Riding to Find America

sally ridingSally O’Connor, born in England, is an “S” level — USEF (US Equestrian Federation) dressage judge (the highest rating) and clinician. She has also been an FEI (International Equestrian Federation) Chief Steward and a — USEA (US Eventing Association) judge and Technical Delegate. She has written three books that belong on the bookshelf of any equestrian who wants a horse that is brave, supple, obedient, and strong: Practical Eventing, Common Sense Dressage, and Essential Exercises for Training Horses.

sally portraitSally is also a great friend of Louisiana. She often judges dressage for the Tri-State Dressage Society and the Holly Hill Horse Trials. Her clinic lessons are wonderful: riders become more effective and horses become more engaged. Recently she stayed for two weeks at the Bradford Guest House at Holly Hill Farm, taught lessons, and worked with Tracy Hewlett’s German Riding Pony on the Prix St. George movements.




Sally has two sons, Brian and David. Brian is an actor and a sought-after horse show announcer. David is the past president of the — USEF, the current coach of the US Olympic Eventing Team, and the winner of the individual Gold Medal in Eventing at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

In 1973, when Brian was 13 and David was 11, Sally took them on a trail ride from Maryland to Oregon. It was the era of antiwar protests, racial strife, riots, assassinations, and Watergate. Sally was disillusioned with living in the U. S. Her marriage wasn’t ideal. She was considering moving back to England with her boys. This trail ride was America’s chance to change Sally’s mind.

In an interview with Louisiana Equine Report writer Barbara Newtown, Sally talked about her life with horses and the amazing ride she shared with her sons:

When I was growing up in the little village of Nettleden, outside London, there was no television. I was a kid who would read, and read, and read. I read A Tale of Two Horses, by Aime Tschiffely, about the author’s trek from Argentina to Washington, D. C., told from the point of view of his two Criollos. The seed was planted. Then I read a book called Canada Ride: Across Canada on Horseback by Mary Bosanquet. She rode from the west side to the east side on one horse. And of course I read all the stories of adventure by Kipling. I think the English are nomadic people. It’s a tiny little island. When I was growing up, in the geography books, half the world was red, and it belonged to us! Growing up, you had uncles in Africa, people in India, people in Australia. I always had a Wanderlust. All I wanted was a pony, and my parents gave in. I would just take a drink and a sandwich and head out and disappear for the day. They approved of my passion because it kept me busy. Nobody cared about danger, because there was no traffic. There wasn’t any petrol!

Chimney Rock Near Bayard North Platte

Chimney Rock Near Bayard North Platte

Some of us do horses, and I don’t know why, but it is in the genes. Working with horses is so time-consuming, and is so difficult. You have setback after setback. And yet you still do it, because you have an affinity for it. Horses have served us for a long time. They were used for transport, and then they changed warfare. Horses have been our vehicles right up to this century. They moved mankind. For centuries, most people probably used horses like Kleenex. You use them until they’re used up. But, there still had to be the ones with the affinity, the horse whisperers. Like Alexander the Great. He just knew the untameable horse Bucephalus was scared of his own shadow, so he turned him into the sun– and rode him. Alexander understood. I grew up on all those myths and stories. My grandfather, a Greek and Latin scholar, would tell us the myths of Greece and Rome. My family would read me stories all the time.

So, here I am, I’ve got horses and adventure in my blood, and I’m sent off to boarding school for three quarters of the year. My school didn’t have horses while I was there although they had had horses in the past. They converted the stables into a swimming pool. So I joined the swim team. I couldn’t wait to go home to ride. And when my parents came to visit me at school, we’d have to go find a riding stable so I could ride. It was that bad. I was besotted.

After strict English boarding school, I went to the Sorbonne, in Paris. I studied literature and history in French. Talk about culture shock! Everything was wide open. We had student riots… In fact, I got trapped in a riot in the Place de la Concorde. They shut the Metro gates behind us and there was no place to go. It was the most terrifying experience of my life. I can’t do crowds. You know the French gendarmes, wearing those little capes? They have lead weights sewn into the bottom hem. And they’d swing the capes at you.

