“It’s not going to happen – unless you make it happen.”
By Therese Alhaug.
He started hunting with his dad when he was 14 years old. After being successful in the hunter trials in Ireland, he changed tack and took up showjumping. About 20 years later he achieved the pinnacle of his sporting career to date when claiming an individual bronze medal in showjumping at the 2012 London Olympic Games with the help of the extraordinary talent of the slight but feisty Blue Loyd. Today he owns and runs Karlswood Stables, employing 15 people – and the staff, horses and riders move almost continuously across the globe. Cian O’Connor has certainly reached some peaks of his career. Still – he never arrives, according to himself.
THE 15 KEYS TO SUCCESS
“I realized early on that I liked to challenge myself. I simply like the constant yearning to be better and to improve,” Cian says when we meet him in a hotel lobby in Oslo.
We have asked for an interview to reveal parts of his success story. His first advice is unequivocal:
Keep moving: “Have your goals set right “
Cian O’Connor, like many other successful equestrians, is gifted with a determined mind. When he was just an 18-year-old, he rented his first stable containing six boxes. From there the Irish-born rider moved on to represent the Irish flag by participating in 110 Senior Nations Cups, winning numerous Grands Prix and competing in two World Championships, four European Championships and two Olympic Games.
The 37-year-old Irish rider has achieved what many can only dream about. He is currently developing his stables at his beautiful home in Ireland, and in addition, his international mounts are based in Germany. He motivates others by his unique work ethic, and the Karlswood-success could be summed up in the fact that organization and structure plays a key part, and where nothing is left to chance. His students are highly successful; he has a beautiful wife and the gift of being the father of two. But still, he has not arrived, he says. Cian is constantly on the move. Direction forward.
“In the future, I would rather do ten good shows a year instead of 50. You know, I want to do the big ones, the championships. I want to be able to have a good horse, good investors, and good clients. To get there, I have to keep working and developing a base, from which you can develop a good reputation. Also, I love to see the Irish flag raised and hearing the Irish national anthem. On the business front I get great pleasure from sourcing horses, developing them and then matching them to the right client. It’s a great feeling when you see horses that you have sold do well and that’s what I call a good deal – when everybody is happy.”
I think we all can agree that deal making is a skill that some people seem to have and some people clearly don’t. Whether you are trying to buy a new horse or simply haggling over the price at a neighborhood garage sale, deal making is a skill like anything else – a skill Cian apparently has inherited from his father, who was a car dealer.
“I simply grew up with an understanding of business. My dad implemented a natural understanding for ‘buying and selling,’ which means I early on understood the idea of buying for x and selling for x +. At the same time, my dad gave me the urge to be competitive.”
While many riders are employed jockeys, Cian runs his own business next to his sports career. Which means he needs to juggle several initiatives at the same time to keep things going.
“My shows are hectic. For instance, at this show, I sold one horse, and I also have an interest in buying another one. So while competing, I am also working outside of the box. It’s not just a competition. When I am not riding, I am constantly watching and looking for new horses. Seeing what is there. If you are an employed rider, you compete, and you go back to your hotel. It’s a lot easier. But I enjoy this. I like keeping all the balls in the air. And I like the way of not being just a rider. There are many good riders that have a hard life.”
Work hard and always improve: “Success is a reward for effort. “
“I always worked hard, and I always enjoyed it. I might sit up looking at some videos of horses – sleep for three hours and then go to Germany to look at five new horses. But it still doesn’t feel like hard work to me. Simply because I enjoy it so much. And because we are a team at Karlswood , we tend to motivate each other.”
Cian’s reputation as a coach is recognised internationally. The skills he imparts and the approach he adopts have seen him mould raw talents to become potential champions – as he shares the insights that have taken him to the very top of his sport.
“I feel I was very lucky to have had a solid coaching base from a young age. When I was 17 I was fortunate to have Gerry Mullins help me for about eight years. During that period he also sent me to other professionals to gain experience, such as Roelof Bril, Dietmar Gugler and Paul Schockemöhle. Today, at Karlswood, we can compete at the highest level, have horses at the highest level and train people at the highest level. Not many can do that. I mean – our riders are winning Grands Prix and they participate on national teams. Don’t misunderstand, I’m not trying to be arrogant; it’s more a testimonial to the people around me who have helped me make it happen,” he says, honoring his staff
“ It’s a great sport in many ways. Every day it’s something new, but the risk is high,” he says, pointing out the risks involved in the sport.
“I mean many of my friends are doing normal jobs; it’s very much a different story. But if you buy your own horses, the risk is high. You work very hard – over a year or whatever, to plan and run the operation. There are huge costs involved. For example – I have three trucks on the road, 15 staff, my stables, flights, and so forth. It represents an expensive and a massive cost on a monthly basis. And if you make two wrong moves, you’ve got to start again. So always work hard, and always improve, is my motto. It’s not going to happen unless you make it happen. I always think I can be better.”
