Fran O’Reilly isn’t quite exactly sure what made her want to start riding horses in the first place, but she knows that she was “fixated” on horses from a young age.
As one of five girls growing up in Des Moines, Iowa, O’Reilly began taking riding lessons at a young age. She jokingly said that her parents “made a mistake” when they stated she could have a horse when she turned 13 – prompting her to save money from her allowances and her work cleaning at an arts center.
“The day I was 13, I told my parents I was ready to go buy a horse,” said O’Reilly.
She bought a horse from the local newspaper for $150 and began to take riding more seriously.
O’Reilly has an impressive resume and list of accomplishments throughout her equestrian career. In the 1970s, she was a candidate for the U.S. Olympic team in dressage and received the U.S. Dressage Federation’s Bronze medal.
She has also taught riders from around the country and received a “Recognized License“ as a judge in Combined Training, which includes stadium jumping, dressage, and cross-country.
For those who may not be familiar with dressage, O’Reilly uses an analogy that compares dressage to a sport that many might already be familiar with — figure skating.
“Figure skaters have a set of routine movements they have to go through, and they have movements they can choose,” said O’Reilly. “We have the same thing in dressage.”
Dressage also tests the schooling of the horse, added O’Reilly, as riders and horses are judged on accuracy, quality of their gait, and the obedience of the horse.
O’Reilly has also taught youth and adults from around the country – she developed a Pony Club in her hometown of Des Moines.
The United States Pony Clubs started in 1954 to teach riding and the proper care of horses. The organization was also modeled after the British Pony Club, which was established in 1929.
“The idea was that you got instruction for yourself, and you passed it along to the upcoming riders,” said O’Reilly.
She also continues to be involved in Vashon’s chapter of Pony Club, Olympus Pony Club.
As someone who has ridden horses for more than 60 years, O’Reilly said that one of the things she is most proud of is watching those she has taught go on and be successful in their endeavors, whether in the equestrian world or elsewhere.
O’Reilly also taught at the university level and at the middle school level, and she credits her teaching experience in helping her teach riders. She spent a decade teaching Renaissance Drama at the University of Michigan and also taught French, English and German at a private middle school.
She adds that she enjoys the “challenge” of figuring out how a rider can ask a horse to accomplish a certain task, and accomplishing those goals.
“It’s more a long-term development of physical and mental understandings because it’s pretty complicated trying to control your body and manage a 1,000-pound animal too,” added O’Reilly.
At almost 81 years old, O’Reilly currently works with about 12 island students, as well as a cadre of longtime students in the New England region.
She resides on her Maury Island property, where she currently keeps four horses and has her own dressage arena that she constructed upon her move to the island.
“The positive feedback for me is being able to look at the horse and the rider and say ‘they need to do this,’ and being able to verbalize what they need to do and getting them to,” said O’Reilly. “The horse has its own independent mind.”