My father would come over from time to time, and take me to dinner. He’d be staying at some fancy hotel. My roommates would dress me up. One night I went to meet him for dinner, and he had met up with a bunch of Americans. They were with NATO. One couple, the Newlons, had an apartment in Paris, and they asked me to come to dinner. We became very friendly. They had two boys, 10 and 13, and I became their babysitter. The husband was in the Air Force, and they received orders to move to Norway. By then I had finished at the University, and I had just gone back to England. I visited them in Oslo for Christmas, in 1954. Then the husband’s father died, and he had to go back to America to take care of things. Betty Newlon asked me to stay on and be their au pair.

There was a riding school in downtown Oslo, where they did riding for the handicapped. This was the very beginning of therapeutic riding. A Danish woman, Lis Hartel, had polio and her doctor prescribed riding as a therapy. She won the silver medal in dressage at the 1952 Olympics. [She was the first woman to win a medal in an individual sport in direct Olympic competition with men.] A couple in Norway set up a public fundraiser to start a therapeutic riding program in Oslo. They went to England and bought up a lot of Dartmoor and Exmoor ponies. Jean Findlay, an Australian girl, was hired as the chief instructor. Jean had spent the previous summer working at a summer camp that had been started by Thor Heyerdahl, the famous adventurer. Betty Newlon knew Jean, and said, “Sally can help you.” Two or three times a week we’d go down to the stable and all of these kids in wheelchairs which show up, and we’d put them on ponies and walk and trot them up and down the arena.

That’s what we did all winter. The horses never went out, of course. In the summer they moved all the ponies up into the woods. Jean and I put twelve ponies in a boxcar on a train, and unloaded them in this little mountain village. We each rode one pony and held the rest on leadlines, and rode from the train station to a racehorse trainer’s place. Then the Thor Heyerdahl camp got in touch with Jean and said, “We want to be a horse camp this summer,” and asked us to bring the ponies over to the camp and start the program. We bunked down in cabins and took all the campers riding every day. Our two Norwegian boyfriends helped out, too.

After the summer camp experience, I went back to London. I taught myself shorthand and typing so that I could get a job. Not very interesting. I worked for someone who had a lumber mill in our village, but his office was in London. I was able to go home for weekends.

After the camp Jean had to go back to Australia. She told me I had to see Australia. The Newlons had to go back to America. I said to myself, well, I’ll go to America, and then work my way around the world and end up in Australia. I sailed on the Queen Mary over to America. We sailed into New York Harbor in the middle of the night, and it was just amazing to see the Statue of Liberty. I brought a puppy along with me, for the boys. I would walk him on the top deck of the ocean liner. It was a charming dog, a little terrier. We called him Roo. I took him on the train from New York to Washington, and the Newlons picked me up. So, there I was in Washington, and I got a job, first, with the General Federation of Women’s Clubs. That lasted a while, but then I got a little bored with them. I moved on to Standard Oil of California’s Washington office, because they needed a secretary and there I was. I was surrounded by lobbyists. Very different from the Women’s Club! I almost didn’t get the job, because it was at the time of the Suez crisis, and they said, “Oh no, we can’t give the job to a Brit!” But the woman who hired me insisted.

I worked for two years and then I met Jay O’Connor, the man that I married. My plan of going to Australia was put on hold. He was a nuclear submarine designer for the Navy. He was brilliant. That was his life. Since the work he was doing was secret, he couldn’t talk about it at home. I had to become an American citizen, or else they would fire him. I said to him, if I wanted to spy on you, it wouldn’t make any difference whether I was a citizen. But I gave in, and became an American on paper.

We lived in Washington, in an apartment. When we had the kids, we moved out to Bethesda, Maryland. When they got a little older, I said to my husband that we had to move out to the country for the kids. My husband didn’t care where we lived, because he would just drive into Washington and work. We moved out to Gaithersburg, Maryland. At that point, it was very rural. We built a house out there. The kids were old enough to go to the Montessori school in Bethesda. Brian was four, and David was two. When I went to pick them up on the first day, Bryan burst into tears and said, “I don’t want to go home!”

I had half a day while the kids were in school. The Potomac Horse Center was half a mile away. They were doing all the stuff that I had always wanted to do: dressage and eventing. I took a couple of lessons, and said that I really couldn’t afford to have a horse…was there anything I could do? So they hired me as an accountant in the office. The boys started taking lessons, too.