Appreciate your staff: “Good people are hugely important.”
Developing a good management team is a critical component of running a successful organization. –“Never underestimate the importance of good people!” Cian says.
“All the Karlswood staff and background team who ensure that the wheels keep turning in an efficient and organized manner are key to any success.
“Have the best people around you! Excellent staff! I am fortunate to have a fantastic team. Our staff work hard all the time, still, I never hear them complain. Hopefully, because they are getting a lot of pleasure out of seeing how the business develops.”
Today, Cian’s business is split into three parts:
1. Competing internationally, which gives Cian a reputation and presence on the world stage.
2. Coaching and managing students’ careers
3. Matching horses to the specific client..
“At Karlswood there are 15 staff in total, of which three report directly to me. This makes the communication work well,” he says.
“I have people looking after marketing and accounts for me. I have a head groom, Alan O’Brien, whom all the other grooms report to. I have two trusted senior staff, Ross Mulholland and Michael Kelly, whose roles range from competing and developing our younger horses, assisting with the coaching of the students, searching for new horses and generally ensuring the continuing development and success of the Karlswood brand. “
“When I go to big shows, I like to have either Ross or Michael with me. They are always around me giving me a second opinion about the horses, as well as assisting me in the warm up arena. I trust these two guys completely. “
Stay organized: “Stay up to date, always.”
Cian seems gifted with a strong work ethic, discipline, and attention to detail. He is known by many to be hugely ambitious and enthusiastic. Clearly, his trademark organizational skills play a significant role in his success story.
“I like to be efficient. I check all my emails regularly throughout the day. I can have a bill coming in five minutes before a class, and I can still approve it, send it on to the office, and get it paid. I don’t like to have 500 emails open, so I leave open those emails that need to be handled, and leave all the others over to files. “
True. Taken his busy life into account, Cian’s immediate response to any email, message or phone call is beyond anything I have ever experienced. No room for excuses. Simple as that. He simply puts a lot of effort in staying updated, never missing out or falling behind – always on track.
“Monday is my office day, where I plan the week. I keep everything structured. It has to be like that. Like this weekend, for instance, I am here in Oslo. At the same time, my rider Ross is on the way to another show with ten horses, and next week he will go to Oliva Nova with 15 horses. With three trucks on the road every weekend, and three different bases around the world, the logistics have to be in order.”
Always move forward: “It’s an ongoing process.”
“Many riders tell me that they want to be a good rider or even the best in the world. But that’s not the way it works. It’s a work in progress. The best 5-year-old horse is not necessarily the best 9-year-old. You have to keep going and keep moving, juggling and trying, and you never ‘arrive’. That’s the challenge. So, think forward! If you want to stay on top, start planning your next horse. And the one after that as well.”
Be realistic: “You’ve got to start a process.”
Planning your future means planning your horse, according to Cian.
“I think some people tend to dream. Even though the horses they have aren’t good, they still dream about them. Buy a 4, 5 or 6-year-old and plan the future. If the next Olympics is your goal, and it’s four years ahead, then the horse you would want there is probably six years today. Right? So, there is a six-year-old somewhere that’s going to be in Tokyo. Then you need to ask yourself: ‘How do I get my hands on this one?’ I try about 200 horses a year, and I buy about 20 only. To get to the 200 is not like somebody rings me up and I go to see them blind. No, I would already have researched them among thousands. You’ve got to start a process and plan the future. “
Stick to your system: “If you don’t have a base to build on, you have nothing to repeat.”
Today, there are competitions week in and week out at a high level. This puts high demands on the riders to succeed over time. Some do, and some don’t. Cian explains:
“Some riders can win classes, but they somewhere missed the chapter of learning basic horsemanship. We need to be conscious about that. You can have one wonder horse, and have success, but it is short lived. It will catch up with you. If you have a formula or recipe that works, you can follow it and produce multiple horses over decades.”
“When we get a new horse to the stable, first thing we do is to look at the shoes, diet, his teeth, and so on. All these basics are details that sometimes people seem to forget. How does the animal look? Is he healthy? How do we improve his weaknesses? You need to find that out – and basically, track every horse to optimize them. I have put together two world-class professionals that I believe in and trust – my farrier Larry Winters and my vet Shane Fouhy. Both are Irish and are extremely motivated to be part of the Karlswood team and its success and both of them travel around the world with us to ensure the well-being of our horses.”
“A good system should be based on classical flatwork, transitions on the flat, then trotting poles, gymnastic exercises, related distances in canter, over poles and cavalettis. Then the jumps. If you don’t have a base to build on, you have nothing to repeat.”
Take good care of the horses: “You only get back what you put in.”
At Cian’s farm the horses get out of the stables 3-4 times a day for lunging, paddocks, hacking or riding. They get spa treatment after jumping. Nothing is left to chance.
