Why Cian O’Connor is working on his team’s horsemanship: ‘There’s an onus on all of us to lead and educate’

  • Leading Irish showjumper Cian O’Connor is going back to basics by introducing some natural horsemanship techniques with his horses. He recently utilised some help from renowned horseman Tristan Tucker, who has developed the TRT Method to help teach people “not to control their horses, but to better understand them”.

    “I came across Tristan on Instagram and I’m always open to new things and seeing if other people are doing things better than we are,” Cian told H&H. Tristan’s ultimate ambition is to “create a life for horses better than nature intended”.

    “One of the biggest things facing the industry is finding good quality staff,” explains Cian. “As the sport has developed at a rate of knots, lots of people are saying the same thing, that they’re worried that good horsemanship will be forgotten about. With that in mind I felt that it would be good for my own staff and for my students to have Tristan come to [my base at] Karlswood and offer another perspective.

    “When I started we had fantastic grooms that came through the BHS system and they knew everything about management of horses and feeding, legs and bandaging, colics, all this kind of stuff,” says Cian, who won individual bronze at the 2012 Olympics and at the 2017 European Championships, where he also claimed team gold.

    “I just feel now it’s been a bit lost, it’s become a bit of a roadshow with grooms going to shows yet lacking a thorough education – instead they become a bit like celebrity grooms or Instagram grooms. It concerns me that even the perceived good ones lack experience.

    “I don’t want my staff to fall into that trap and I must say they were fantastic, they embraced this opportunity to learn other ways. Even simple things like clipping horses, putting them on the cross-ties, out in the field – Tristan offered up new ways to help the horses to trust you, get them to settle; it was good to get us all thinking outside the box.”

    Tristan, who was born in Australia and rode to grand prix level in dressage, worked with several of the horses at Cian’s Karlswood stables in Co. Meath, Ireland. Cian shared snippets of the experience on Instagram and says he is keen to continue learning more about this horse-first approach to horsemanship.

    “We’ve been working with Tristan’s ideas since and we’re going to have a discussion with him about keeping the training up online,” says Cian. “But I think ultimately it’s like having a lesson with a top rider – it’s not going to make you win a competition one weekend. We need to continuously work with him so I’d be very keen to get Tristan over here and do some demonstrations perhaps, then we can open it up to the wider public as well.”

    ‘The horse just decided he was jumping it’

    One of the horses Tristan worked with is Cian’s very exciting new 10-year-old stallion Checkter, who “was a little bit spooky sometimes” at water.

    “I explained that to Tristan and you could see how he let him come to the water every time and just have a little sniff, then he walked away and never asked him to jump it, he just led him away and did that two or three times,” explains Cian. “Even the time the horse jumped it, Tristan never encouraged him to do it, the horse just decided he was jumping it and that’s Tristan’s way. His whole philosophy is having the horse working with you rather than asking the horse to do something.”

    At one of his next competitive appearances, Checkter came out and won a 1.50m CSI3* class in Saint Tropez.

    Tristan also worked with one of Tom Wachman’s horses who wouldn’t stand still while being mounted.

    “The first thing Tristan does with the horses is work them in-hand, so not riding them, and it’s all about the horse understanding you as the handler – he’s got your space and you’ve got your space, without pressure, without force. You’re teaching the horse,” explains Cian.

    ‘This type of horsemanship isn’t new, but people are going to embrace it’

    Cian continues: “It’s really interesting and Tristan has built it all up from his mentors and things he’s picked up — this type of horsemanship obviously isn’t something new, but it’s the way forward and something people are going to embrace in the next number of years.

    Social licence is really important — now more than ever there’s an onus on all of us to contribute and look at different ways for the sport not only to serve and provide, but to lead and educate.”

    Tristan says of the experience: “It was perhaps the most amazing stable I’ve ever got to witness in my life and a true privilege to work with people who are 110% dedicated to bettering themselves to serve their horses better.”

    Cian adds that the experience has really made him think: “Good horsemanship is something we all in the industry should strive to develop further and understand our horses better.

    “It’s not something I learnt enough of in those few days so I’m really keen to work with Tristan more and investigate it further. Nowadays there’s a lot of modern techniques and the sport has moved on, but the horse is still the horse and some of these basic skills are being forgotten. Tristan has honed in on them and mastered them, I think we can all benefit from that way of thinking.”

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