Where we're going and where we've been Part 2

If I’ve learned anything from this past year it was the lasting impact of my father’s example and guidance on my life. Not only in how his words shaped me but the psychological road map he provided on how to successfully navigate life moving forward.

(This is Part 2 of a two-part blog entry. Read Part 1, which looks at the lessons Sean learned from his late father Larry McQuillan.)

Roughly 10 years ago my father had to endure one of the most unfair moments life can throw at us, at least in my mind. He had just completed his term as President of The White House Correspondence Association and was at the pinnacle of his profession. At the time he was one of the top correspondents for Reuters, a leading news wire service in the industry. While my dad absolutely adored his co-workers and all the company stood for, he had to think of the big picture and what was best for his family.

Though he never had any intention of leaving Reuters, another international news service approached him about joining their company. The new editors at this paper were making a push to be at the forefront of the industry and sought to hire the best of the best from the White House press pool. Offering a significant increase in benefits and salary that would potentially secure my family’s financial situation, my dad accepted their offer. 

Less than a year after taking the job along with several other top reporters the paper switched editors again. The new editors decided to reverse course and go toward a youth movement and lower overhead. After decades perfecting his craft and living his dream, my dad, along with those other leading reporters hired at the same time as him, were out of a job.

In the rugged world of the news media where the philosophy is "what have you done for me lately," my dad soon discovered that once you’re out; you’re out. Reuters had already moved on with the journalist who had replaced him and he was considered too old and too expensive because of his résumé for another news service to bring him on. In the blink of an eye, the career he loved was over.

While my dad had every right to wallow in grief and anger over how unfair life could be, he did the opposite. He took it as an opportunity at the age of 59 to reinvent himself. He accepted the position as head of public relations for The American Institute of Research. A company he diligently worked at until the day he passed away.  

As I come to terms with the grief of losing my father, I use that moment in my dad’s life as my blueprint on how to successfully move forward. Pain and adversity should not be viewed as a burden to bear, but rather as an opportunity to learn, reinvent yourself accordingly and grow. 

To be honest, I struggled to remember this lesson for much of the year and I felt the effects. That’s OK though. I cherish the time I was able to take being there for my dad no matter how painful it was. Now is my moment to take from the experience and the lessons learned to re-commit myself to my craft and take the next step as a professional and as a person.

The philosophy that my father had toward life and that I’m working to emulate is not an unusual concept. What is consistent among people who obtain and retain success in life is not only a confidence in their abilities and beliefs but the capacity to adapt to situations. This ability that my dad epitomized enables individuals to not only endure during the changing times but to thrive and become leaders in their industry.

This outlook is not only imperative to all of our personal journeys—it’s vital to the sustained growth of the equestrian community as a whole in today’s social media culture. 

The Fédération Equestre International, recognizing the need for adaptability, recently convened to discuss potential changes to keep our sports viable and relevant on the world stage. While some of the proposed changes have been met by some derision in the horse community (Equestrian Triathlon…really?), I applaud the governing body’s attempt to learn from the past rather then dwell on any short comings in order for us to thrive moving forward.

There is a saying that positive beliefs draw positive situations and conversely negative draws negative. As I re-embrace my father’s views on life after this past year’s trials, I have come to experience that first hand.

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to witness a remarkable product in action created by a company named SAP at the Washington International Horse Show (D.C.). Their application allowed fans in the stands during the equitation championship to judge the rounds in real time on their phones to then compare against the official judge’s scores. What a truly innovative idea and a huge hit with the spectators. (You can read more about the SAP judging app in the Nov. 9 issue of The Chronicle of the Horse.)

By making the sport inclusive to the general public, SAP’s product had a two-fold effect. Not only do the fans become much more invested in what is happening in the ring, but they also became educated on the nuances of the riding by having the ability to compare their scores with those of the judges.

After seeing this in action, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to speak with Torie Clarke, head of global corporate affairs for SAP to learn more about the company and their interest in equestrian sports. (As a side note and affirmation to me that my dad is still with me as my guardian angel, as Torie and I chatted I discovered she herself had at one point been a political correspondent and knew my dad well from his days at Reuters…pretty interesting coincidence don’t you think?)

SAP is a leading company in the IT industry providing real-time data and analytics to businesses worldwide. After their applications helped revolutionize the way companies are run, SAP expanded the use of their applications to the sports world including equestrian sports. I discovered that what I witnessed at WIHS was just the tip of the iceberg. The application I saw on display was also in use earlier this year at the Dressage European Championships in Aachen, Germany. During each test, spectators were given real time video footage on their phones with a break down of each individual movement’s requirements and the ability to score each movement while comparing to the judges scores, all while the action is happening. 

