An Interview with Brian O’Connor - The Voice of Dressage in the United States

Monday, September 28, 2009
Posted by bossmare

As spectators walk onto the showgrounds of Dressage at Devon the first thing they hear among the whinnies during the breed show, and the music during the perfomance division is the familiar voice of Brian O'Connor. O'Connor is not just the voice of American Dressage, but for the world when he was the voice of the Olympic Games in Hong Kong, the Las Vegas World Cup Dressage, and next year for the 2010 Alltech World Equestrian Games. His hysterical performaces with "Sydney" entertain the crowds as well, describing for those not as familiar with the movements of dressage what they are all about. DressageDaily's Father Mack found a few moments to sit down with Brian at Dressage at Devon, and offers this insightful interview with the multi talented, enjoyable and knowledgable personality of our sport.


When I heard Brian's voice as I walked into the showgrounds with my wife Ruth, was struck in thought by the recent wave of reportage that followed the death of Walter Cronkite. Nearly every article that I read after Mister Cronkite’s death noted the fact that much of the English-speaking world hung upon this gentleman’s every word while he reported momentous events such as the assassination of President Kennedy and the first landing upon the moon. Cronkite did not MAKE news, rather, Walter Cronkite helped to place such words and these events into a suitable, historical perspective. In much the same way Brian O’Connor does not shape the dressage world, as do the riders and the judges who award their scores. Rather, Brian (with his own inimitable brand of wit and whimsy) assists us as the viewing public by providing a beneficial point of view upon the competitions we behold. Like you, I suspect, I know a little bit about public figures such as Mister O’Connor. After no small amount of pursuit (he is both a busy AND an agile man), I was able to pin “the Voice” down for a small interview. I hope the results are worthy of your time.

Q: Brian, thank you for making the time to speak with our readers.
A: You’re welcome.

Q: Many of us know the oft-told story of how your Mom (Sally O’Connor, a highly respected dressage judge and author of the treasured book Common Sense Dressage – ed.) took you and your brother David on a three-month long horseback ride from your home in Maryland to the state of Oregon. What was the impetus for this (pardon me for saying) madcap ride?
A: My mother (as you know) is an Englishwoman. When David and I were growing up in Gaithersburg, MD, she would talk about how she wanted to know more about her adopted country. I was thirteen years old at the time and had just read Thor Heyerdahl’s book, Kon Tiki. The idea of a daredevil trip seized my imagination. Both David (he was eleven) and I had been infected with our mother’s love of horses and we had several sets of family friends in the Midwest. So we as a family came up with the idea of a journey to see the United States. Originally the trip was to be from White’s Ferry, MD to someplace in the Midwest, but then we set our sights on California. A little thing called the great desert of the Southwest made us readjust our route, so we settled upon Oregon as our destination. It was an amazing trip. 2,900 miles in all.

Q: How did you make the leap from riding horses to announcing at events that involved horses?
A: In high school I was very involved in drama. When I finished high school my first “job” as a horse show announcer was for the Redland Hunt Pony Club (MD) to which I belonged.

Q: From an after high school gig to today, how has your chosen profession grown?
A: Nowadays I announce at about 30 shows per year. Of course a lot of those are local shows, much smaller than this one at Devon or the other events (such as the World Cup) that I am invited to.

Q: With all those days and weekends away from home, what is the most enjoyable aspect of your job?
A: I would have to say it is the people. There is such a family feeling when you are among horse folks. Within this great ocean of humanity I sometimes feel like an air traffic controller, trying to keep several rings running as smoothly as possible with no one crashing into anyone else. Fortunately, I am very good at multi-tasking.

The flip side of that coin, if you please: What is the least enjoyable aspect of your job?
A: It has got to be the length of a working day. All the people (many or most of them volunteers as is true here at Devon) put in such a long day. That and the vagaries of the weather are the two biggest drains on our energy. I believe that this is the driest series of days we have had at Devon in the fifteen or so years I have been connected with this show. [Of course, shortly after this interview, the skies opened and the rains descended upon the Grand Prix Freestyle on Saturday evening. – ed.]

Q: To what hobbies or other pastimes are you devoted?
A: I can be a little bit fanatical about golf. After my family and my job as an announcer, golf takes up a good bit of the time I have left.

Q: What is the role of your family?
A: My wonderful wife, Suzanne, and our terrific son, Ian (he’s 11) are the reason I put in these crazy, long days doing my job. In the same way our mother took three months out of her life to show her two boys the glories of this country, I’ll do whatever it takes for the wellbeing of my family.

Q: What is next in line after your great family, the job you obviously enjoy doing, and your passion for golf? What do you do to relax?
A: Anything that will let me decompress. Even yard work that other people might complain is mindless or repetitive. I enjoy doing things like swimming that don’t require a lot of thought.

Q: I realize the possibility that this could get you into trouble with people you might not name, but may I ask if you have a favorite horse and/or rider?
A: Mike Plumb and Jimmy Wofford would have to be on my short list. There are so many great horse people that I love and respect I had better stop there. When it comes to horses I will again limit myself to two out of the many, many horses I have loved to watch go over the years. Those two would be Carol Lavell’s Gifted and Hilda Gurney’s Keene. It’s not really fair to leave out the hundreds of tremendous horses who have quickened people’s pulses, but again, I will stop there.

Once more my question might get you into trouble (I hope not), but – when you need authorities to help you sort out the technicalities of an issue – with whom do you consult?
A: At the risk of sounding like a broken record, let me give you just two from the many experts it has been my privilege to know. I will have to say our own Elizabeth Williams (USEF Committee member) and Anne Gribbons (recently selected USEF Dressage Chef d’Equipe and Technical Advisor). Between the two of them they know it all.

Q: When you come to a show such as this one at Devon, upon what computer resources do you rely (after Dressage Daily, of course)?
A: Eurodressage, the brainchild of Astrid Appels has a wealth of information that works hand in glove with your own Dressage Daily. I also keep spreadsheets on my computer of all the information upon which I can lay my hands for previous years of the show that I am working. Between those resources and my own recall, I’m usually in pretty good shape.

Q: Do you have any superstitions?
A: Nope, none at all.

Q: Without asking you to tell any tales out of school, can you give our readers an idea about your involvement in the Alltech FEI 2010 World Equestrian Games?
A: Yes. I have agreed to announce both the dressage portion of the games and, for the first time, I will be announcing the vaulting competition. Those vaulting horses are phenomenal, and the vaulters are such athletes. I am really looking forward to both of these assignments. As with all the shows I do it will be a lot of work but I’m really looking forward to it.

Q: One final question. Do you have a slogan by which you live?
A: I guess it would have to be, “Make ‘em smile.” If there are smiles on the faces of the people who came to the show, then perhaps I contributed to them having a good time.

Just as I anticipated, the time speaking with Brian fairly flew by. It wasn’t long before he was legging his way back to the announcer’s booth (where his assistant had been holding down the fort) to bring his special panache to another successful year of Dressage at Devon.

Readers who may not have (yet) had an opportunity to hear Brian at work; to you I say that I believe you are not a fully rounded dressage fan-atic. You must see him strap on his ersatz dressage pony (Sydney) and demonstrate the movements of a haute école horse and rider. If you are not rolling in the aisles by the time Brian and Sydney finish their work, I will personally refund your money.

Thank you, once again, dear Brian for making the time to speak with me and with the loyal readers of DressageDaily!