By Catie Staszak/Catie Staszak Media, Inc.
David O’Brien looked at the text message on his phone and contemplated how to respond. The potential client was inquiring about his warm-up techniques and how he walked the course before a competition.
He responded with the most honest answer he could: “I just keep it simple.”
In typical form, the quietly accomplished 33-year-old did not boast or reference his accomplishments. Instead, he let his riding do the talking.
That potential client, Annabelle Garrett met him at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center in Wellington, FL and watched as he, ahead of CSI3* competition, jumped just six fences in the schooling area. After he jumped clear, he jumped only four more schooling fences ahead of the jump-off. He won.
Following the class, he received another text message from Garrett: “Yeah, just keep it simple.” Garrett’s daughter Stephanie immediately began training with him.
After spending nearly a decade as the head trainer and rider at Spy Coast Farm’s Young Horse Development Center, bringing up hundreds of young horses for Lisa Lourie’s respected Lexington, KY-based operation, O’Brien went out on his own and started his own business in the fall. “Leap Year Farm” is operated by O’Brien and his wife Sarah; the two went on their first date on February 29, a leap year, 10 years ago.
“I was lucky enough with Spy Coast in the sense that I got a lot of exposure. I really got to develop a program that I know works for horses,” said O’Brien, whose equestrian roots stem from his parents, who run a riding school in Galway, Ireland. “Our success rate was quite high at Spy Coast, and last year I ended up with the [USEF] National Champion [Quantreau SCF] and Reserve National Champion [Qualito SCF] 5-year-old, Reserve National Champion 6-year-old [Piranha SCF] and National Champion 7-year-old [Octavius SCF]. So, when I left, I left on a high. All the horses fulfilled my expectations for the year.”
Those that have watched O’Brien ride are aware of his skillset. In the young jumper divisions, particularly in Kentucky, it wasn’t uncommon for O’Brien’s name to litter the leaderboard with his many mounts. But in the last few years, other professionals have also sought his help. He’s been the top choice of a long list of international riders who have either left O’Brien with younger horses while they’re away competing in Europe or sent him horses that required more time than their schedules allowed.
Jordan Coyle’s Ariso. Adrienne Sternlicht’s Shadowfax 111. Freddy Vasquez’s Kirschwasser SCF. Tanner Korotkin’s Ideal. Summer Hill’s La Baule SCF. O’Brien played a significant role in developing each one.
“With most of the horses, I bring it back to basics and just keep it simple—start from the ground and build them up,” O’Brien explained. “We don’t overcomplicate things, and [the horses] seem to respond well.”
Patience is O’Brien’s specialty. Everything he does is executed with a sense of calmness, from his horsemanship to his conduct in conversation. At home, you’ll often find him relaxing horses with trot fences, setting educational grids, or simply flatting and working on improving horses’ responsiveness to his aids. The confidence he instills in his mounts has resulted in countless successes. Now he’s taking the same concepts and applying them to his teaching.
“I think confidence is a big part of it,” said O’Brien. “It’s about figuring out what kind of switches work for the horse and the rider—getting inside their head. You need to get them into the zone, or for some of them, get them out of the zone—it depends on the individual. Some need to be pushed and driven, and others need to take a step back and let it come to them.”
O’Brien’s top mount, EL Balou OLD was in the latter category. The 10-year-old Oldenburg gelding is owned by Lillie Keenan’s Chansonette Farm; Keenan originally acquired the horse in a trade, and she sent him to O’Brien in February 2021 on McLain Ward’s recommendation. On arrival, “Balou” struggled mightily with pressure. The slightest compression of O’Brien’s aids would send the bay backward. He was prickly at liverpools. He exuded sheer power, but he lacked the finesse needed to succeed when faced with the technical tracks now defining the sport.
O’Brien began working with Balou slowly and gradually to help him both accept and become comfortable with pressure. In the show ring, he sought to build up the horse’s confidence, so he started with smaller fences, beginning in the 1.30m divisions. As confidence and rideability increased, O’Brien incrementally raised the bar. Balou has repeatedly responded, and the gelding now views pressure as “security” in situations where he may question what is being asked of him. The pair’s CSI3* win in November marked the first FEI win of the horse’s career, and in their first WEF “Saturday Night Lights” Grand Prix in January, they finished among the top 10, keeping all the jumps up and coming home with just two time faults.
“He was just a horse that needed more time. For me, he’s my number one horse, and he likes that,” O’Brien said. “He’s the first horse I see in the morning and the last one I see before I go. We took our time, and every step now he’s been moving up. We’re still just finding each step and each level, because I think he’s definitely a horse for the future.”
O’Brien currently bases out of Chansonette Farm in Wellington, FL for the winter season, while commuting to a variety of other farms in the area. He’s currently working with horses owned by the likes of Chris Kappler, Kristen Vanderveen and McLain Ward.
“The business has grown through relationships that we’ve built, or people notice what we’ve done with other horses,” O’Brien said. “We just try to make sure that we surround ourselves with very positive and happy people. I think that’s something that we need to have in our lives.”
Though development and sales will always be a part of Leap Year Farm’s program, he is now expanding the teaching side of his business. He will spend his summers based out of South Salem, NY, nearby much of his clientele. He’s also looking to build up a string for himself, either through direct investment or syndication. With eyes toward the future, O’Brien is goal setting. But make no mistake: Just as he does with his horses, he’s not rushing the process.
“We’re building it up, step by step,” he said. “I have no direct vision. I just take it as it comes.”