‘It’s just a real bond:’ Relationship between trainer and show horse key to legendary career together

World Champion American Saddlebred Don O'Neill has been retired after an illustrious 13-year career.
Published: Aug. 28, 2022 at 11:36 PM EDT
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SHELBY COUNTY, Ky. (WAVE) - A world champion American Saddlebred show horse has been retired after an illustrious 13-year career.

The legendary Don O’Neill was adorned with yellow roses and took one final victory pass Friday night at the Kentucky State Fair.

Don O’Neill was accompanied in the arena by Chris Reiser, who’s been training and riding Don for the entirety of the horse’s career.

“Don O’Neill is probably one of the greatest horses that’s ever walked the face of the earth...to me,” Reiser said with a laugh.

A week before the retirement ceremony, WAVE News visited Reiser’s barn in Shelby County, to watch the duo tune up for their retirement run.

Reiser credited his bond with Don as the reason for their nearly 15 years of success.

“Well, you know, he could probably still go on for 10 more years, but we love our horse and we’ve won everything we could win,” Reiser said. “So we’re happy with what he’s done. We have the opportunity to give him a great life and that’s what we want to do.”

Reiser and Don have partnered to win every major Saddlebred horse show in the country.

They’ve won the Rock Creek Horse Show twice, the Lexington Junior League Horse Show twice and the River Ridge Horse Show four times. Even more prestigious, they’ve won the World Championship Horse Show twice, in 2014 and 2016.

“Well, it’s a lot of pressure, because everybody expects it to be the same over and over, and it’s not,” Reiser said. “So it’s a lot of pressure and, you know, it’s understanding is your horse still able compete at that level. For an American Saddlebred, Don has a longevity of a career. To be at such a high place, and still good. Still good.”

But Don’s career was not a success out of the gate.

Don is smaller than most American Saddlebred horses, more than two hands shorter in some cases. Don’s neck is also not as long as a typical Saddlebred’s, putting him at another physical disadvantage.

To start his career, Don was placed in the amateur division and had several incidents while n the arena.

“We had a few episodes, you know, running across the middle of the ring, lunging through the air,” Reiser said. “Sometimes he wants to play with the other horses as they pass him. It all depends on what frame of mind he’s in. He tears down stalls at horse shows.”

Despite the episodes, Reiser was out to prove Don could compete with the other Saddlebreds. He removed Don’s mane and shortened his own stirrups.

The adjustments paid dividends when they won the 2014 World Championship Horse Show. That’s when permanent success took hold.

“He just was very, very bold,” Reiser said. “When I guided him toward that horse show ring he became unafraid and started commanding the performance.”

Now that Don’s career is over, Reiser told WAVE News he will live the rest of his life at Reiser Stables in Shelby County. Reiser said he plans to make changes to the barn to allow Don more room to roam and relax, affording him a perfect retirement after a legendary career.

“He’s just a great animal,” Reiser said. “His personality, he acknowledges me every day. He’s like just fun when I brush him, you know. He’s a character. So, it’s just a real bond. It’s like having a bond with a best friend.”