In 1972 I gave Brian the book Kon Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl. Brian loved it. He asked, “Can we make a balsa raft and sail across the Pacific?” I said “NO—but we could ride to California!” A bit later I went out to dinner and someone asked what we were going to do in the summer. I said we might ride to California. Of course everyone thought I was crazy. My husband said it was a stupid idea. Well, you don’t say that to me!

I started planning. I figured we had to start in May, if we were going to get over the Rockies before it snowed. We had the same concerns the pioneers had. [The Donner Party was caught by an early snowfall in the Sierras and resorted to cannibalizing the dead in order to survive.] I quickly realized that going to California was impossible, because we would have to cross deserts, and there was no way we could pack water for the horses. So, like the pioneers, we would follow the Oregon Trail, which runs along the only east/west river in the US: the Platte.

My husband tried to dissuade us by saying that school wouldn’t be over until the end of May. I said I’d go talk to their teachers. By this time Brian and David were in public schools in Gaithersburg. I told the teachers what we were going to do: Do you mind if I take the boys out of school three weeks early? Every single teacher said it was a fabulous idea. So I went back to my husband, and I said the teachers say it’s fine for the boys to miss school. All the teachers said that the boys would learn so much more. That blew me away. In fact, this whole thing blew me away… that a crazy idea could be so possible.

I planned to ride my Intermediate level event horse, Gungho. I knew he could do it. The problem was, what would the boys ride? They had two ponies that they were already outgrowing. We had some friends whose son had recently given up riding in Pony Club. He had an old plain black gelding named BeeGee – short for black gelding. BeeGee was just sitting out in the field. I went over to their house and said, Say, can we borrow BeeGee? They said sure. BeeGee was a son of a bitch. He would kick you if he could – but he was a solid horse. I knew he would be perfect. He could just go and go. Brian would ride BeeGee.

Now David needed a horse. I had been talking to my farrier, who was really enthused about our project. He said he would lend us a quiet Quarter Horse mare for David. Three weeks before we were supposed to leave, she did something to herself, and suddenly we were down a horse. I knew a horse dealer nearby, named Ray. I asked Ray, would you just happen to have something that we could use for David? Ray thought for a little bit. He had a horse shipping business, too. I said, Ray, we will hire you to bring us back when we get where we are going. He said, “Well, I’ve got this thing out in the field. He doesn’t know very much, but he’s solid.” So here’s this great big chestnut horse called Ralph. About as plain a horse as you could imagine. I figured he would just follow the others. He must’ve been half draft. I don’t know what he was. Nobody knew. But Ray said we could take him.

What do you take on a trip like this? Two pairs of jeans for each of us, a reflective jacket for riding at night, a poncho for rain, sleeping bags, freeze-dried food, a little Sterno stove, halters, ropes, lead shanks, and nose bags, because buckets would be too bulky. We had big saddle bags made. David and Ralph would carry fifty pounds of oats in a duffel bag. I chose oats as the grain because you can get crushed oats just about anywhere. Brian and BeeGee would carry farrier tools. Ray taught Brian how to pull shoes off and nail new ones on.

I knew Snowden Carter, who lived in Baltimore and had just started Horseplay magazine. I called him up and asked him if he’d be interested. He was very enthusiastic. He sent a reporter over for our first day. A reporter was there when we crossed the Mississippi, and when we crossed from Idaho into Oregon at the end. The same photographer always came along and we got to know him very well. We’d send him off on errands for us!

Where to start out? We didn’t want to go on roads right away. I said, Let’s go to White’s Ferry, which is right on the hundred-mile towpath for the C & O canal. I wouldn’t have to worry about traffic. We could just slop along on the towpath. I didn’t research it very well.

The day came, and all our friends and my husband Jay came down to see us off. Jay didn’t think we’d make it out of Maryland. But he let us go, which was great. We got the horses off the trailer, packed up, and set off down the towpath. We had arranged a stay that night with friends of friends 30 miles down the towpath.