“We provide high-end care for the horses. For instance, I know exactly what each horse is going to eat. I tend to take comfort in knowing that everything is in order. We keep a record of everything so that when a horse jumps particularly well, we are aware how we got there. I want them with magnetic blankets, with ice. I make sure afterwards that they get a massage. They get whatever they need. Number one because it’s good for them, number two because it will pay you back. “
Be presentable: “Appear organized. That attracts people.“
Appearance matters, according to Cian:
“Keep attention to details. Be organized and be structured. Be presentable, neat and tidy in terms of your horse, yourselves, your tack and your truck. These are essential things for people having their own stable. Appear organized. That attracts people. Remember: people want to be involved with individuals who are successful. So be aware of what image you would like to portray. “
Communicate: “There are always solutions.”
Being a good communicator is important, especially when things go wrong.
Cian presents a familiar example:
“You might get a horse, and in the honeymoon period, everything is great. Next thing the horse gets injured and goes lame, and he is out of the sport for a year. Don’t turn the phone off! Communicate with the owner of the horse. Make a plan, a solution. There are always solutions. Sometimes the solution is like: ‘Let’s lose half your money.’ It might not sound so great – but it could be a great solution – because that new money might buy new horses that can develop. So be honest about things and give people options.”
Understand your sponsors and investors – “Be fair with people because in the horse business nothing is certain.”
“I am lucky to have reliable companies to support me, like Horseware, Gain, Charles Owen , CWD, Freejump, TRM. Those are great because I get a real presence in social media, and they get a lot in return for that. And obviously, I use the products because I like them.
“ Currently the two main clients that I coach also have an interest in some horses that I compete – Nicole Walker from Canada whom I coach – her family owns my top horse. Good Luck. Another one of my students is Lillie Keenan – her family has invested in a share as part of a syndicate in an exciting 8-year-old stallion called Lukas. Right from the beginning I always try to put together syndicates with part ownership of a horse. I might suggest two, three or four investors: ‘ I will put in x, will you put in x? ’ That’s how we put together the money to buy a horse. I develop that horse in my system, and hopefully, it advances to a good level so I can compete him with the future aim of a successful sale.“
– But you don’t keep owners unless you are doing something right?
“True, It’s a skill itself also to get people to back you and then give them return. So it’s important to have a good reputation and integrity and to be fair with people because in the horse industry nothing is certain, and there will be bad days as well. You will have horses that won’t work out, and there will be bad rounds. You need to deal with that.”
“I’m very fortunate and appreciative to those who currently support me and I’ll work even harder to protect their investment than my own, as I like to take the long-term view.”
Don’t get too excited: “Learn from your mistakes but move on.”
Cian has ridden in 110 senior Nations’ Cups for Ireland. For sure these experiences have been good learning for him.
“I tend not to get too high or too low when winning or losing. It’s important to stay in balance. To be able to analyze and be self-critical without driving yourself mad. If I go poorly I tend to get up earlier the next day and try to analyze it to find out what went wrong. Then I move on. It’s not like you make a mistake and the world is against you. Remember; top professionals lose 80 % of the time. Try not to get too excited ahead of a big class. There’s no point in getting the horse upset before you enter the ring. These are things you learn as your career progresses. Jumping is about developing mental strength and concentration – to be able to deliver on a big day.
Allow time for your self: “Stay focused.”
At the show in Oslo, Cian was up at 6 in the morning riding.
“I have a rule for myself. When I do my own shows, I allow myself some “me-time.” If I run around hectic like a lunatic here and there, I get tired and ride badly. So I need to make some time maybe from 6-10 am, to give myself time to work out my horses without distractions. And I do that quite often. So allow time for yourself. “
Keep a good balance in life: “SOMETIMES ok is good enough!”
Whenever Cian has some spare time, he likes to spend it at home in Ireland with his family. In the end it all comes back to balancing your life.
“I am lucky to have my wife, Ruth. She understands the game inside out, and she loves horses. It’s not easy being that much away, but this is an important time of my career, and we try to make the best out of it. But in the long term, I’d like to have a lovely stable at our farm outside of Dublin.”
“People have to decide what they want to do. But when you have kids, you change a little. You go to a show, and you have some fences down, but you are still the same when you walk in your front door at home. I like the idea that I can put the pressure on and off myself. This balance is necessary. You will work hard, but it is important also to take a day off and recharge the batteries. It’s important to set goals, but you must be realistic about what you can achieve. SOMETIMES ok is good enough.”
Occupation: Professional Showjumper, and owner and manager at Karlswood Stables.
Born: 12/11/1979, Dublin, Ireland
Marital Status: Married to Ruth
Career: Cian has been a member of 110 senior Irish Nations’ Cup teams, has won numerous Grands Prix and competed in two World Championships, four European Championships and two Olympic Games. He achieved the pinnacle of his sporting career to date when claiming individual bronze at the London Olympic Game.