Twin Bays Stable
TBS goes to NYC to see the movie premiere "The Sunday Horse" then Debi comes up to TBS to teach a clinic
The Sunday Horse
October 30, 2011 | Filed under: Uncategorized | Posted by: Richard Albee
On December 6, 2009, veteran competitor Debi Connor rode confidently into the ring at the Bob Thomas Equestrian Center in Tampa on her talented Grand Prix mare, Hiberia Rouge. Connor, the largest importer of horses for the Hunter/ Jumper world and owner of Kabana Ranch in Reddick, Florida…
…had come off a big win in Asheville, North Carolina and was in contention for the prestigious title of Leading Rider in the City League International Show Jumping Team Finals. Hiberia had already jumped a clean round and coming into the last fence in the jump off Debi had every reason to believe that she and Hiberia would finish the round clean, winning with their characteristic confidence and style.
But a chance slip of a hoof at the last second not only derailed that dream, it almost cost Connor and her mare their lives. She recalls, “Hiberia tried to make the fence but she slipped off the ground and we flipped in the air. I fell off her back in mid-air and landed head first on the ground. I ripped my face off and crushed my arms. At first they thought I had broken my neck or back, too. It was pretty bad. Hiberia was 3-legged lame and they told me later that people were suggesting euthanasia for her because they thought she had broken her leg. Luckily, my husband insisted that we just get her to the vet hospital before making any rash decisions. It turned out that she had torn a tendon and a ligament in her right front leg which was a terrible injury, but it wasn’t broken.”
For many riders, such a traumatic accident would spell the end of an equestrian career. But Debi Connor is not just any rider. She is a gifted professional horsewoman who is driven by a combination of her passion for horses, love of competition, and a higher purpose that has helped her overcome not only the horrific accident at Tampa but another bad fall that kept her on the sidelines in a wheelchair while she watched the horse she had owned and trained, Touch of Class, take two Show Jumping Gold Medals with Joe Fargas at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. She recovered from those injuries with her indomitable spirit intact and continued to win at the top levels of the sport. She says, “You’d think I might be afraid, but I’m not. I just prayed to the Good Lord to get me back in the saddle and get me over the jumps. We all have trials in life, and I’m like everyone else when it comes to those moments of ‘why me’ but I ride for a purpose. I am a Christian and I know there is a plan for me so when difficult times come, I know I will get through them because there is a greater hand guiding me.” She laughs and says, “It’s simple. I jump for Jesus.”
Growing up in Virginia, Debi wasn’t overly religious, but as a fan of Rodney Jenkins, she was a horse crazy kid drawn to the hunters. She became an avid competitor by the age of eight, turning pro in the Hunters at the age of twelve. It was during her last year as a Junior competitor, riding as a professional at Country Club Stables in Florida, that Debi had a life-changing experience in the form of a vision in which God told her that she would go on to become a top Grand Prix rider with a mission to spread his word and spirit through her success. She is candid about the experience saying, “At that time, I was unsure of my future. I knew I wanted to pursue a career in Grand Prix jumping, but the finances necessary to compete at that level were way beyond me. Then, out of the blue, I had that vision in which God told me to return to Virginia where I would find the horse that would take me to the top in Grand Prix. He said that horse showing was my mission field. So that’s what I did and I have never looked back.”
Debi has always had a way with horses and the ability to spot raw talent. So when she came across a spirited Thoroughbred at the track in Virginia, she renamed him ‘The Evangelist’ and set out to fulfill her mission. The wins piled up and Connor made a name for herself with her ability to find, train, and successfully compete with horses from here and abroad. She says, “The Evangelist was such an incredible horse. I retired him and when I lost him at the age of thirty-four, I experienced another miracle. I had been out in the barn with him because he was scheduled for euthanasia the next morning due to severe laminitis. He’d always been a cribber, so I took off his cribbing strap for that last day and I spent it with him, giving him all the treats he wanted. I checked on him at 3 a.m. and tried to give him the last two treats but he didn’t want them. He was very quiet and then, suddenly, the horse across from him that I call ‘Passion Play’, who had never cribbed a day in his life, suddenly started cribbing to get my attention. I knew in that moment that The Evangelist was passing his spirit to Passion Play, and he really did go on to fill the enormous shoes left by that amazing horse. Small miracles happen all the time if you are just open to them.”
