On the Rail: Farewell to the People's Pony

Practical Horseman talks to those who knew eventing superstar Theodore O'Connor the best.
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Practical Horseman talks to those who knew eventing superstar Theodore O'Connor the best.

Editor's Note: This is the second in a regular monthly column brought to you by Practical Horseman magazine from veteran journalist Nancy Jaffer about issues affecting hunter/jumper, dressage and eventing disciplines. Check back next month at PracticalHorsemanMag.com for the latest installment, and visit Nancy's archive to read past columns.

Theodore O'Connor on his way to double-clear cross-country at Rolex Kentucky this year | © 2008 by Nancy Jaffer

Theodore O'Connor on his way to double-clear cross-country at Rolex Kentucky this year | © 2008 by Nancy Jaffer

June 10, 2008 -- Theodore O'Connor has become eventing's Barbaro, a superstar who departed before realizing his full potential.

Even so, when he died May 28, he left quite a record for his thousands of devoted fans to appreciate: The Farnam/Platform U.S. Equestrian Federation (USEF) Horse of the Year honors for 2007 and two Pan American Games gold medals, not to mention two perfect rounds cross-country at the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, where he was the first pony to jump those imposing four-star fences at the Horse Park.

"If Princess Diana was the People's Princess, then Teddy was the People's Pony," said his rider, Karen O'Connor, adding she and fellow members of the O'Connor Event Team were comforted by the hundreds of cards, phone calls and emails that expressed sympathy for their loss.

The people who sent them were among the crowds that gathered to cheer on Teddy wherever he appeared. Wildly enthusiastic, they shouted encouragement and snapped photos of their rock star, a dynamite presence larger than life (even if he stood only 14.1 hands), who parlayed his size and talent into developing a following.

"He was a legend in his own time," said U.S. eventing coach Mark Phillips.

"His impact on the public is something you rarely see in horse sports," said USEF President David O'Connor, Karen's husband, noting animals with his charisma are "few and far between. He created so much emotion and loyalty."

Lauren Plichta, an eventer and Teddy fan from Lexington, Ky., identified with The Little Pony That Could because her own horse, at 15.3 hands, is relatively small. The lesson of Teddy, in Lauren's perspective, was "don't count the little guys out."

When she heard that he had been put down, she said, "I was like, 'There's no way.' It was surreal. With Teddy, they broke the mold."

"He was an ambassador," commented Teddy's veterinarian, Dr. Kent Allen, who noted "the exceptional athlete" made up for his "short stature" with desire, confidence and "the springs in his legs. It's not something you see too often. Everything he wanted to do he was able to do."

Impossible to Save

There was much more to Teddy than what he accomplished. It was the way he did it that seemed so special. This little athlete didn't just fly; he soared. He was full of personality--his every expression showed it, whether he was being exuberant in the trot-up, intently focused on the next cross-country obstacle or happily showing off after completing his stadium jumping round before a cheering crowd. Coupled with Karen, who clicked with an unlikely equine partner as she turned 50, Teddy seemed to rise above all the usual story lines while weaving his brilliant tale of glory.

"He wouldn't have been Teddy without Karen," David observed. The duo was one of those rare horse/rider combinations that seemed made for each other.

"That pony and Karen have done so much for the sport. It's so devastating to lose him this way, but it doesn't detract from the fact that he was, pound-for-pound and inch-for-inch, the greatest," said U.S. Eventing Association President Kevin Baumgardner.

Shortlisted for the Olympics, Teddy might have been part of the public's dream team in Hong Kong, but David emphasized that was "a secondary thing."

"We're just going to miss Teddy," he acknowledged sadly.

Everyone got so accustomed to Teddy as a Super Pony, that it was unbelievable he could be claimed by a mere accident in his own backyard. His strength, however, got the better of him as he spooked and broke away from his groom after being scared by something--perhaps a bear--a short hack from his Virginia stables. Fueled by that primordial instinct for flight, he raced back to the sanctuary of his barn. A slip on the concrete, the cruel slash of metal on his right hind leg, and those tendons and ligaments that had propelled him to such heights came unraveled. Though he had top-notch veterinary care within minutes, nothing could be done to save him.

Kent said the loss of blood supply that Teddy suffered in the injured area made it impossible to repair the damage he had sustained. The veterinarian talked with Karen and David before they made the only decision they could, to put him down.

"Barbaro lived long enough to be an example of what can be done at the extreme outer edge of veterinary medicine, and he just about got there," said Kent. "With Teddy, we were starting out at impossible."

What Greatness Really Is

The absence of Teddy is something that will be felt for a very long time. Karen; his breeder, P. Wynn Norman; members of his syndicate and all those who eagerly awaited his next appearance are understandably bereft.

Karen O'Connor jogs Theodore O'Connor at the 2007 Rolex Kentucky. | © 2007 by Nancy Jaffer

Karen O'Connor jogs Theodore O'Connor at the 2007 Rolex Kentucky. | © 2007 by Nancy Jaffer

But eventing itself has been equally affected. Pony Power had so many dimensions. Teddy was the bright spot whose accomplishments balanced a barrage of headlines cataloging disaster after disaster in the sport over the last year. He demonstrated the beauty of the discipline, galloping effortlessly from start to finish, showing what makes it unique. The desire to follow his compelling career also drew new people to eventing, both from other disciplines and outside the horse world. Watching Teddy handle the jumps and terrain was simply an amazing experience.

"I am just so privileged and lucky to have seen his and Karen's two rides around Rolex," said Kevin.

"I have told people ever since last April (2007), when they first went around, that this was one of the top five performances in the history of eventing. They were just so darn competent. They showed us something about what greatness really is, where doing something that is incredibly audacious is done with such superb confidence."

There's a bit of comfort in thinking of Teddy at the base of the Rainbow Bridge, "where those that have been maimed are whole again." The poem about the safe haven for animals who have died says there are meadows and lush green grass on that stopover before heaven. It doesn't mention jumps, but let's hope they are there, too, for Teddy, who loved his job so much and generously shared his joy with the rest of us.

Comment on this column and Teddy's life in the Practical Horseman forum.