Conor Swail may ride for Ireland, but over the course of the last decade, he’s spent more time in North America.
So when the global pandemic shut competition down worldwide in the spring of 2020, Swail was faced with a decision.
“Nothing was happening at all,” he recalled. “As Europeans, we couldn’t get to America, [and] we couldn’t get to Canada, so I decided that we’d send our horses to Europe and show them, and we went to the Sunshine Tour in Spain and Vilamoura in Portugal.”
The move proved to be fortuitous in more ways than one. While showing in Europe, Swail connected with Adeline Hecart, and Hecart had a proposition for him.
“I actually rode horses for Adeline’s mom and dad in the past, and I think that possibly was one of the reasons that she felt I’d be a good fit to try and do something with her horse,” Swail said.
Swail bought into Hecart’s 12-year-old gelding, Vital Chance de la Roque in January, and the athletic bay gelding returned to the U.S. with Swail. In Wellington, the pair jumped straight into five-star competition at the Winter Equestrian Festival, but this summer, they’ve taken their partnership to the next level.
Since June 20, Swail and Vital Chance de la Roque have won three international grand prix events in Lexington (CSI3*), Tryon (CSI2*) and Saugerties (CSI4*). Following an August 7 win at Saugerties, Swail strategically gave the bay a rest. Returning at Thunderbird Show Park’s Harvest Celebration CSI4*-W, they wasted no time returning to winning form. On Thursday evening in the Thunderbird Jumper Arena, the duo won the $75,000 CSI4*-W Welcome.
“He’s so careful; he doesn’t want to knock jumps down,” Swail said. “So, it makes it very easy for riders whenever you can be a bit far away, a bit too close, a bit slow, a bit too quick, and it doesn’t matter. Good horses hide riders’ mistakes, and I feel he’s a very good one.”
At first glance, Vital Chance de la Roque doesn’t catch the eye. Smaller built, the plain bay has little distinctive markings, and he’s barefoot, having not worn shoes in at least two years. On the ground and on the flat, he’s incredibly docile. As Swail stood for his post-win interview, the bay, in his hackamore, happily and politely munched on grass.
When a jump is introduced, all bets are off—you simply can’t miss this horse.
“When you’re flatting him or at home, he’s actually lazy and laid back, which you wouldn’t believe whenever you see in the ring,” Swail said. “Once he gets in the ring and starts running, which honestly I do feel that he needs that little bit of an engine to fire him up, he can get tricky enough to ride at times.”
That trickiness comes in the form of exuberant bucks on course, which Swail admits, he’s prepared for, as Vital Chance de la Roque comes to life when it’s time to compete. The antics don’t seem to affect the bay’s performance, as he’s focused on the task at hand in the strides leading up to takeoff. Thursday evening was another brilliant display of athleticism as the pair, despite the momentary disruptions in rhythm, were still comfortably fast enough to top a six-horse jump-off.
“I had two weeks here at Thunderbird in August, and then I was in Spruce for three weeks, and he had a break during that time,” Swail said. “This is just his first show back. He’s come back feeling better than he was before. I’m really chuffed.”
Swail and Vital Chance de la Roque have their eyes on Sunday’s $150,000 CSI4*-W Longines FEI Jumping World Cup™ Vancouver, the opening leg of the 2021–2022 Longines FEI Jumping World Cup™ North American League. Swail also plans to jump the gelding in World Cup qualifying competition at Sacramento.
“Just because of the stop-start [in the calendar] with COVID, [the Longines FEI Jumping World Cup™ Final] is something I hadn’t thought about particularly too much,” Swail admitted, “but if he keeps continuing to grow as much as he is, it’s maybe not a bad way to go with him.”