For my sport of eventing, spectators are able to watch on their phones or computers real-time video of the cross-country action from the rider’s perspective with the use of helmet cams. As you’re watching the action, you’re provided live data of what speed the horse is traveling, what lines are being ridden in the combinations, etc. To me, the possibilities of this application to our sport are endless. 

The use of this as a training tool, giving riders real time data and analytics to compare to what we’re feeling, could take our riding to the next level. Ingrid Klimke uses the SAP program in her training and raves on how much it’s helped her improve as a competitor. If the Germans use it and swear by it, then count me in!

The bigger picture though is how SAP could be instrumental in selling our world to the larger public. In the age of social media, if we can draw the public in and educate them about what our sport is about while creating a sense of investment between the public and the riders through real time video and data accessible on their phone it could be a huge boost.

Maybe some day there will be fantasy leagues for the equine athletes like they have in football!  A man can dream….

The point is, we’re only held back by our own self-imposed limitations. I applaud companies like SAP for their outside-the-box, forward-thinking approach and know that their technologies have the potential to be real game-changers in equestrian sport. For us in the equestrian community, to ensure the continued growth of our sports in today’s world, it’s imperative we meet the challenges to come head on.

From changing demographics and development of open land to the exponential growth of technology and social media, these are not obstacles but rather opportunities for us to reinvent ourselves as an industry to take the next step. Life is full of challenges and not always easy but it is what we make of it. This is how my dad viewed the world and inspired his son. I only hope I can inspire my daughters in the same way. If I can accomplish that, then I’ve accomplished it all.
  
Eventer Sean McQuillan started riding in Maryland at age 12 and by the time he was 20 he was eventing at the advanced level. He worked as an assistant trainer for the O'Connor Eventing Team (Va.), but also has a wide breadth of experience. He has hunted professionally with the Orange County Hounds (Va.), trained steeplechase horses and competed in the jumpers. His wife, Kendra, is an experienced eventer, groom, barn manager and saddle fitter. Together, they run McQuillan Equestrian & Kilfinnan Stables.

 

Where we're going and where we've been....

For every dream realized, aspiration fulfilled or journey still to be embarked upon each of us can look back on an individual or group of individuals that sparked our decision toward a chosen path.

For some, it was a larger-than-life childhood hero who stirred our notions to dream big. For others, it was a mentor who helped guide us through our own personal story in life. Or it’s simply been that friend who shares in the delight of our successes and is there to comfort in our times of struggle.

Every one of us has traveled our own personal path and been inspired in our own ways. What we all have in common though is that our journeys have not been traveled alone. We have all been sparked by inspiration, whether we’ve come to realize it yet or not.

My hero, my mentor, my best friend—my spark—is my father Larry McQuillan.

My dad grew up in a small Connecticut town with dreams to make it as a reporter. After graduating from St. Bonaventure University (N.Y.) he worked at a local newspaper in upstate New York. Not satisfied that he’d reached his full potential, my dad ignored the advice he received from those wanting him to play it safe and took the leap into the cutthroat world of D.C. political coverage. His ultimate dream was to some day become a White House reporter. Not only did he achieve that dream, covering six different presidential administrations, he eventually was elected President of the White House Correspondent’s Association and was selected into the famed Gridiron Club.

So when his son showed those same passions, but this time in horses, he saw a kindred spirit. Despite his chaotic schedule, traveling all over the world with the President in the press pool, he always took the time to scope out local farms he could take me to. Most of the time we would just sit there with a handful of sugar cubes, hoping one of the horses would be enticed enough to come to the fence line, but every once in a while he’d wrangle a lesson for me. At the age of 12, with my only points of reference on horse care and riding being the movies “The Black Stallion” and “The Man From Snowy River” I convinced my parents to bite the bullet and purchase a horse.

Bucky, a 4-year-old Appaloosa gelding my parents purchased for a few hundred dollars, sealed my fate. I was hooked. Though we didn’t own a saddle and it took close to a year to figure out exactly how to get a bridle on Bucky, I was living my dream.

