."
Also figuring strongly into the equation of keeping the horses at their peak is nutrition. "Because of the energy demands on our horses, we feed a balanced diet that is low in carbohydrates, but high in fat for energy," says O'Connor.
Harrel's cutting horses are fed a pelleted feed twice a day and also receive grass hay one feeding a day and alfalfa the other feeding. "We find that this approach cuts down on chances for colic," he says.
In both eventing and cutting, horses are transported from their home headquarters to the sites of competitions. A cutting horse often will be asked to travel more than an event horse because of the frequency of competing.
Event horses, says O'Connor, normally are transported to competitions in spacious vans or trailers.
What about international competition, such as the Olympics, when horses are flown to the site? Are any special preparations required?
"Not really," says O'Connor. "By the time these horses are ready for international competition, they have been trailered all over the country. There isn't that much difference to them between being loaded into a trailer or onto an airplane."
What about the cutting horse that almost literally is on the road for the better part of the year when seeking a world championship?
"One thing that a lot of people don't think about," says Harrel, "is the amount of heat that can rise up from the road and into the trailer when you are traveling during the summer. To help prevent this, I add a second floor mat to the trailer floor. Not only does this help prevent heat buildup, but it also gives the horse a little more of a cushiony ride."
Harrel tries to keep the horse's diet unchanged when traveling. When possible, he likes to carry feed from home, but when that doesn't work, he tries to purchase feed, particularly hay, that is as close as possible to what was being fed.
O'Connor says his stable's event horses are maintained on the same diet they are used to at home. However, when hay is fed in the trailer, he says, it is dampened with water to avoid problems with dust.
Hauling for a world cutting championship can be a grueling ordeal for both horse and rider. World championships participants are determined by the amount of money won in a single year. In order to outdistance all competitors, the cutter has to compete in as many shows as possible during that given year.
Harrel made a successful run at a world championship in 1978 aboard a 6-year-old mare named Doc's Playmate. Early that year, Harrel and Doc's Playmate won $5,000 on a cutting circuit in California. They didn't go to any major cuttings during the winter, which allowed a couple of other competitors to build up a comfortable margin in the $15,000-20,000 range. That spring, Harrel and Doc's Playmate got back into the winner's circle, and Harrel decided to make a run at the championship. It wasn't long before they were in first place.
See an account of that season and its challenges in "Caring for Docs Playmate" at right.
Doc's Playmate was inducted into the NCHA Hall of Fame in 1979. Her story underscores that winning a world championship is an ordeal and can only be done with a horse that is healthy and sound.
Problems To Overcome
But not all competing horses stay healthy throughout their careers. Some must overcome problems in order to be successful.
For such a story we turn to David and Karen O'Connor and a horse named Prince Panache, a 16.3-hand bay gelding known in the barn as Nash. Karen O'Connor discovered Prince Panache in England in 1993 and decided that he had the making of a future event champion because of his jumping ability, even though he didn't have great movement, especially at the walk.
All seemed to be going well that first year after Karen brought Prince Panache to the United States and placed sixth in the Fair Hill International Three-Day Event in Maryland.
Prince Panache's problem first surfaced during a physical examination in 1995, when it was discovered that he had a heart murmur. It didn't appear serious, and Karen and Prince Panache continued to compete. The two were on a roll for the next three years, doing well in the United States and abroad. In fact, they did so well that they qualified for the 1998 World Equestrian Games held in Rome.
It was in Rome that it became obvious that Prince Panache's problem might be more serious than had been believed. The gelding was so listless and lacking in energy that he was pulled from the competition. The team's attending veterinarians diagnosed the horse as having atrial fibrillation and recommended that Prince Panache be taken to New Bolton Center at the University of Pennsylvania, where he could be examined and treated by equine cardiologist Virginia Reef, DVM.
There would be a number of visits to New Bolton Center by Karen and Prince Panache as Reef devised a treatment and monitoring program for the horse.
"We discovered that he had a mild enlargement of the heart," Reef recalls today. "We put him on some medication that allowed the blood to go forward through his heart more easily to prevent atrial fibrillation and further enlargement of the heart."
