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The Ride of Their Lives

“If my mother ever invites you on a trail ride,” says noted horse show announcer Brian O’Connor, “just say no. Otherwise, you may find yourself 2,900 miles away!”


or well-known horse-industry figures Brian, David and Sally O’Connor, a cross-country

adventure was a defining moment in each of their lives. In 1973, Brian’s mother, the well-

known author, dressage judge and rider Sally O’Connor, took her two sons on a cross-country ride, starting in Maryland and ending three and a half months later in Oregon. It was, Sally, Brian and David O’Connor agree, a life-changing experience. For David, of course, that life includes winning a gold medal in eventing and now serving as USEF president.


It all started with a book Brian read when he was 11 years old. Both boys had always been encouraged to read the adventure stories their mother had enjoyed all her life. Brian became fascinated by Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific in a Raft, which is the story of six men who travel four thousand miles across the Pacific Ocean on a small raft, from Peru to the Polynesian Islands. At dinner one night, he wondered aloud why his family couldn’t embark on such an adventure. “I told him I didn’t know anything about balsa wood

rafts, but that I did know about horses. So I decided that if we were going to take a long trip, it would have to be on horseback,” Sally recounts. “Everyone told me we couldn’t do it. You don’t tell me I can’t do something—it just makes me more determined. And the idea just intrigued me. I always wanted to do a distance ride. So we went.” For Sally, born and raised in England, the 1960s were a distressing time to live in the United States. The Kennedy

By Pat Payne

and Martin Luther King, Jr., assassinations left her feeling that this was a place where one “lived by the gun.” She wasn’t sure she wanted to stay and considered leaving the country and returning to her native Britain. This trip, which captured her imagination, seemed to be a way to understand what the United States was really about, away from the Washington D.C. area where she was now living. For Brian and David, of course, the goals were less lofty. They simply wanted a bit of adventure. They experienced far more adventure—and hardship—then they ever expected. It was, David says, truly uncharted territory for all three of them. “We didn’t realize the scope of the ordeal,” Brian adds wryly. Once Sally decided to make the trip

a reality, she began researching the logistics. Deserts, with so many miles to cover without water, were a big problem, she says, one that ultimately forced them to change their planned route and aim

for Oregon instead of California as they’d originally intended. In fact, they would ultimately follow the famed Oregon Trail.

They also had to consider their choice of horses for the

trip. Sally rode Gung Ho, her Canadian Thoroughbred-cross event horse. David rode a grade horse named Ralph. Brian rode BG, another grade horse used for Pony Club and other activities, borrowed from a neighbor. Sally explains that she worried most about BG as they set out, because at 15 he was the oldest horse in the group. All three used English tack, with saddlebags for their gear. Since weight was a major consideration, the three

carefully selected the items they would take with them. There would be no support vehicles following them; instead they would carry with them everything they needed for the trip. They each carried a single change of clothing and sleeping bags, for example, but no tent.

Above: In 1973, the family of three traveled across the whole U.S. on horseback. This snapshot taken along power lines in Idaho: Brian leading, followed by Sally and David.

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