Well, we got tacked up and loaded down, and headed off. A mile down the towpath there was this great ditch in front of us. There’d been a hurricane the year before. So we looked at this huge obstacle with water in it. So, I said, Let me try Gung, since he’s an event horse. So he slid down the side of the ditch, popped over the water, and clambered up the other side. No problem. BeeGee followed, no problem. But Ralph wasn’t having any part of it. Finally he went down and jumped over. David said, “Let’s not do that very often!” So we go another mile, and there’s a bridge on top of a causeway that goes over one of the rivers that goes down into the Potomac. No side rails, four feet wide, and 200 feet down. I said, I know Gungho will go. He’s fine. I get to the other side. I said, OK, Brian, you try. BeeGee was skittering all around and I could just imagine them going off the edge. I said, Wait, Brian, get off, let David hold BeeGee, you come over and hold Gungho, and I’ll lead BeeGee over. And Ralph was so stupid that he just followed me and BeeGee. We were finding out a lot about our horses’ personalities.

We made it to our overnight stop. We bathed our horses, gave them oats, and turned them out into a lovely big field. When you’re doing a trip like this, the horses come first. We met our hosts who were so nice. We had a big picnic outside. Our next-door neighbor, who had set up this first stop, said, “Sally, you know you should have this whole trip catered!”

I got up at 6 am, fed the horses their oats, and went in and joined my boys and our hosts for a big breakfast. Afterwards we went out to the field to tack and load up. Do you think we could catch any of the horses? No…. We spent two hours trying to catch those bloody horses. Eventually I found some apples, chopped them up, and started eating. I knew I would get somebody’s attention. I caught Gungho, and then we were okay. By this time we were three hours late starting for our next place. We had to push on. When we had a clear spot, we’d trot. The problem was, at that point we weren’t very good at packing, so each time we trotted something would fall off. Somebody had to get off and pick whatever it was up. David couldn’t get off, because Ralph was too big. So Brian had to get off. “I don’t see why I have to do it all the time! It’s not fair!” Oh, dear, dear, dear. We couldn’t get to our planned stop that night. We found a little town. I stopped at a store and asked if they knew of a place where we and our horses could spend the night. They said, yes, there’s a barn up the road, and we’re sure they’ll let you put your horses there. So we went up and knocked on the door, and said, “Can we put our horses in your barn? We’re riding to Oregon.” They said yes, and asked us to come to dinner with them. This generosity happened the whole way across the country. The whole way. Absolutely unbelievable.

We put the horses in this rickety old barn and tied them up so they’d be alright. We went to the house. The family was extremely poor, with six little kids. They said to us, “This is wonderful!” They offered Brian a chew of tobacco. They were sweet and gracious.

The next day we set out and came to the Paw Paw Tunnel, where the railroad went through. We didn’t try it, because I could just see a train coming through while we were inside… We would have to get on the road. This was our first road. It was raining. The horses were being good. We rode into the traffic so that we could see what was coming. We were wearing ponchos and plodding along in the rain. We got to the Potomac. There was no bridge, but there was a ferry. I asked the ferryman, can we take the horses? He said “Yup.” I asked, how much are you going to charge us? He said, “How about five bucks for all of them?” I said good! I had a credit card and about a hundred dollars. We got on with all the trucks and went across the Potomac into West Virginia. When it was time to get off, a big truck bumped Brian’s saddle bags. We were putting them back on, and another driver yelled, “Hey, where are you going?” “Oregon….” we said. He said, “I own a motel five miles up the road. Why don’t you come and spend the night there?” We said thank you, thank you, thank you. There was a barn across the road for the horses. We had showers. It was just great. Wonderful, generous things like that would happen all the time…

[Belonging to horse organizations gave Sally lots of connections. In West Virginia, she and the boys stayed with her friend Kay Meredith at Meredith Manor, Kay’s school of horsemanship. In Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, Sally knew Pony Clubbers and eventers. In eastern Nebraska, they stayed with Lowell Boomer, founder of the US Dressage Federation. After leaving Lincoln, Nebraska, they headed out into the wilderness, where they knew no one and had to rely completely on the kindness of strangers.]