My dad, not knowing the first thing about horses but recognizing his own drive in me, became actively involved with Bucky. Every trail ride I went on, my dad was right there walking along with our dog Brandy for countless hours, always with a smile on his face and never a complaint. When I first started taking regular lessons, he did as well. He didn’t do this for any particular interest he had himself in riding but as a way to support and share in my enthusiasm.

As the years progressed and my passion became my life’s work as a professional rider, what remained constant was my dad’s love and support. In one of my earlier blog entries I wrote on the psychological fears I was dealing with after a traumatic injury that all came to a head at the Virginia Horse Trials.

What I did not mention before is that when I shakily returned back to the barns after my ride I was shocked to find my dad standing there by my stall. When I had left for the event he was traveling with the President in Russia. Not only did I have no expectation he would be back in time, let alone drive the 5 ½ hours from my parents' house in Maryland, I don’t remember even mentioning to him that I'd be competing there.

That was my dad though. He knew I was struggling after my injury and wanted to be there for me.

I can’t even put into words what that meant to me. He was there. I was not alone. Without him saying a word, just a hug, it gave me the strength to overcome that time in my life.

This past September, after exhausting every medical and surgical option, my dad lost his battle with cancer. It was a very cruel roller coaster of a year. Twice we were convinced the cancer was gone only to have the rug pulled out from under us.

My dad handled this situation just as he lived his life. He never got down; he never gave up, and he remained gracious and composed all the way till the end. For everyone that knew him, this did not come as a surprise. While he was always fiercely determined to make his mark on life, never would he do that at the expense of others. He had a tremendous compassion toward others, always there with a helping hand or word of encouragement. He handled every accolade with grace and humility, and every hardship with dignity and composure.

This of course is what heroes do, and my dad was my hero.

I’m not too vain to admit my own shortcomings. Spending the year in and out of hospitals at my dad’s bedside watching him suffer and eventually succumb to cancer shook me to my core. On the few opportunities I did have to compete during the lulls in his treatment, I found my focus and drive were not what they once were and it showed in my results. However, as I look back on this past year’s personal and professional struggles, I realize I still have my dad’s guidance to help me through this.

While he achieved many career successes, he also dealt with his fair share of setbacks. Everyone fails in life and hits rough patches. What determines success is not the avoidance of failure, but owning the situation and learning and overcoming it. My dad never got down when life threw him a curve ball, whether it was the loss of a job or later his health problems.

Situations are what they are. Letting it tear you down accomplishes nothing. You learn from it, make the appropriate corrections, and grow from the experience with a positive outlook.

As I come to terms with my father’s passing, I feel tremendously grateful. Grateful for the amazing family love and support I share with my mom Gerry, wife Kendra and beautiful daughters, Payton and Madison. That same familial support extends to my incredible group of owners and clients.

It means the world to me how understanding they’ve all been through this ordeal. I’m grateful for the lessons learned this year. From all the tough times, I learned the importance of staying positively centered and forward thinking. I learned to strive to overcome rather than allow life’s struggles to weigh me down.

Life goes on. Life moves forward. I’m grateful for my father for showing me the way, I know he’s still with me and I can’t wait to start on my next adventure.

Thanks Dad for being my spark.

This was Part 1 of a two-part blog entry, with a look at embracing change coming up tomorrow. 

Eventer Sean McQuillan started riding in Maryland at age 12 and by the time he was 20 he was eventing at the advanced level. He worked as an assistant trainer for the O'Connor Eventing Team (Va.), but also has a wide breadth of experience. He has hunted professionally with the Orange County Hounds (Va.), trained steeplechase horses and competed in the jumpers. His wife, Kendra, is an experienced eventer, groom, barn manager and saddle fitter. Together, they run McQuillan Equestrian & Kilfinnan Stables.

When dreams come up against reality

In her latest book, “Mary King—My Way,” Mary King offers up her 10 principles to having a successful career with horses. One of her key tips is the importance of being honest with yourself when a horse is not working out the way you intended and being open to moving on from the partnership.

All of us are drawn to this sport by our love of horses. There is no more amazing feeling than the unique partnership formed between horse and rider when it all comes together. Whether it’s that surge of adrenaline, harnessing the immense power underneath you as you tackle one of the toughest cross-country tracks in the world, or the serenity of an early morning trail ride before the hustle and bustle of your workday. Riding is definitely an endeavor we’re drawn to with our heart over our head. One look at my bank account will tell you that!

