Lillie Keenan’s Top 10 Lessons From Cian O’Connor
Editor's note: This is a repost of an article published in June 2018. Lillie has since moved on to train with McLain Ward, but the lessons she learned from her time training with Cian are still applicable!
In the last two years, Lillie Keenan has taken her riding to new heights. It’s not often that a rider can outshine an illustrious junior equitation career with consistent performances at the international, grand prix level immediately after. And yet, that’s exactly what Keenan is doing, in addition to balancing college life at Harvard University.
While her junior career was under the tutelage of Heritage Farm and Andre Dignelli, she turned to Ireland’s Cian O’Connor to guide her through the CSI-rated ranks in May 2015. And at the start of summer 2016, she won an Under-25 class at Longines International Jumping La Baule, followed by multiple top-five finishes throughout her European campaign.
In 2017, Keenan has stepped up as an integral member of the U.S. Team on two recent occasions: the last leg of the FEI Nations Cup™ Jumping 2017 Europe Division 1 League in Dublin, Ireland, in August; and during the Spruce Meadows’ BMO Nations Cup in Calgary, Alberta, in September aboard new mount Fibonacci 17—both victories for the Americans.
So what has Keenan integrated into her program from training with Olympic individual bronze medalist O’Connor? Read on to learn the tips and tricks in Keenan’s own words that have elevated her riding and has made her a consistent competitor and team rider.
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1. Success is a reward for effort.
Cian’s favorite saying is “the harder you work, the luckier you’ll be.” This mindset drives me through those early morning starts and seemingly endless no stirrup lessons. Often the first to arrive and last to leave the barn, Cian practices what he preaches as is evident from his success both in and out of the ring. As he says, “It is not going to happen unless you make it happen.”
2. The difference is in the details.
There are many top riders that give a horse an expert ride in the ring. For a horse to really shine, though, the care, management, and training program have a dramatic effect. Cian insists on keeping meticulous records of everything from feed to shoeing schedules so that when a horse performs its best, we can look back at the steps that led to that success. Cian has taught me that this organization is essential to creating an edge over one’s competitors.
3. Confidence in yourself, your horse, and your program: Mental toughness is critical in competition and training and leads to an unparalleled confidence. Knowing you have done the preparation and can trust your plan for the ring allows you to focus on the task at hand. I find I can concentrate my best knowing my horses are in a top training program that I can trust wholeheartedly.
Cian emphasizes the importance of a thorough plan, but he has taught me the importance of adapting to what you feel from your horse. He stresses the importance of believing in your horse and organizing your plan for the ring based on your horse’s unique strengths. That way, you can better respond to your horse and adapt your plan if needed on course.
5. Allow for yourself and your horse to develop.
I have always set high expectations for myself, not just in my riding goals. Cian has taught me to use that drive to be the best while emphasizing the importance of keeping progress in perspective. For both developing my own riding and working with green horses, patience is critical.
6. Set goals, but remain flexible.
[In early 2016], Cian suggested a plan for me and my horses aiming towards top results at a CSI5* level and my first CSIO5* Nations Cup appearance in Hickstead. Super Sox and I went on to place third in the CSI5* in Wellington, then in the $1 Million in Ocala. We were then selected for the U.S. Team in Hickstead and placed third in the King George V Gold Cup. We went onto the team at the Spruce Meadows Masters and finally, I found myself jumping clear in the Nations Cup Final of Barcelona. I went to Barcelona as the reserve and planned to jump a different class the day of the final round. As I was beginning to warm up for the earlier class, I learned I would instead jump that night. We adapted and remained in top form. There is no crystal ball, but a plan has proven invaluable to the progress of my career thus far.
7. Take care of your horse and yourself.
A happier horse yields a better result. Cian insists on the best care for the horses’ physical fitness and overall well being. He also reminds me of the importance to keep on top of my own well being so that I can do my best. There are no shortcuts if you want to make it to the top.
8. Everyone benefits from proper training.
Whether you are an Olympic medalist or just developing your riding, training is critical. In addition to regular lessons, Cian also arranges other clinics—such as lessons with top, classical dressage trainers and career-altering clinicians like Gerry Mullins—for not only the students and his staff but also for himself.
9. Enjoy your success.
Cian has taught me that when you put in all the work and it comes together, it is important to recognize the achievement and enjoy it. Working with horses is humbling, so it is important to celebrate when it works out and make the most of those moments.
10. Never give up.
Cian reminds me that occasionally, despite all best efforts, the goal or plan does not come together and that is the time to dig deep. Analyze, be critical, if necessary, and acknowledge that sometimes things happen outside of your control. It is then, that moving on, while hard, is vital. Setting a new goal and having another go becomes the new focus.