The worst moment occurred when we were in Nebraska. We had an invitation to go stay in a summer camp. We had to cross to the other side of the Platte River to get to the camp. The river was almost a mile wide. An inch deep and a mile wide: that’s the Platte. Because getting to the camp was further than we had planned on going, it was dusk. David was on Gungho, because Ralph had a sore on his withers from where the grain sack was rubbing. I rode Ralph because I was able to keep the grain sack away from the wound. So David’s in front, Brian’s in the middle, and I’m behind. We’re crossing this bridge, and it’s dusk, and a semi has just come off the interstate. He’s barreling down the middle of the bridge. There’s nowhere to go. It’s a half-mile-long bridge, and we were halfway across. I thought, if Gungho shies, we’re all dead. I said, David, put your legs on, hold the reins, and look straight ahead… This fire-breathing truck was coming at us. The poor guy saw us at the last minute. I think the sight of three riders scared him to death. He almost went off the other side of the bridge. Gungho never flinched, and the other two just stayed with him. I couldn’t speak until we got to the other side of the bridge. I’ve got goosebumps even now. I was thinking, should we jump off, and let the horses get killed? Or should we stay on, and all get killed? What should we do? David rode straight, and it was fine. The grace of God was with us. I got to the other side of the bridge and my knees were like jelly. When we found the summer camp, we spend an extra day there, just to recover.

We had to leave Ralph in Nebraska, because his back needed to heal. David took over BeeGee. Some people who had never heard of us lent us a little Quarter Horse, which Brian rode in front. Gungho’s back was sore, too, and some other people lent us a little unbroken mare. Her name was Muley and she’d been used as a pack horse. The boys had to hold my mare down for me to get on, but then she was fine. She’d follow the others. She nearly died of colic up on top of the mountains. What do you do with the horse with colic? Well, you just keep walking her. We walked for five miles and she finally started coming out of it. When we returned her, at the end of the trip, the owners said, “Oh, yes, she’s prone to that.”

We made it to Nyssa, Oregon, just over the border from Idaho, on the other side of the Snake River. The local police escorted us to the fairgrounds. We spent that night in a motel, because I felt that we deserved a shower. I went to the feed store the next morning and saw a little man there who just fell on me and said, “We’ve been waiting for you, we’ve been waiting for you! You come and stay with us!” We spent the rest of our time in Nyssa with this great family.

By the time we got even into Ohio, we had become a news item. Newspaper and television reporters and people from town would come out and greet us, and pass us along to the next stop, from friend to friend. Finding a place to stay was very simple. People went out of their way to help. And we would have people come out and ride along with us for half a day or so.

Before this trip, I was discouraged about living in America. But as a result of this trip my attitude changed completely. The America that you’ve always heard about really exists. Once you get out of the big cities, people are kind and helpful. People have a sense of what is important in life. Amazing generosity. And friendliness. They did all this without expecting any reward. On the whole trip, we were only turned away twice when we asked to stay somewhere. One place, we knocked on the door and asked if we could stay, and they said, “No, we have a stallion here. But there’s a place down the road where you can stay.” We understood completely. But there was one other place that actually wanted no part of us. It was a shock, but it was all right. The rest of the trip more than made up for people like that. And one time I went into a café to get lunch for the boys and me, and the boys were holding the horses out in the parking lot. This little lady said, “Get those horses out of here! They’ll mess up the parking lot! And it’s lunch time!” Well, actually, it was 2 PM. And there wasn’t a single car in the parking lot… Only two people on the whole trip were mean. And there were hundreds that were wonderful. I think people went out of their way to help, because of the particular combination of a mother and two children. Some other group would have gotten a different reception: two guys, a guy and a girl, two girls. But everyone hovered over us. It was the spirit of the frontier: people helping people. There are very few people in the plains and the mountains, so you all have to help each other. That spirit exists! My boys not only got to see great countryside, they also got to see real Americans.

On the trip, Brian was the people person. He couldn’t wait to meet new hosts. David was the one interested in history. He got choked up when we walked on the ruts of the prairie schooners. Going up Scotts Bluff, we actually walked right in the ruts. We saw Chimney Rock the same way the pioneers did. And I had never seen the Rockies. Magnificent.

We arrived in Oregon at the end of August, just before Brian’s 14th birthday, and just in time for the boys to get back for school. We were on the trail 3 ½ months. We returned full of faith in our country.


Sally O’Connor will be publishing the full story of the trek as a book in the near future.

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