The emotional bond that we all make with our horses is what makes it such a painful, agonizing decision to let go when the time comes. As a professional horseman, I’ve had the privilege of developing relationships with numerous horses over the years. I’ve also, however, had to deal with those agonizing moments of honesty when I realized a relationship with a horse as a partner was coming to an end. Three horses in particular really stand out where I had to reach this decision, and while it was painful I knew it was the right thing to do.

One of those horses was Quillan’s Pride, known in the barn as Danny. We bought Danny as a yearling, and right away Kendra and I fell in love with him. As a baby he was such a precocious character, just oozing personality and swagger. As the years went by he developed into the most stunning youngster.

He was a 16.1 hand jet black French Thoroughbred as conformationally perfect as they come, and wow could he jump. Everything about him screamed class, and man did I get stars in my eyes just thinking of what the future held. Of course, reality is never as easy as our dreams.

What I came to learn about Danny was that despite all of the talent he possessed, he just did not enjoy the sport. Eventing is not an easy sport and to be successful not only does the rider need to be fully committed but so does the horse. The truly great horses love what they do. It became apparent as Danny moved up the levels that he was doing the job because I was asking him to do it, not out of enjoyment.

This was a very difficult dilemma I faced. The competitor in me desperately wanted to hold onto his incredible talent, but the horseman in me wondered if I was being fair to the horse. This might sound cheesy, but I truly feel that it is an honor to form a base of trust with my horses, and I have an obligation to not abuse that trust and listen to their needs.

Was it fair to make him run cross-country when it was obvious he didn't enjoy it? It was an incredibly difficult decision, but I knew it was in the best interest of the horse to sell him to a hunter rider where he could thrive.

 

Sean on Quillian's Pride.

The second horse I had to make this decision with was the polar opposite. Seamus absolutely loved being an event horse and took to cross-country like a fish to water. Never have I connected with a horse that gave me 110 percent as he did with unbridled enthusiasm. He was an out-and-out competitor who had an unmatched desire to tackle any obstacle or training question put in front of him. Everyday I felt honored to be his rider.

Sadly though, Seamus’s physical make-up didn’t match his mind or his heart. While he had tremendous scope, Seamus was a bigger bodied Irish horse that didn’t have a very natural gallop. His drive and determination more than made up for this competitively, but the cumulative toll his body absorbed once he reached the advanced-level started to become too much. Fitness work was always an issue for him and since he had to put so much effort into galloping at speed, his fetlocks started to cause him problems.

A funny story about Seamus of how competitive he was and how much of a character he is, was when the beginning of the end started with his competitive career with me. We were running in the advanced division at the Fair Hill Spring Horse Trials (Md.). Seamus always found the dressage to be a bit of a nuisance that he had to endure before the fun began on cross-country, but at that event it all clicked, and he was in the top 3 after the first phase in a very competitive field.

I was so pumped, and he was strutting around the stable area like he was top dog. Seamus was always very impressed with himself and at that event he took it to a whole new level. About an hour before we were to run cross-country I noticed his ankles were carrying more fill than they usually did so just to be on the safe side, I had Dr. Kevin Keane take a look at him.

To really appreciate what happened next you’d have to know him, but Seamus knew when it was cross-country day and always had the look on his face like my daughter Payton does when we’re going to get ice cream. His excitement was palpable. So Seamus is standing there with his royalty pose for all of the world to bask in his brilliance when Kevin gives us the diagnosis that we don’t want to hear and our competition is over.

Before Kendra and I can even process the information, Seamus’s body language instantly changes. My horse who while extremely cocky is very sweet and personable, instantly pins his ears and bites Kevin on the shoulder! It was like he was letting Kevin know in no uncertain terms that his diagnosis was NOT ACCEPTABLE and to SHUT UP! He then proceeded as we walked him back to his stall to also bite me and bonk Kendra across the head with his big Roman nose as if saying ARE YOU REALLY GOING TO LISTEN TO THAT GUY!?! I know, that story sounds ridiculous but it’s true and it epitomizes who Seamus was as a competitor.

As the season progressed, his fetlocks became increasingly worrisome to me, and I needed to be honest with myself about it. Seamus did not owe me a thing, and I knew he would not listen to his own body saying that the job was becoming too much.

He never once took a lame step at the end with his ankles as bad as they were, and he would go until he was broken down before he’d quit. I couldn’t let that happen. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I let his body suffer for my own competitive needs. I decided that summer to retire him early, so he could live out his days with a still healthy body strutting his stuff around the jumper ring with Kendra.