Connor has always taken the time to listen, both to the path laid out to her by her God and the horses that are a major part of it. She says, “Sometimes it seems like I’m half-horse. I have always had the ability to understand my horses and bring out the best in them. I love the teamwork and combination of two minds, two bodies, working together for the same goal. There is nothing like riding the Jumpers. You have to have such an incredible bond with the animal which, for me, goes beyond the show ring to finding the right talent and bringing the horse along with the right care, diet, training and trust.”
Wishing to share the success of her training methods which have resulted in champions from the pre-greens to Olympic gold, she produced a series of videos entitled, ‘The American Way’ which are available on her website, www.debiconnorsales.com. She explains, “It starts with spotting a horse with innate talent and then bringing that horse along correctly which means putting in the time and effort to make sure that horse is fit, confident, and happy in his job. My videos give viewers the building blocks for a solid training system. Then in the show ring, it’s the rider’s job to keep the horse straight, get the correct rhythm and get the horse into the correct range to a jump. This means getting the horse to the fence where he can jump it comfortably from one of three distances: long, perfect, or deep. Perfect means that if the jump is four feet high, you want to jump from four feet away. The rider must also release the horse’s head at the moment of departure so he can jump freely with his head and neck. You want to create a situation that’s as close to the horse jumping without a rider because that’s when he’ll jump the best. When the horse and rider go into the ring well-prepared, the horse will get into it as much as you do and it’s an adrenaline rush like no other.”
Anyone who has been ringside at a Grand Prix event will appreciate the bold athleticism necessary for a horse and rider to compete at that level. Connor’s courage and innate athletic ability are genetic. Her father was an elite athlete who played not one, but two professional sports. She says, “Because there were rules at that time against playing two professional sports, my father actually played under two different names. As quarterback for the Washington Redskins, he was Larry Weldon and as a pitcher for the San Diego Padres, he was known as Larry Jacobs. He was just an amazing man. He took me hunting and fishing, taught me how to eat right to maintain physical fitness, and he even took me on the team bus which was a huge thrill. Even though he played one of the toughest sports, he was actually afraid for me in the show ring. I remember him watching me from his car in the parking lot through a set of binoculars because he was too nervous to be ringside, but he was there. Down deep, I think he probably wanted me to go to college, become a teacher, and settle down with a family but he respected my decision to pursue a career in horses and he was my biggest supporter. He was a true inspiration to me.”
The drive and determination learned at her father’s side served Connor well as she worked to get back to health after the accident in 2009. With the importance of her mission reflected in the Cross embroidered on her saddle pads, Debi worked hard in physical therapy throughout the year and by the end of 2010 she was back in the saddle showing Grand Prix. She says, “You’d think I might be afraid, but I’m not. It was a long year of recovery but I couldn’t wait to get back in the saddle. I have some talented Grand Prix horses that I started competing at the end of 2010, including two from New Zealand, a Dutch Warmblood named Appollo Van Evendael and a New Zealand Sport Horse named Jedi Warrior. I have an equally talented French horse, Humour du Parc, too. I still have to ride with a cast on my right arm and I probably always will, but I’m back and it feels great.”
And what of Hiberia Rouge? Incredibly, she is back, too. After a stay in the veterinary hospital and a lengthy recovery at The Sanctuary Equine Sports and Rehabilitation Center in Ocala, Florida, the mare with a heart as big as her jump returned to the show ring in the summer of 2011. “I am so grateful to Brenda and the rest of the staff at The Sanctuary. Hiberia’s return to health and the show ring is a miracle,” says Debi. But miracles are part of the road Debi Connor’s life has followed. In addition to her success in the show ring, a chance meeting with a film producer twenty years ago sparked a friendship and collaboration that is leading to a motion picture about her life scheduled to begin filming within the next two years. “I give credit to God for the wonderful horses, good fortune, and even the difficult challenges that have come my way,” says Connor. “Things happen for a reason. In the years when I was out of competition, I was able to build my sales barn. When I’ve been ready to compete, I’ve had some of the best horses anyone could hope for. It’s been a blessing, and with the movie, “The Sunday Horse” taking shape, there’s more to come.