Prince Charming: A Personal Look at David O'Connor

by Rita Juanita Mock

For equestrian sports, such as three-day eventing, to gain the mass following that, for example, football and movies enjoy, it needs more charismatic personalities like 2000 Olympic Individual Eventing Gold Medallist, David O’Connor.

Lord Badminton, as some of O’Connor’s younger students called him for a while, has a wonderful sense of humor, and his students enjoy spending time with him and consider him their friend. They use this nickname to suggest more than just his win at Badminton, England: It demonstrates his sense of humor and the congeniality he displays.

“They work hard and play hard,” said Shannon O’Malley, of Middleburg, Virg., who speaks very highly of the fun times she has spent training with the O’Connors at Sharpton Stables in Altoona, Fla.

When asked, “What has never been printed about you that you would like people to know?” David chuckled while contemplating the question. “That there are two very different sides [to me] … a very private side and the public side. I enjoy the public side and take it as a responsibility, but I’m a very quiet person on the private side.”

The personal side of David enjoys the wonderful cooking of his wife, Karen. She makes his favorite dish, bacon-and-cheese sandwiches, any time she wants to fix something really special, just for him. Ribs and chicken wings are a close second on his list of favorites.
Another part of his private side is an immense love for literature.

“I’m a voracious reader,” he confessed, when asked about his hobbies. David has books scattered about the house, and trunks full of books from England, which he has brought back with him from his global roaming to competitions, many of which he has not yet read.

He also enjoys scuba diving, snow skiing and golf. When the O’Connor Event Team heads south to Florida for a winter session with students, they all look forward to participating in the now-annual “TTO (Trailer Trash Open) Golf Tournament.” Conceived one night after a party on the Sharpton Stables grounds, the TTO was an instant success with these golf-loving riders. What distinguishes this tournament from all others is that there are no rules, and everyone is expected to cheat like crazy. The participants have enjoyed two of these golf tournaments now and look forward to more in the future.

During these training sessions in Florida, David and his students ride all day, training with many different horses; David has been known to ride as many as 19 horses in a single day! They school, rain or shine.

One day, when it was about 40 degrees and pouring down rain, David and Karen stayed out in the jump field until everyone had finished.

“By the end, the dynamic duo was sopping wet and more closely resembled drowned rats. However, needless to say, everyone got a jump lesson!” recalled Shannon O’Malley.

The group, which now trains in Ocala, Fla., at Lambholm South, grows each year, as David and Karen add more riders and horses to their team.

“With so many more students, one would expect to not get as much personal attention, but Karen and David are amazing at making sure everyone gets individual help,” reported O’Malley.

In addition to the training sessions in Florida, David conducts clinics at other locations across the country. He spends a lot of time around the horses he rides, and six to eight hours a day in the saddle, as well as being the manager of a farm for Jacqueline Mars, owner of several of the horses that he and his wife ride in competitions.

David and Karen spend such a large portion of their time with the horses strengthening their relationships with the animals, which is what David says is his favorite aspect of riding.

“Spending time, and being very clear about your communication,” said David, “is the best way to strengthen your bond. … Communication with the animal (is the best part) … to have a horse totally understand what you want to do.”

Much of the time, the O’Connors ride horses for others in the competitions and events they attend.

“We’re kind of like a NASCAR team,” David said, in that they are the “drivers” of other peoples’ horses. They own several competition horses of their own, and ride numerous others for sponsors, friends and students, currently riding and training at least 17 horses for competition.

David enjoys Western riding as well as English, though he’s never done any Western-style showing. During the summers in his teen years, he worked out of ranches in Laramie, Wyo. He just plain loves horses and riding! He started riding lessons at 7 or 8 years old, then, at 10, he joined a local pony club. At the age of 11, David, along with his older brother, Brian, and their mother, Sally, rode from Maryland to Oregon on horseback. David started “playing at” competing when he was 12.

Growing up with Sally O’Connor for a mother, David was exposed to horsemen of the highest caliber.

