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Nuggett Newspaper, April 2006
Article by Jim Cornelius
Karen O’Neal may not have learned to ride before she learned to walk— but she came pretty close. The Central Oregon teacher, trainer and competitor first climbed into the saddle as a toddler and by age three she was showing ponies.
Perhaps it was inevitable; the saddle was the natural habitat for her family.
"My grandparents were competitive fox hunters,” she said.
They moved the family from New York to the horse country of Pebble Beach and Palo Alto, California, where the next generation also took to the saddle.
“My mom did barrel racing and stuff like that,” she said. “My aunt rode cutting horses.”
With a background like that, Karen had her path in life well laid out in front of her and she eagerly rode down the trail of equestrian accomplishment. She showed in Western and English and performed in Gymkhana. In addition to an equestrian heritage, Karen was also blessed with an athletic physique. Unusually tall for a girl (she topped out at over six feet), she was able to handle large horses from an early age.
At age nine she moved to Laguna Hills, California.“I had a really nice pony named Honey Bear that jumped,” she recalled.
By age 10 she was starting in medal classes.
“Because I was so tall, they wanted me to ride some larger horses,” she said. “So I started doing what they call catch riding at shows. I’d ride anything, basically.”
That versatility would stand her in good stead later in her career when she started training horses and teaching riders. Since she has seen all kinds of equine behavior and temperaments from an early age, nothing catches her by surprise.
By age 14, Karen was teaching other riders — some of them adults many years her senior. That helped her develop selfconfidence and a calmly commanding presence that carries over today in her training arena.
As her career developed, she started competing in Olympic disciplines and as a senior in high school she worked for a hunter-jumper barn in San Juan Capistrano, California. With her height and athleticism, coaches would have loved to recruit her for other sports such as basketball, but she was committed to theequestrian sports.
“I’ve been teaching literally since I was a little kid”
A competitor and equine entrepreneur
Karen married at 21 and moved to Oakdale, California, in 1993 to train for show jumping and Three-Day Eventing. She was a successful competitor in Three-Day Eventing and Mini Grand Prix before she and her family — now including son Chance — moved back to Southern California in 1996. (See career highlights below).
She and her husband Tim lived in Huntington Beach where she built a thriving business around horse training while continuing to compete.
“I had a big business there,” she said. “I had 20 to 30 horses in training.” Her family continued to grow — but she didn’t slow down. “I rode through all 3 of my pregnancies and competed,” she said.
She and Tim got restless in Southern California and started looking around for a different way of life. They explored far and wide. “We actually did a road trip and went through nine states and ended up in Bend,” she said.
The O’Neals moved to Central Oregon in 2001, in search of a quiet life. In fact, Karen planned to take a break from training and competitive riding. But her calling proved too strong. Before she knew it she was training warmbloods for local riders and “pretty soon, I had too many horses to train again,” she said with a grin.
She returned to teaching and found her skills much in demand in Central Oregon’s burgeoning horse community. O’Neal trained at local barns, finally ending up in Sisters. Now, she and Tim operate their own training facility just outside Sisters in the shadow — fittingly — of Horse Butte.
“My business had just grown to the point where I wanted my own place,” she said.
Teaching Central Oregon riders
O’Neal’s barn buzzes with energy on a Saturday afternoon, as dozens of young riders take lessons, groom their horses and take care of their tack. Busy though it is, all the activity is organized and the young students have clearly learned the ropes.
She makes it clear to kids and adults alike that her operation is not for the casual rider. “I’m pretty tough on them,” she said. “I’m competitive and safe.”
O’Neal thinks her level of intensity is warranted by the quality of horses she works with. “They’re pretty athletic horses mostly,” she said. “They’re hotter than the average trail horse.”
Her English training prepares her riders for the competitive equestrian events. “I’ve really geared it more toward kids (but) I have quite a few adults,” she noted.
The skill and confidence with which O’Neal’s students ride the arena is testament to her skills as a teacher. O’Neal herself attributes her success as a teacher to experience and hard work.
“I think I try really hard at it,” she said.
People learn differently and respond differently to any particular technique. Part of the “magic” of a good coach is the ability to find ways to motivate and instruct a wide range of athletes with different skills and temperaments.
O’Neal’s long experience has given her a deep bag of tricks to reach into to match technique to student.
“I’ve been teaching literally since I was a little kid,” she said.
Then, too, she has absorbed the training techniques of some of the top riders and coaches in the equestrian world: Jimmy Wofford, Three-Day Eventing Olympic coach; George Morris, show jumping— “he’s probably the most famous person in show jumping ever”; Margaret Diekerman; Pam Goodrich.
Captain Mark Phillips and Virginia "Ginnie" Bryant pushed her forward in Three-Day Eventing and Kathleen Raines and Sandy Pflueger-Clarke honed her skills in Dressage.
Coaching some 30 riders is a lot of work and there’s also the upkeep of the facility and care for the horses to keep O’Neal busy. But the rewards are what keeps her at her calling after all these years — “seeing the students get better and (more) confident.”
Working with horses teaches youngsters to be responsible and to learn to help others — values she actively encourages.
Still a competitor
O’Neal’s competitive fires have not died down. She continues to show and compete. O’Neal loves a challenge and last year she took on a monumental one— and succeeded.
A local horse named Jury had been written off, was on the verge of being put down because no one would ride him. O’Neal couldn’t resist the challenge; she brought the horse around and made him Prelim Horse of the Year in this advanced category in Three-Day Eventing.
It was one of many accomplishments in 2005, a year that also saw O’Neal take three first-place awards at Fourth Level Dressage in the Tulelake Dressage Show and Rider of the Year honors in the Area VII Open Preliminary.
After more than 20 years as a competitor and more than 30 years in the saddle, Karen O’Neal is at the top of her game— and she’s imparting her experience and skill to a new generation of riders here in Central Oregon.
Karen O’Neal’s career highlights
2010 Area VII Rider of the Year
2010 USEA National top 50 Riders list
2010 Area VII Prelim Rider of the Year
2010 Area VII Intermediate Rider of the Year
2010 Area VII Horse of the Year True Avenue also 8th for top 10 mares in Nation
2009 Area VII Rider of the Year
2009 Area VII Horse of the Year True Avenue
2009 USEA Leaderboard Reserve Champioin Prelim Rider of the Year
2009 USEA Leaderboard 37th of top 50 Riders in the Nation
2009 True Avenue was top 10 Mares for USEA Leaderboard
2009 Area VII Prelim Rider of the Year