Prince Panache made progress, and in the spring of 1999 qualified for the Rolex four-star Three-Day Event. Underscoring the difficulty of the course is the fact that it was the only four-star event held in the United States, and one of only five such competitions held worldwide.
Special precautions were taken for Prince Panache. New Bolton technicians were on hand with portable EKG machines to monitor the horse throughout the trying competition. Not only did Nash stay healthy; he and Karen won.
Horse and rider continued as a team, and Prince Panache did not finish less than third in any competition they entered. As mentioned earlier, Karen was aboard Prince Panache when the U.S. event team won the bronze medal at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. They also had a third-place finish at Rolex that year and went on to win the Foxhall Farm Three-Star Event in Atlanta, Ga., in 2001. Shortly thereafter, at the age of 17, Prince Panache was formally retired from competition.
Take It Home
In these two stories from two separate disciplines, the horse remains sound and healthy to win in one. In the other, the horse overcomes health problems and also wins, thanks to expert medical help.
And, one might ask, is all the effort to get a horse ready for championship competition worth the time and energy? We'll let David O'Connor sum it up for both himself and Leon Harrel: "To have a horse go well after all the preparation...it's magic."
THE CUTTING HORSE CIRCUIT: Caring for Doc's Playmate
Leon Harrel made a successful run at a world championship in 1978 aboard a 6-year-old mare named Doc's Playmate. The story about the campaign and what was involved in keeping Doc's Playmate healthy and alert is beautifully told in Cutting, by Leon Harrel and Randy Witte, now the publisher of Western Horseman. We pick up the story as they told it midway through the campaign:
"Later on, a hired man would take over the rig and care for the mare after a show, and Leon would catch a plane for home, to work on the farm for several days. Then he would fly back to wherever his rig was and switch places with his helper.
(Leon) "It got a little wild. I remember one time when I was feeling pretty low. I had flown from California to Denver and picked up my rig and horse; my helper flew back home to work. I got in the truck and drove all night to some shows they had in Kansas. Got there the next morning and showed, then loaded up and left on Saturday night and drove all the way to Fort Sumner, New Mexico. The show was supposed to start at 1 p.m., but there was a delay and it wasn't going to get under way until about seven that evening. I was tired and had some time to kill and some time to think.
(Witte's narrative) "He saddled the mare and rode out in a pasture, found his way down to a creek, and dismounted. He remembers the day was slightly windy, and he thought about his family. He knew the kids would be starting school the next day.
(Leon) "I was sitting there, holding the reins, just looking at my mare, and I thought, 'What in the world am I doing here? I'm (far) from home on a Sunday afternoon at a $250-added cutting in the middle of nowhere.' And I really thought I'd lost my mind.
(Witte's narrative) "He showed his mare, won the cutting, and went to a phone to call home.
" 'I'm coming home,' " he told them, " 'My mind is made up--I'm through hauling this year. '
"Myrna and the youngsters crowded around the telephone. 'Aw Dad,' they said, 'don't quit.' "
"He didn't quit.
"Leon showed Doc's Playmate 65 times that year and was in the money all but 10 or 11 times.
(Leon) "The better I took care of her, the better she performed. I didn't have to tune her up; I'd just work her at cuttings. I'd get her bathed regularly and just made sure she was healthy. A lot of times, I'd look for something besides a stall to keep her in. I'd try to find a little place outside of town that had some pasture. To this day (the book was published in 1989), that mare is sound. No blemishes. I had a good horse that wanted to win."
About the Author
Michael A. Ball, DVM, completed an internship in medicine and surgery and an internship in anesthesia at the University of Georgia in 1994, a residency in internal medicine, and graduate work in pharmacology at Cornell University in 1997, and was on staff at Cornell before starting Early Winter Equine Medicine & Surgery located in Ithaca, N.Y. He is also an FEI veterinarian and works internationally with the United States Equestrian Team.
Ball authored Understanding The Equine Eye, Understanding Basic Horse Care, and Understanding Equine First Aid, published by Eclipse Press and available at www.exclusivelyequine.com or by calling 800/582-5604.
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