“My heroes were Bruce Davidson, Mike Plumb and the other Olympic riders from my childhood,” said David.

After going through the “astronaut stage,” as he calls it, he decided he wanted to go into veterinary medicine or music. Like any normal kid, he played football and baseball with his friends, and sang baritone in high school, as well. But at 16, he began competing in national equestrian events, and has been doing so ever since.

Horses have taken him all over the world in competitions. He’s traveled to Spain, Poland, Italy, Ireland, New Zealand, Korea, to name a few of the countries he’s been to, leading what he calls an “amazing life.” He’s gotten to meet people all over the world that share his passion, and has enjoyed it immensely.

“It might be easier to ask me where I haven’t gone,” he joked after listing several of the countries he has traveled to. “I haven’t gone to Africa or South America, but I’m looking to.”

While on the circuit, David met Karen Lende, and the two soon became friends. After a while, they began dating and eventually married. Now, seven years have passed since their marriage, and they still enjoy competing on the circuit together. They have competed side by side at two Olympic Games, and have carried home the Team Silver and Team Bronze medals, making history as a married couple. They enjoy competing together and look forward to more years of doing so.

“It’s great having somebody who understands what you’re going through,” said David.

Among David O’Connor’s achievements is a first-place finish at the 1997 Badminton competition in England, the 2000 Olympics Individual Eventing Gold Medal from Sydney, Australia, as well as the Bronze Team Medal from the same Games, and the Silver Team Medal from the 1996 Olympics.

In David’s opinion, the best part of competing in the Olympics is that “You’re a part of something that’s huge … the only thing the whole world believes in. … Representing your country is the biggest deal.”

He said, though, that is also the hardest part, and confided that, “You have a lot of people counting on you, directly. … (The) pressure not to screw up is pretty big.”

The thing he least likes about competing? “Probably that you are beating one person, and it can become the priority,” said David. “Competition is about a pursuit of excellence (not one person beating another).

“That’s the hard part,” he admitted, acknowledging the struggle that riders have, like the rest of the world, keeping their priorities straight.
Both David and Karen love riding and competing, and have been taught from an early age that they have a responsibility to give something back to the sport. They expect to be involved in eventing, in one way or another, the rest of their lives.

David expects to work in course design, teaching, training and organizing, and would love to run an event and coach international teams in the future. His short-term plans include doing a developing-rider clinic in Temecula, Calif., and possibly competing at the Galway Downs this November.

Recently, David attended the Red Hills Horse Trials in Tallahassee, Fla.

“It’s one of the top horse trials in the country,” he stated, complimenting the community for its backing of the event. He said that Red Hills’ best quality was that it gets the spectators and community to fully endorse the horse trials, as well as the sport, which, to him, is a vital component of equestrian sports.

Like many riders, he believes that the sport has a deficiency of spectators. Publicity, in his opinion, is what is needed to assist the sport in getting this much-needed attention and excitement.

When told that Olympic riders would be competing in Red Hills, Rachel Coate, a college student from Tallahassee, said, “They have horses in the Olympics?” This is only one example of the ignorance of, and lack of support for, the sport.

“Once you get someone there for the first time, they’re hooked,” David stated confidently. Many participants in this sport would like to see more effort put into reaching people like Rachel, who don’t know what a great thing they’re missing.

Although the number of spectators at such events is not as high as David and others would like, the fans that do come to the events are ecstatic. While getting the autograph of Phillip Dutton at a training demonstration, a teenage girl said, “You signed a poster for me last year. … It’s on my wall, right next to Leonardo DiCaprio!”

If David O’Connor is referred to as “Prince Charming” and “the Golden Boy,” and Phillip Dutton’s poster is worthy of hanging besides Leonardo’s, there may yet be hope that equestrian sports will develop the enthusiastic following that these riders desire. With the assistance of competitors, photographers, publications and the spectators that are already “hooked” on this exciting sport, equestrian activities have the potential of becoming as big as football or the movies. Look out, Hollywood!