Standing at just under 14.2 hands, it’s no wonder the chestnut pony, Theodore O’Connor, captured the hearts of eventing fans across the globe. He tackled the biggest cross-country fences in the world with the legendary Karen O’Connor in the irons.
Theodore, or “Teddy”, as he was fondly known, was a big horse tucked inside a small package, in almost every sense.
“He was a freak. He was super pony,” described Max Corcoran, a longtime groom to American eventers David and Karen O’Connor, who traveled with Teddy during the majority of his international eventing career.
Bred by P. Wynn Norman, the Shetland, Arabian, Thoroughbred cross gelding defied great odds as he rose to the top level of the sport. In 2007, Teddy and Karen snagged team and individual goal medals at the Pan American Games in Brazil. He placed third at the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event the same year, after clinching a win at the Fork Horse Trials.
He was the first ever pony to compete at the four-star level in Kentucky. But more importantly, Teddy captured an audience along the way.
“Teddy was important for the world of eventing at the time,” Max explained. “We were going through a lot of horse deaths then. 2008 was just a bad year, at Kentucky, at Red Hills, the list goes on. It was looking dark for eventing. But Ted was the bright light.”
People saw him and said, ‘well, if a pony can do it.‘ It was the role of his life, to give people something to believe in.
In 2008, headlines in mainstream news outlets from the New York Times to U.S. News & World Report highlighted the alarming number of deaths in the sport. In 2008, 12 riders worldwide had died out on course over a year-and-a-half time span. It sparked a heated debate over safety in the sport, for both horses and humans.
It would mark the beginning of a swift change for the sport of eventing, in America and across the globe.
All the while, Teddy would continue to climb the international ranks with Karen, making light work of challenging courses and enormous obstacles, against horses nearly twice his size.
“People saw him and said, ‘well, if a pony can do it,’” Max said. “It was the role of his life, to give people something to believe in.”
Karen described him as “the people’s pony” during the peak of their career together.
“Even more amazing than his accomplishments was the way he touched lives all across the world, the underdog who inspired so many,” she said.
He was quirky horse, both to ride and in the barn.
“Working with Teddy was one of the best parts of my career and the worst,” Max put it bluntly. “He was a horse that could be hard to manage. We always say horses are always on the verge of suicide, with Teddy, he really was. He had a flight sensation that was just tough to keep under control.”
He was also known for his typical anti-social pony personality.
“He was just the coolest little dude. When you were by yourself with him, he was so sweet. But he had that typical pony ‘go away‘ attitude about him when he was with a crowd,” Max explained. “But all you had to do was get him one-on-one to see the sweet side.”
Teddy was no stranger to accolades. In 2007, he was named the USEF Horse of the Year, the USEA Horse of the Year, and USEA Pony of the Year, among others. He was inducted into the Horse Stars Hall Of Fame, a joint program run by US Equestrian and EQUUS Foundation, in 2013. Teddy passed away five years earlier, due to a freak accident at his home, Stonehall Farm in The Plains, Va., when he was 13.
Last year, 10 years after his death, a commemorative plaque dedicated to Teddy was unveiled at the Kentucky Horse Park during the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event.
“I’ve never known a horse to have this kind of impact on an industry,” Karen said about her former partner at the time. “It’s a tribute to him and how many lives he touched – none more than mine. For me personally, I had a relationship with him that I’ve never really had with another horse. His trust for me went beyond what I thought was possible. He would do anything for me because I said it was OK. He trusted me and I trusted him.”