By Sarah Eakin
Portraits by Alex Banks
Anyone who has ever gone from driving a runaround to taking the wheel of a Ferrari can testify that that there are cars—and then, there are cars. Ben Noonan had a similar epiphany on horseback when he went from riding a trail horse over cross-country fences to riding an eventer. “I didn’t really understand why everyone liked eventing so much,” said Ben, now 18 and on the cusp of a professional career, “until I was riding an event horse.”
Keep Kitty, now an 11-year-old Hanoverian mare, was purchased as a 5-year-old from Germany under the guidance of Karen O’Connor and given to Ben by his parents for his 12th Christmas present. “Even though I didn’t ride Kitty before she was mine, Karen did an excellent job of selecting a horse that was perfect for me,” Ben said. “Kitty has taken me from my first recognized event through my first FEI competitions. There are truly not enough words in the dictionary to describe how much I adore her and how much she has taught me in terms of how eventing was supposed to feel and what we were supposed to do.”
Ben Noonan with Keep Kitty in Ocala, Florida.
Ben, now living in Ocala, Florida, was originally from St. Louis, and he stumbled across eventing when out trail riding from his family’s farm across the street from the Queeny Park Horse Trials with his sister, Bridget. “We discovered the cross-country course and then started jumping our trail horses over logs, banks, ditches and through the water jump. We were falling off a lot,” he said.
At the age of 12, Ben started riding with Karen and David O’Connor, but prior to eventing, Karen had recommended another equestrian discipline. “Put him in the hunter-jumper program and find him the best hunter-jumper pony you can,” she told Ben’s father, Sean, when he asked for advice in furthering his son’s riding prospects.
“The riding style is much different, but it has greatly impacted my life with horses,” Ben said of his foray into the world of showing. While it is not unusual for top show jumpers to have started off in the hunter ponies—McLain Ward learned the ropes there—it’s rarer for an event rider. Ben found it invaluable. “You learn a certain distance that you need to have. Eventing is getting very technical and you have to see a stride,” he said. “When you’re competing in the Pony Hunter ring, you’re practicing distances and strides every time you show.”
Ben had two show ponies and an eventing pony, but it was Keep Kitty that really determined that eventing was going to be his sport. “I used to be scared of the cross-country,” he admitted. “But I had been riding naughty horses. When I bought Kitty, I realized what it was like to have a really good event horse,” he said. “I’ve got a little bit spoiled, because now I expect every horse to be like that.”
At the age of 12, Ben started riding with Karen and David O’Connor.
It was not just Ben but his whole family who started on a steep learning curve when Ben’s mother had a health scare, and for her Christmas present, Ben’s father decided to treat her with a horse. “He bought her a 3-year-old green broke Appendix Quarter Horse,” said Ben. “He thought a horse was like a vehicle that you just started and rode. We quickly discovered that was not the case.”
Lessons for the family ensued, and then the purchase of the farm in St. Louis and a pony set Ben and his sister on track to event. “Thankfully I took to the pony we bought and I fell in love with horses, riding and especially galloping,” said Ben. Noonan Farms, the family’s base, proved to be an excellent training ground. “Since it’s a lesson barn with boarders, I have gained invaluable experience with management of people and horses that I will forever be grateful for,” he said.
Learning to Grow
His horsemanship was taken to another level when Ben came under the tutelage of Karen and David O’Connor. “I had just started eventing,” he said. “They have taught me so many different things. They have taught me everything from starting a young horse with natural horsemanship to being a high-level competitor; from how to sit the trot effectively to galloping and conditioning horses properly. They have taught me how to bandage and maintain top-level athletes.”
Ben is now an FEI three-star event rider and is not planning to stop there. “First I would like to go four-star then five-star, but one day I am determined to be an Olympian,” he said. “I would also like to have a barn full of students, competition horses and sale horses.”
In the meantime, one of the biggest challenges, for a rider whose formative eventing years have been as a teenager, is adapting to growth. “I’m built a lot like William Fox-Pitt,” Ben said. “He’s always been an idol of mine—how he keeps his balance, as tall as he is. It’s difficult, too, while you’re growing. It takes some time to learn the correct position and then you have to change your position again.”
Alongside Keep Kitty, Ben has two other rides. Street Fighter, aka Frank, is a 10-year-old Holsteiner gelding he purchased on a trip to Germany with Karen and his father, Sean. “Frank is another very special horse that I have great hopes for,” Ben said. “While he had very little eventing experience when I bought him, he has taken to eventing, already winning two events this year!”
Kay-O, a 5-year-old Holsteiner gelding dubbed Max, was also purchased on the trip to Germany. “While Max can be a little bit of a troublemaker in the barn, he is oozing with talent,” Ben said. “I haven’t ridden a horse from 20 days under saddle to its first event before, so I’m very excited and learning a lot about the process.”
Ben said he has learned about success and heartbreak while eventing.
Ben’s accolades to date are impressive, not least finishing eighth overall at the Tryon International Three-Day last year as well as being the top-placed young rider. He won the individual and team gold at the Youth Team Championships—East. In 2020, Ben was named USEA Overall Young Rider of the Year, one of the youngest people to achieve this award.
Ben has plans on the horizon to attend college, but for now he’s learning from the horse school of life. “I think eventing gives every rider a great foundation for the horse world and life,” he said. “You learn about success, and you learn about heartbreak. Success doesn’t mean winning; in my eyes, success is making progress, developing and training your horses to be the best versions of themselves. The winning will follow.”
Alongside life and equestrian skills, Ben has also picked up a few additional talents from training with Karen and David.
“On a more personal side, they have taught me the difference between red and white wine glasses, and how to set a table properly,” Ben said. “Although the most helpful life skill was learning to drive a car!”
Ben, who has had a growth spurt since he began his eventing career, said he is built like his idol eventer William Fox-Pitt, who is also tall.
Follow Ben on Instagram @ben_jammin19