Sometimes these difficult decisions and moments of honesty about where our relationship is going with our equine partners has absolutely nothing to do with the horse. It’s life that forces the decision.

After the lessons I learned from Danny and Seamus and the realization that while I had a nice group of horses to compete but that none would necessarily be considered world class talents, I decided to set my sights on a top notch talent. In that search I came across Casalino, also known as Casper, who had just been imported from England by Mara DePuy, who had subsequently suffered an injury and was selling him as she recovered.

Right away from the first ride I was hooked. Holy cow could he move and gallop, and his jump left me in awe! This was the one! I was able to put together a syndicate to purchase half of him with myself investing the rest.

 

Casalino's jump left me in awe from the very beginning. Photo by GRC Photography.

While we went through a few bobbles as we cemented our relationship, we started to gel together as a partnership and he more than lived up to my expectations. I have never ridden a horse with such remarkable ability, and even better, he became my best friend.

Because I don’t have the luxury of unlimited funds, I always planned on syndicating off the rest of the shares I had in him. The financial burden of training and competing a horse to the international level can be quite steep and more then my family could handle. Everything was going great with Casper. He was going better than ever which generated quite a bit of interest in shares for him.

Then last summer life threw us a curve ball, and Casper became quite sick. Thankfully with the help of a great team of vets headed by Dr. Chad Davis we were able to nurse him back to full health. However the loss of the remainder of his competitive season stalled out the syndication process.

Here is where the realities of life come into stark contrast with my dreams as a rider. On one hand I had my fully healthy, happy superstar back ready to pick up where we left off. But on the other hand my life outside horses had changed. My wife gave birth to our second daughter, Madison, this spring. We also moved to a new farm where we are in the rebuilding process after altering our business model. With two young daughters to support and the realities of being a small business owner in the form of Kilfinnan Stables, I came to the impossibly difficult decision that it was unfair to my family to continue to have the burden of covering the costs of Casper’s career. My family has to take the priority over my competitive goals, so the decision was made to put him on the market. His fellow shareholders while saddened by my decision, were all very understanding of my situation and my subsequent decision. I still have the privilege of being Casper’s rider for the time being, and maybe I’ll still be able to sell the shares I need to so he can stay with me. But this is still another difficult conversation I had to have with myself on where my priorities lie and what is best for everyone involved, including the horse. He deserves the opportunity to fulfill his potential, whether that is with me or another rider.

The relationships we form with our equine friends are such a deeply personal, emotional experience. There is something magical in the bond that forms between horse and rider. The trust they put in us is not to be taken lightly. We as riders have a duty to them to not abuse that trust and to always have their best interests at heart. We need to be honest about the big picture and not just our own desires even if that means ending the relationship.

Eventer Sean McQuillan started riding in Maryland at age 12 and by the time he was 20 he was eventing at the advanced level. He worked as an assistant trainer for the O'Connor Eventing Team (Va.), but also has a wide breadth of experience. He has hunted professionally with the Orange County Hounds (Va.), trained steeplechase horses and competed in the jumpers. His wife, Kendra, is an experienced eventer, groom, barn manager and saddle fitter. Together, they run McQuillan Equestrian & Kilfinnan Stables. 

Drawing inspiration from Michael Jung and an animated turtle...

It’s funny how you draw inspiration from the most innocuous situations. I had one of those “light bulb” moments while wearing my “daddy hat.” 

Being a father of two little girls, I have become an aficionado of all things Disney and DreamWorks. One of our favorite movies is “Kung Fu Panda.” In one of the scenes Po the Panda is in serious stress mode and seeks the advice of Master Oogway…and man if that turtle doesn’t deliver! 

“Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That’s why they call it The Present.” That is one smart turtle! That line sums up what makes great athletes great. They are present in the moment with uncluttered and focused minds.  Easier said than done right?

In eventing the pinnacle of our sport in America is the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event. At this year’s Rolex, we witnessed some truly masterful riding and athletic skills, especially from the overseas riders. There is not a more brilliant rider in our sport today than Michael Jung. For all of the athletic brilliance and technical skill he again showed the world that weekend, the most impressive moment to me was a moment when none of his physical skills were needed. 

Midway through his brilliant cross-country round on FischerRocana FST, he was held on course right in front of one of the biggest fences on the course. If ever there was a fence you would want your blood up and zero distractions for, this was it. 

Michael, however, did not have this luxury. As the steward waved him down, he calmly gave a thumbs-up and hacked the mare around without giving the slightest hint that all of his momentum had been broken.  His concentration never faltered, and the look on his face was downright serene. 

