This week I’m thrilled to be chatting with the extremely talented American Grand Prix Dressage rider and trainer, Callie O’Connell. Based at Berryfield Dressage in Lincoln, MA, Callie is working towards competing internationally and hopes to represent Team USA in the future. Read on to discover more about Callie, her ambitions, and top tips for success
Tell us a little about you and your horse/s
I am a twenty four year old Grand Prix Dressage rider, and USDF Gold, Silver and Bronze medalist. I am the trainer at Berryfield Dressage in Lincoln, MA. I started this job in October of 2021, and before that was the Assistant trainer for Jane Karol at Bear Spot Farm. I currently train with Jane Karol and Christoph Koschel. I graduated from MassArt with a BFA in Fine Arts in Fashion Design in 2021. Dressage is my life, but I absolutely love fashion – both have been part of my DNA for as long as I can remember. Most of my design work was inspired by horses and my passion for dressage. I grew up in Wilmington, Massachusetts with 2 younger sisters, extremely supportive parents, and lots of animals.
I am currently very lucky to have four very special horses in my life. Eaton Unitechno, a 13 year old Grand Prix KWPN gelding. He has a huge personality, is very social and loves his work. He’s just an incredible athlete! Iron Lady (Nori), is a 9 year old KWPN mare. Together we are working on all the GP movements. She is the sweetest mare. She tries so hard in the work and loves her people. Fackeltrager (FT), is a 13 year old Oldenburg gelding, showing I1 and working towards the GP. He is the class clown in the barn. He has the biggest personality and is a blast to work with. Finally, B.B. King (Blue), an 8 year old Oldenburg gelding who’s another huge character. He’s a very sweet horse who thrives on attention.
How did your horses come into your life?
All the horses I currently ride and work with are owned by Ruling Cortes LLC, and Betsy Dangel. Betsy is the owner of Berryfield Dressage and is responsible for the current opportunities I have. Betsy competes, Deduschka Moros (Frosty), a 10 year old GP gelding who has been teaching her all the ropes of dressage. Together with Frosty, Betsy earned her USDF Bronze medal this year which was a huge goal of hers. FT and Nori were owned by Betsy when I started at Berryfield. They are both unbelievably talented and fun horses to work with. We found Eaton and Frosty in Germany, in March of 2022. I actually had followed Eaton his whole life (since I was 13) and career and could not believe I got to try him in Germany. It was love at first ride, and I still pinch myself every day I ride him. He is the most amazing partner. Blue is our newest horse and has only been at our barn for a month. We are getting to know each other, and I am having a great time developing him. I really could never thank Betsy enough for the opportunities she continues to give me with these amazing horses. She is an inspiring person and mentor.
How long have you been riding?
I began official lessons at age five, the earliest age my instructor would accept new students. (Yes, I begged for earlier).
When and where do you ride?
I ride at Berryfield Dressage in Lincoln, MA – a 30 acre private barn nestled in the woods. I work at the barn 6 days a week and I ride all horses on a 5-day schedule and one day hack. We have a lovely heated indoor and outdoor arena. We are also fortunate to have direct access to the Lincoln trail system. We will be spending 3 months training and competing in Florida this year.
How did you start riding?
My mom put me on a “unicorn” for my 5th birthday party and I was hooked. I began taking lessons at five, bought my first horse, Jiminy Cricket, at age eight (a 6 year old Arabian) who taught me many things. I began training in dressage at age eight and have loved it ever since. Riding has always been my life.
What are you and your horses currently working on?
With Eaton we are currently working on all the Grand Prix movements. Eaton is a very experienced horse, and I am learning so much from him. We are competing in the U25 Division and I have one more year at this level. We are getting ready for the Wellington season and will continue to compete there. Nori and FT, are both schooling all of the Grand Prix movements. Nori competed in the developing PSG this past season, so we will compete at small tour, with the goals of doing the developing GP. With FT, we will most likely compete a little more at I1 together with the goals of getting closer and closer to GP! With Blue, we are hoping to show 4th level and working towards the PSG.
What do you love about riding?
What do I not love about riding? The relationship with every horse is most special to me. I care so much about each, and every horse I ride and want them to feel safe, confident, and happy in their work. That feeling of being completely one with the animal is something magical. It is such a unique sport, and how lucky are we as riders, to get to work with these incredible animals every day. I love all the details that go into dressage, and how technical it is. I also love the fashion piece, and how that is growing more and more in our sport.
What would you like to be doing in the future and do you have any goals?
In the future I would love to continue to develop horses happily to their full potential. I have been fortunate enough to ride so many amazing horses over the years at all different ages and levels and I love riding the Grand Prix horses just as much as a four year old. In the near future, I hope to be competing in CDIs in Wellington. My goal would be to show internationally at the Grand Prix level someday, as well as compete in Europe. My biggest goal is to one day represent the US on a team. That is one of my biggest dreams.
Have you ever had to deal with nerves in riding?
Of course. I often get nervous during competition – especially when competing a new
horse, level, or test. I feel fortunate that I spent years training in karate. I often go back to my training in the dojo using those nerves as positive energy and trying to stay focused and calm. Breathing is a key component.
How do you deal with them?
I always talk to the people close around me. They comfort me. I tell myself that nerves are normal and usually once I get on my horse, the nerves mostly go away. When I go around the ring I always say “Believe” in my head. I tell myself to just ride the best I can and to ride each movement fully. Usually, all of these things help me. I get nervous because I love to compete, and I want to do well. I think if you turn your nerves into fuel, they can be beneficial.
Your Top Tip
Work hard and be kind. Never, ever give up. Believe.
I live by these three sayings every day. I truly believe in them, and I think anything is possible if you believe in it. Remember to have fun every single day, and remember why we do this amazing sport with these incredible animals
Down the Centre Line
Who would be your dream horse to ride?
Charlotte Frys, Glamourdale. Everything about that horse is incredible
Who is your equestrian hero?
Jessica von Bredow-Werndl. I think she is amazing as a rider, mother, trainer – her life balance can only be commended.
If you could have 5 people to dinner who would they be?
– Jessica von Bredow- Werndl
– Bruno Mars
– Carl Hester
– Michelle Obama
– Elie Saab
Favourite colour horse?
Black with chrome. I do love any horse with four white legs!
Favourite horse event?
Aachen. I got selected to go on The Dressage Foundations, Young Rider Dream Program in 2018 and see Aachen live. It’s something I will never forget, and I dream of riding in that arena one day.
As a vegetarian, I would say my favorite is eggplant parm and pasta
Favourite way to relax?
Spending time with my dog, Duke (german shorthaired pointer), and/or family, going shopping, or taking photos. I love a good creative outlet.
The Greatest Showman
If you enjoyed meeting Callie you might like to view more dressage rider “chatting with” interviews here You can keep up with Callie’s progress and check out her instagram page here