Jun 26, 2022

Ben Noonan: Learning To Steer Through the Eventing School of Life

By Sarah Eakin - Sidelines Magazine
Alex Banks photo.

This story first appeared in the June 2022 issue of Sidelines Magazine.

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.”

Finding Horses

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.”

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.

Alex Banks photo.

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’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!”

Aug 11, 2022 Competitions

Weekend Quick Links: Aug 12-14

Are you following along with the action from home this weekend? Or maybe you're competing at an event and need information fast. Either way, we’ve got you covered! Check out the USEA’s Weekend Quick Links for links to information including the prize list, ride times, live scores, and more for all the events running this weekend.

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Dorothy Crowell’s Tips to Taking on the USEA Classic Series

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to compete in a traditional long format Three-Day Event? Can you imagine the thrill of three additional phases leading into cross-country? In the early 2000s, eventing began to shift away from long format events and toward modern short-format competitions. Not all is lost though! The United States Eventing Association (USEA) created the USEA Classic Series to give riders a taste of the old school experience. These competitions preserve eventing’s history and allow riders at the Beginner Novice through Preliminary levels to take on the challenge of traditional long format events.

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New Leader Emerges in Race to Le Lion

As the cutoff date to qualify for Le Lion inches closer, talented young horses and riders in contention for the The Holekamp/Turner YEH Lion d’Angers Grant are gearing up for the final push in hopes of being selected as the grant recipient. Grant funds will assist the selected pair with costs associated with competing at the FEI Eventing World Breeding Championships in the 7-year-old CCIYH3*-L Championship slated to be held later this fall. 2020 Dutta Corp. USEA Young Event Horse (YEH) Championships competitors and their respective owners and riders have paid careful attention to this summer’s schedule making sure that they would meet the necessary qualifications for La Mondial du Lion in Le Lion d’Angers, France.

Aug 09, 2022 Eventing News

Three USEA YEH Grads Named to Land Rover U.S. Eventing Team for FEI Eventing Nations Cup Canada CCIO4*-S

US Equestrian announced the four combinations selected to represent the Land Rover U.S. Eventing Team at the FEI Eventing Nations Cup Canada CCIO4*-S, three of which are graduates of the USEA Young Event Horse (YEH) program. Competition will take place from August 18-21, 2022, at Bromont Horse Park in Quebec, Canada. The team will be led by Chef d’Equipe Leslie Law.

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