When he was re-started, he jumped that massive fence right out of stride as if nothing had ever happened. This, to me, was the epitome of athletic brilliance. Despite the endless possibility for distraction, he stayed completely immersed in the moment, not allowing outside distractions to take him away from the task at hand. More importantly, he was able to convey that sense of ease and focus to his horse.

Sports psychology plays a vital role in all athletic endeavors, especially in equestrian sports. Not only do we riders walk a tight rope of absorbing a huge quantity of technical skills and tactics while implementing them all in a free flowing way, we must impart those aids to our horses who are our virtual emotional barometers. 

This is easier said then done! Paralysis through analysis is pretty common in our sport. The very best competitors have learned to balance their analytical side in their daily training with their instinctual side during competitive performance. 

Fear and anxiety are killers of athletic performance and something we see frequently in equestrian sports. Fear of making a mistake, fear of what others will think, fear of injury, and the list goes on. Every rider, from the adult amateur beginner novice rider to the Olympic gold medalist, has dealt with those anxieties at some point in their riding careers. 

Personally, my worst moment came 10 years ago at the Virginia Horse Trials fall competition. That fall season I was returning to competing after almost a year off recovering from a rotational fall on a young horse that left me with a displaced pelvic fracture and several severe internal injuries. This was following my recovery from a broken neck I had suffered on course with one of my advanced horses a year and half previous. 

That entire fall campaign was a great example of how important the mind is in sports. While my body was healed from the injuries, my mind was not. 

I had all the typical anxieties: “I’m not any good anymore,” “What do people think of me,” “What if I fail,”, and the biggest one: “What if I get hurt again?” 

As I entered the start box on my preliminary horse, these emotions became so strong that it paralyzed me. I believe I made it over the third fence before I pulled up, shamefully walked back to the barn, packed up and left for home without so much as a word to anyone.

When I got home, I immersed myself in all things related to sports psychology. After all these years later, one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned from that day is that your anxiety is NOT your reality. 

Anxiety is a self-created fear in the mind, created from mental models of our past and moments in our future that we have the ability to either positively or negatively influence. While the mind has the ability to clutter and distort reality, it also provides us the tools to center ourselves and stay productively in the moment. That is achieved through focus and mental training. 

The more you train yourself to focus on the positivity of the moment, the more the anxieties fade away. The more you focus on the anxiety, the more the focus of that anxiety becomes your reality. By choosing to focus on the positivity of the moment you are literally creating a more positive reality for yourself and your horse, reducing stress and increasing the positivity of the outcome.  

So maybe it's not as complicated as it seems: when you choose to stay present with a greater, positive focus, you are choosing a more positive outcome…and who doesn’t want that?!  

What Michael Jung displayed this year at Rolex was the epitome of staying present and focusing on a positive outcome, then achieving that outcome. Who knew one of the top riders in our sport and an animated turtle had so much in common!  

Eventer Sean McQuillan started riding in Maryland at age 12 and by the time he was 20 he was eventing at the advanced level. He worked as an assistant trainer for the O'Connor Eventing Team (Va.), but also has a wide breadth of experience. He has hunted professionally with the Orange County Hounds (Va.), trained steeplechase horses and competed in the jumpers. His wife, Kendra, is an experience eventer, groom, barn manager and saddle fitter. Together, they run McQuillan Equestrian & Kilfinnan Stables. 

We have to recognize our horses' unique selves

With the birth of my second daughter Madison and the spring competition season in full swing, I’ve been thinking of the importance of strong relationships. Not only in my family life, but with my equine partners.

One of the most important relationships a rider can have is with their horse. For better or worse a rider and their horse are a mirror image of each other. It is a rare sight to see a horse completely coming through it's topline in a relaxed, engaged, harmonious way with a rider who's locked in their hips and arms. In order for a horse to realize it's full physical potential, their rider must mirror those actions being asked for with their own body.

In a three-day event partnership, the rider's lower leg is the horse’s hind end locomotion. A long, relaxed thigh with a swinging hip and seat is an engaged, swinging back in the horse. A consistent upper body posture is a consistent balance through the withers and shoulders of the horse. And lastly, the shoulders, elbows and hands of the rider is the neck, poll and jaw of the horse. The rider’s balance is the horse’s balance. The rider’s rhythm is the horse’s rhythm. The rider’s engaged core is the horse’s engaged core.

