By Lilly Steger
Portraits by Shawna Simmons
Andrew McConnon discovered eventing at the 2004 Olympics. “I saw eventing on TV at the Athens Olympics, and I thought, Wow, that looks cool!” he said.
Seventeen years later, those Olympians are now Andrew’s mentors and colleagues. The William Fox-Pitt-trained eventer was named to the 2021 U.S. High Performance List, a pipeline for professionals with international championship aspirations, and selected as a member of the 2020 Futures Challenge, a competition to prepare riders for future U.S. team representation. With big goals for 2021 and beyond, Andrew is on the path to inspire future young riders as a rising star himself.
North to South
Andrew was born in Massachusetts. His mom owned a lesson barn, and he grew up taking lessons on the Western school ponies. A friend set Andrew up to try a horse and take a lesson with Marc Donovan — a man who would become his guide into the eventing world. “I ended up riding with him for several years. Marc really introduced me to eventing,” Andrew said.
While still in high school, Andrew rode with Marc during summers and after class. When graduation rolled around, Marc offered him an opportunity he couldn’t refuse. “I got an email from Marc saying, ‘How would you like to come to Southern Pines and be a working student for me?’ Two weeks after graduation, I was gone,” Andrew said.
Following Marc to Southern Pines, North Carolina, was Andrew’s first leap of faith in the equestrian world, and while in the South he fell in love with eventing. “I came down and all these top professionals who were at the Athens Olympics were at the local competition,” he said. “I was hooked from there.”
Proximity to champions has defined Andrew’s education. When Marc turned his eye toward course design, Andrew moved his small operation to Robert Costello’s farm. “Bobby had a shed row barn where I could be partly on my own and partly under his watchful eye,” Andrew said. “I had a client or two and I was teaching lessons. I took the interim step of being on my own, but still having his guidance.”
But the following years were marked with turmoil. Andrew spent years saving for an upper-level mount, only for the horse he imported to have career-ending soundness issues a few months later. Another horse died of a surprise pulmonary disorder. Every opportunity to advance was met with an equally devastating setback. “I had a couple of rough events back to back that led me to a woman named Rachel Jurgens,” Andrew said.
Drawn to Andrew’s dedication and work ethic, Rachel offered Andrew the opportunity to ride her veteran Kentucky mount, Ziggy, to help him build experience at the upper levels. “After fulfilling her childhood dream of riding at Kentucky, she gave the reins over to me to gain some experience at the upper levels. He took me to my first CCI4*-S and a couple of Advanced,” Andrew said. “That got me the chance to work at William’s, which was really the next step.”
The Next Step
With some Advanced Level and FEI competitions under his belt, Andrew was deliberating his next move. He had a phone interview with William Fox-Pitt and, when it went well, William offered Andrew the opportunity to work for him — in England.
The decision weighed on Andrew. Uprooting his life meant leaving his friends, his clients, his horses and all the other familiarities of home. “It was very hard to make the decision to leave the U.S., but it was the best decision,” he said. “I was 29 at the time, and I thought it was the only time I could get away. I either had to sink roots or take this wonderful opportunity.” It was a risk, but it was too good to pass up. He took the leap of faith.
Passport in hand, Andrew hopped on a transatlantic flight to William’s farm in Sturminster Newton, a rural and idyllic town in southern England. His new home was welcoming, but unfamiliar. “There were quite a few changes as I went from having my own business to being a part of a top team in another country,” Andrew said. He found himself adjusting to the weather, the food, the accents, the different words for tack and equipment, and living in close quarters with strangers. “The day-to-day was very similar to the U.S., but the ‘lorries’ and the one-day events with multiple horses took some getting used to,” he said.
Andrew arrived in March, at the start of the British eventing season. “I was hired to be a rider, but I really didn’t know exactly what that position would entail.” Andrew said. “I thought if I got to ride or watch him ride that would be great, and if I got to do more, that would be wonderful also.”
Ready for anything William threw at him, Andrew didn’t expect to form a partnership with a horse in William’s yard. “There was a spectacular chestnut mare, Daddy’s Quest, that was green and notoriously a little bit hot. We developed a partnership, and I was able to take her on as my project and put my time and energy toward her. She rewarded me with some top placings and wins,” he said.
