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Off the track to FEI dressage horse

Emily O'Connell and Moonlight Park Foxtrot. © Julie Wilson

Emily O'Connell and Moonlight Park Foxtrot.

© Julie Wilson


By Equestrian Life

Most of us are familiar with seeing off the track thoroughbreds out competing in disciplines such as showing, eventing, showjumping and even polo. However, the racehorse-turned-FEI dressage horse is a less common sight.

Victorian dressage rider Emily O’Connell has bucked the trend throughout her career to date, enjoying success up to Prix St Georges level with off the track thoroughbreds.

“My first horse, Dudley, was an OTT,” recalls Emily. “He was 18 when we bought him; he’d had a long life as a racehorse, camp drafter, high level show jumper and pony club mount. I began dressage with him as a way to improve our show jumping, but the difference the work made in his body was enough to keep me in dressage. When we retired him at 24, he had been competing FEI Junior and was in the best shape we had ever seen him. I really do believe the dressage work played a part in him aging so well, as it kept him supple and strong, and his mind active. He sadly passed away last year at 29 years of age, but I will forever be grateful for my partnership with him. He taught me ever so much and was a ridiculously talented horse.”


Emily and Dudley.

© Y.O'Connell

Several years ago, Emily went overseas to ride and on returning in 2013 she was offered a lease of another handsome bay OTT gelding from fellow dressage rider Caitlin Scott. The partnership blossomed and Emily purchased Moonlight Park Foxtrot (aka Shorty) a year later.

“Shorty raced under the name Sir Moxie; he had nine race starts in his career for Ballarat trainer Greg Mance,” says Emily. “We worked our way up from Medium to FEI Small Tour and he has won championships at each level.” Following 18 months away from competition to focus on the basics and allowing Shortly to gain confidence in the higher-level movements, they stepped out in 2017 to produce a personal best score in the Prix St Georges. “This score allowed us to qualify for the Martin Collins Australian Dressage Championships, held at Boneo Park that year. There, at his first outing to Boneo Park we made another PSG personal best and I was overjoyed with our performance against some of the best Small Tour horses in Australia. Despite not having the biggest movement, he was obedient and it was a mistake free and flowing test.”

Later in 2017 they competed at the Victorian Dressage Festival. This not only resulted in another personal best PSG score, but the pair also beat the odds and made the final three of the Aachen Challenge. “Despite the final night being very challenging and something I had never experienced before, it was a huge step for him as an OTT horse and myself to make it into the final round. Both Tori Stuckey and Sarah Farraway also had enjoyable and successful rides on him in the final, and it was this that I took home as the biggest win. He even came second to the incredible Mayfield Pzazz as best horse in the final!”


Emily and Shorty.

© Y.O'Connell

“In 2018, we were FEI Small Tour Champions at the Ellanbrae Park Australian Youth Dressage Championships and had managed to qualify for the PSG Cup at Dressage & Jumping with the Stars 2018. This was another highlight for me to see our names in the draw up against many top FEI riders I have admired from a young age. Unfortunately, the moment to compete there didn’t eventuate for us due to an unfortunately timed injury, but thankfully he recovered beautifully,” recalls Emily.

“Shorty has been a very special horse for me. Not only in the successes that I have had with him, but in the lessons he has taught me. He has taken me from a very nervous competitor to competing Small Tour with confidence and I have learned through him a great deal of patience, perseverance and the importance of believing in your horse’s journey.”

While a few years ago, Emily explains Shorty could be a little unpredictable in the tests and lacked confidence in the collected work, through patience and perseverance he’s become a very reliable performer. “He has mellowed into a beautiful natured schoolmaster and there isn’t too much that fazes him now!” Shorty has had a quiet past few months with Emily being overseas to ride for Mary Hanna, and he is now acting as a schoolmaster for some of Emily’s clients at O’Connell Academic Dressage, to help them in their own development as riders.


Emily and Shorty at Boneo Park.

© Geoffrey McLean / Gone Riding Media

For those thinking of bringing on an OTT dressage horse, Emily explains that her number one training tip is patience. “Often, OTT horses aren’t used to using their bodies in a correct way for building the muscles required for dressage. It can take time for them to relearn a different way of going, just as it does for us when changing posture habits. I would encourage riders to focus on the basic transitions, relaxation and developing the horse’s topline in a correct way, as I have found the thoroughbreds are generally very quick to learn new things. The difficulty can be keeping them in that sweet spot between a complete lack of arousal, which is detrimental to learning, and having their stress bubble over too much. If you focus on the basics, and have them confident in those responses, you always have something to come back to should their stress levels rise. They are very sensitive, athletic and complex individuals; I love this about them! They often require sensitivity, gentleness and confidence from their riders, attributes I think we should all continue aspiring to have!”




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