To me, what’s as important, if not more so, then the physical correlation is the mental and emotional connection. Again, it is a rare sight to see a horse performing in a confident, relaxed way with a nervous, agitated rider. Horses are not predominantly verbal communicators. They are extremely empathetic animals that are keenly aware of the body language and the mental state of those around them, especially their rider.

The more a rider is aware of the fact that their emotional state and mental focus has a profound effect on their horse, the more successful a partnership they'll form.

While every person is their own unique individual, so too are horses. While I firmly believe the “mirror” concept is relevant to every horse, some are more susceptible to their rider’s mental state. Just as there are naturally confident horses, there are also those who suffer from low self-esteem just as some people struggle with low self-esteem. For these horses to succeed in this sport, their relationship with their rider is vital.

I've ridden quite a few of these “partnership” horses in my career but one really stands out. Kilfinnan, or “Felix,” was a horse I competed through advanced in the early 2000s. I bought him off the track as a 3-year-old and his early career went incredibly smoothly. That all changed in 1999 when I had a bad fall on another horse and shattered my femur and elbow. Because I thought so highly of Felix and didn’t want his career to stall while I recovered, I sent him to a top rider to compete. It turned out to be the worst thing I could have done for him.

My confident young horse became so unbelievably behavioral to ride and on the ground, I just hoped he didn’t hurt anyone while I sat and healed. Even when I was healthy again and we were reunited, he was a shell of his previous self. It got to the point where I literally couldn't give him away, and believe me I tried!

The turning point actually came from a terrible event. One week before he was to leave for a new home he colicked and needed surgery. Looking back on it now, I'm sure he suffered from terrible ulcers having to move to all these different barns and riders, which led to his behavior changes and colic. We just didn't know as much about ulcers in horses then as we do now.

I really believe the major factor in his issues was how important his relationship with me was to his competitive career. I wasn’t nearly as skilled as the riders I sent him to but I was his friend and security blanket and that was taken from him. His tendency toward insecurity and the loss of his emotional anchor led him to act out. That in turn led to negative feelings toward him which perpetuated the vicious cycle.

The recovery from colic surgery led to a new beginning of sorts for the two of us. That time allowed us to reconnect in our relationship again. I learned to appreciate him again and he had his anchor back. And wouldn’t you know it, those positive mental views I had of him again really helped him turn the corner.

One year after the colic surgery he and I finished fourth in the Radnor CCI** (Pa.) and he went on to have a successful advanced career. I'm convinced this success was in large part due to the psychological bond Felix and I had. My confidence in him became his own.

Felix was not the most successful horse I've competed nor the most talented, but he had the most profound impact on my career. I now seek out to learn who my competition horses are as individuals and where they are coming from in our relationship. It’s helped me discover that one of my current horses Casalino, while supremely talented, is shy by nature and needs me to help stabilize his insecurities. That Flambeau B will give 110 percent in everything she does even if it's a quiet hack day. We joke that her motto is, “I’m trying really damn hard to RELAX!” While this makes her an amazing competitor, I get the best work out of her if most of our rides are geared toward relaxation.

I’m learning that my new upper-level ride, Bastiaan, is hyper aware of where the rider’s body position is at all times. This is an asset to our careers together, especially on cross-country, but it’s something that could affect our consistency if I don’t work on his sense of relaxed focus. Like I said before, all horses are their own unique individual selves so it's up to us rider’s to recognize our horse’s personal qualities.

There are not too many greater feelings then the physical and psychological connection a rider can have with their horse. It will not only provide a considerable competitive advantage but it's just good for the soul. These amazing animals are full of empathy toward us, we just have to be willing to listen and reciprocate.

Eventer Sean McQuillan started riding in Maryland at age 12 and by the time he was 20 he was eventing at the advanced level. He worked as an assistant trainer for the O'Connor Eventing Team (Va.), but also has a wide breadth of experience. He has hunted professionally with the Orange County Hounds (Va.), trained steeplechase horses and competed in the jumpers. His wife, Kendra, is an experience eventer, groom, barn manager and saddle fitter. Together, they run McQuillan Equestrian & Kilfinnan Stables. 

Taking the sport by storm will take some time...

As I sit here writing my first blog entry, I can't help but stare out at the winter landscape of my home in Upperville, Va. Part of me is envious of all my friends and fellow competitors enjoying the sunshine in Ocala and Aiken who are well underway with their competition seasons.