Andrew and Daddy’s Quest found success on the British eventing circuit. They did their first BE100 (U.S. Training), and moved up to Novice (U.S. Preliminary). “She was difficult, but very competitive on the flat and a great jumper,” Andrew said. “I think a lot of my opportunities to show had to do with her, where I might otherwise not have gotten to compete.”
Andrew’s training continued out of the saddle. He walked alongside William as the superstar prepared for the hardest events in the world. “Badminton and Burghley came around, and I asked if I could go on course walk days with him,” Andrew said. “I wanted to get to know the tracks and ground from his eye.
“It was amazing,” he continued. “William pointed out things that I hadn’t thought of at that point, like undulations in the ground. It was fascinating to hear how it took a toll on the horses mentally and what type of ride he would give to the horse to be successful later on in the course when it came down to the trickier combinations.”
At the end of the first year, Andrew thought, I can’t go home yet. He stayed on for another year and in that time he learned the fluctuations of horse care during peak competition and off-season. “I thought it would be really nice to see how they bring horses up, compete them, let them back down, and do it over again,” he said. “Seeing how William produced and planned horses for competition was really instrumental in my progression as a rider and horseman.”
After two years and about 50 competitions on 10 horses, Andrew decided it was time to head back to the United States. “As much as I would have liked to stay in the United Kingdom, I wanted to have horses I felt would benefit from being in England. You can always learn, but I wanted to build up a couple of horses so I might be able to return in the future,” he explained.
An Emerging Elite Rider
Now, Andrew is back in Southern Pines operating his business and making waves as an emerging elite rider.
“When I came back to America, I was trying to decide if I wanted several horses or if I wanted a select few quality horses,” Andrew said. “What works for me is to have a good manageable number of horses I can spend more time with.”
His dedication to a small number of horses has paid off. In September 2020, he was selected as a rider for the Futures Team Challenge CCI3*-S at Plantation Field Horse Trials. Futures is a mock team competition designed to provide experience for upper-level riders in the hopes they will someday represent the United States internationally in a team competition.
“It’s an incredible newer program that allows the riders to not only gain exposure to the team atmosphere, but a lot of instruction,” Andrew said. “It’s an opportunity for the High Performance instructors to see who the horses and riders are and their drive to represent the United States in the future.”
The High Performance instructors must have been impressed, because two months later Andrew was named to the 2021 U.S. Equestrian High Performance Development list. As a Development Team rider, Andrew was scouted for his potential to represent the United States at the Olympic or World Championship level. So far, the experience has been very positive.
“I think that my expectation before I was included was that there would be more elevation and judgment,” he said. “I thought the highs would be high and the lows would be lower, but that’s not at all the case.”
This is largely due to the incredible High Performance coaches, Erik Duvander and Leslie Law. “They very much want us to succeed,” Andrew said. “They’re supportive, there’s no judgement. It’s more relaxed than I anticipated and a lot of support. It’s very life changing.”
With all this in his pocket, Andrew has big plans for 2021. He has a successful 7-year-old he hopes to run at a CCI2*-L, with eyes on an Intermediate move-up later in the season. His personal mare, Wakita 54, recently moved up to Intermediate and he hopes to take Eddy, his Futures team horse, Advanced. “It’s a lot of work but all of a sudden you blink, and you’ve got a couple of mid- to upper-level horses on your hands. It’s been really exciting,” he said.
“Looking forward, I would absolutely love to bring horses to Europe for some European FEI 3*, 4* and possible 5*. That’s absolutely the goal,” he said. “I want to develop horses to be competitive, not just in the U.S., but abroad.”
Now that Andrew’s an upper-level athlete himself, he has personal relationships with riders that inspired him at Athens and in Southern Pines. “At the time, I had no idea what went into it or what it took to ride anywhere near that level, but I remember wishing to be like them one day,” he said. “I’ve been lucky to make some great friends in this sport.”
Andrew speaks casually of the big risks he’s taken – leaving his hometown, moving abroad, returning to America to start his business – but that doesn’t diminish how daunting they were at the time. “Naively, I used to think if I sold this horse or if I left America, I was going off the path I wanted to get on,” he said. “But things progressed better in my business and competitively when I was willing to take those risks. You have to take some chances and be willing to step out of your comfort zone.”
Learn more about Andrew at www.mcconnoneventing.com
Photos by Shawna Simmons, www.sasequinephotography.com, @sasequinephotography