When Uma O’Neill stepped into the ring aboard Clockwise of Greenhill Z at the AIG $1 Million on Sunday, March 19, 2017, she might not have been an obvious pick to succeed.
The American rider has been quietly gathering experience in the horse show rings of California, and at age 21, she was one of the youngest competitors in a packed class of serious contenders. But despite the technical nature of the course that knocked out 48 other competitors, she skillfully navigated the first round with no faults. As one of only six to make it to the jump off, O’Neill really shone with her 6th place finish in the West Coast’s most ominous class.
O’Neill is connected with the well-known surf wear brand of the same name. It’s fitting then that she was born on the idyllic tropical island of Maui. But why horses and not watersports? The answer was always clear to O’Neill.
“I just fell in love with the horses. I appreciate who they are and their different personalities,” she explained. “I just love getting to know them.” She began riding with a local trainer on the island, Jillian Vickers, but at age 13 she moved from Hawaii to California.
She spent the majority of her junior years observing and studying West Coast grand prix favorites such as Richard Spooner, Susan Hutchinson, and Rich Fellers. “I think it’s really important for young riders to come to watch the big classes and watch the riders that they look up to,” she said.
When she wasn’t ringside soaking up all the knowledge she could from the grand prix level, O’Neill was competing in the equitation rings.
However, in her final junior year, she found herself without a horse and decided to make the switch from equitation to jumpers. Since then she’s been under the guidance of California grand prix rider and trainer Ray Texel, who also trains AIG $1 Million 7th place finisher Katie Harris. On Week VII of HITS Coachella, Harris and O’Neill placed 2nd and 3rd, respectively, in the $25,000 SmartPak Open Prix.
“We’ve been riding and training together for two years now and to see our work pay off was so awesome,” O’Neill said.
In 2015, O’Neill set her sights on the North American Junior and Young Rider Championship. After successfully completing the challenging qualifying process, O’Neill travelled to represent Zone 10 aboard her talented Clockwise of Greenhill Z. That year she and the team brought home 4th place.
“The Zone 10 qualifying process is not easy. I think it has really helped me to handle the pressure of the higher classes like the million,” O’Neill deduced.
The following year she qualified and competed again on behalf of Zone 10, and the team brought home the bronze medal.
“That was a pretty big goal for us! It was really nice to walk away with the bronze medal as a team.”
This past summer, O’Neill and Texel were planning on the AIG $1 Million class in Coachella even before the rule change that lowered the height from 1.60 meter to 1.50 meter. She competed in her first 1.60m class last fall in the $100,000 Longines FEI World Cup Jumping Qualifier CSI4*-W in Del Mar, CA. O’Neill said, “I think it’s something we would have considered jumping at 1.60m this year, but being at 1.50m, it really wasn’t a question.”
Although it was one of the most prestigious classes she’d ever competed in, O’Neill and her equine partner Clockwise of Greenhill Z felt confident going into the class. “Clockwise jumped great in Week 7 and in the days leading up to it he felt fantastic,” she recalled.
On the morning of the Million, O’Neill got to the show early and hacked another one of her mounts. She spent a good bit of time walking and planning the course.
“I definitely wanted to walk the course a couple times so when I walked in I would know my plan really well,” said O’Neill.
One line O’Neill paid extra attention to was the first line on the course. ”I watched a couple other horses do the eight strides and the nine strides down the first line. When I’d walked it I planned on nine. I started to question myself when I saw the other horses go but when I got on I decided I was going to stick to my plan no matter what I saw, and I am happy I did it!” she said.
The decision paid off. She was going on to the second round. When she crossed the finish line, however, she wasn’t completely sure she’d gone clear. “I wasn’t 100 percent sure. I knew I had rubbed two jumps but I wasn’t sure if they came down. I looked up at the scoreboard and I was in total shock. I was so, so happy.”
Going into the jump off, her plan was to ride a steady round as she had already assured herself a solid chunk of the million dollar cash prize by making it into the jump off. “Clockwise was pretty tired going into the jump off so I didn’t want to take a big risk that I might regret.”
She ended her day with a rail down in the jumpoff but with a 6th place finish in a highly publicized event such as the AIG $1 Million, O’Neill has definitely earned some bragging rights.
“It was such a huge accomplishment for me just mentally!” O’Neill said. “I feel like it really was my first big result that got recognized and I am really excited about it.”
O’Neill is now riding a wave of confidence and accomplishment. She plans to head to Spruce Meadows this summer and down the line has her sights set on the Olympic team. For now, O’Neill has proven she can be a contender in a field of experienced, professional riders. She represents the kind of rising talent that can be fostered by horse show organizers investing in the development of the sport on the West Coast, and in so many ways, is the embodiment of the decision to lower the height at the AIG $1 Million Grand Prix.