My horses and I, on the other hand, continue our third week in a row schooling in the indoor with the hopes that maybe tomorrow will be the day the snow melts enough for us to hack down the road. Wahoo! The start of my first event of the season, let alone first cross-country school is a laughable dream at this point.

However, the decision to stay home this winter in Virginia was very much a conscious choice that I do not regret in the slightest. This winter marks some massive changes in my life and career. One of those exciting reasons is that my wife, Kendra, is pregnant with our second daughter who is due the first week of April.

By the time the winter season rolled around in Ocala and Aiken, Kendra was past the point of being able to travel. While the horses are a huge part of who I am, I pride myself on being a husband and father first. I could not in all good conscience leave my 4-year-old daughter, Payton, and eight-month pregnant wife to get a head start on my season by a couple months. Plus with all of the plans we've made for this year, there were plenty of equine-related endeavors to occupy my time.

The first change is the relocating of our business, McQuillan Equestrian, to a new farm. Kendra and I have been based out of Paul and Vickie Hasse's Deerfield for eight amazing years. Without a doubt they have been the best landowners we could ever ask for. The facility is second to none and the Hasses treated us like family.

Kendra and I just reached the point in our careers that it was time for a change. After years of trying to build up a string, I've finally been able to put together a really exciting group of young horses with the most amazing owners.

Years ago when I worked for the O'Connors, David said to me on a hack one day, "You do not build up a group of owners by selling them on potential medals. It's about the cultivating of relationships. They have to trust and believe in you as a person and in your program."

This sport is a great equalizer, and when I was younger I didn't quite realize how difficult it would be to put together what David suggested. I was young, brash and naïve, and thought I would take the sport by storm.

I had four horses I had produced to the advanced level with some success and had yet to experience the pitfalls of being a professional rider. That all came crashing down when I first went out on my own. I went through a seven-year stretch of having every imaginable injury to my horses and myself. For the longest time my nickname on the competition circuit was “Gimp.” These injuries and hardships in retrospect, were the best thing to happen to me.

Another one of my mentors, Philip Dutton, once told me, "Forced breaks can be a blessing in disguise. They give you time to step away and find perspective." That is exactly what these lean years did for me.

While my competition career was stalled, it allowed me to figure out what was really important in life and how I wanted to proceed forward. I married Kendra, started a family and rediscovered why I do this profession—for the love of the horses and the amazing bond that forms between them and myself.

Competitive results are fantastic but the relationships formed with these amazing animals are what drives me. Over the years, as our business grew, I was lucky enough to surround myself with like-minded owners. I finally achieved what David had talked about all those years ago. The group of owners we have now at McQuillan Equestrian are like family to Kendra and I.

With the faith these owners have showed in me, now is the time to truly concentrate solely on maximizing each of their horse's athletic potential. By focusing the business more on the 10-12 competition horses, it should hopefully open up new and exciting avenues for me, not only as a rider, but also for my family.

To add to our growing string of horses, I was able to secure the rides on two talented young horses recently imported from England. Bastiaan (Basil) started his career in the jumpers, competing up to the 1.40-meter level before switching sports to eventing. He will hopefully team up with Casalino (Casper) and Flambeau B (Lucy) competing at the two-star level this year.

I'm really excited about Fullham (Bishop) for his owners, Gary and Heather Newell. At 5 years old he is the reigning Burghley Young Horse Champion, a very prestigious annual competition in England. He has all the makings to be a star in this sport and I'm so happy for the Newells to have such a lovely horse for their first experience in the sport of eventing. He will be given all the time he needs to grow into the sport as he competes with fellow youngsters "Kelly, "Annie, and "Tanner." Longtime owner and student Sharon Odenkirk has two lovely horses as well in "Poco" and "Slipper" who have exciting futures.

With a stable full of nice horses, an impending move, and a second daughter on the way, it should be an exciting 2015 as a rider, businessman and daddy! Hopefully in my next blog entry I'll be talking about the competition season and growing family in the present tense. The snow is melting!

Eventer Sean McQuillan started riding in Maryland at age 12 and by the time he was 20 he was eventing at the advanced level. He worked as an assistant trainer for the O'Connor Eventing Team (Va.), but also has a wide breadth of experience. He has hunted professionally with the Orange County Hounds (Va.), trained steeplechase horses and competed in the jumpers. His wife, Kendra, is an experience eventer, groom, barn manager, saddle fitter and physiotherapist. Together, they run McQuillan Equestrian & Kilfinnan Stables.