Former U.S. Team Rider O’Brien Appreciates Journey
Lauren O’Brien probably could have benefited from a 12-step program for recovering international event riders.
But, as there was none when the nine-time Rolex veteran rode in the Kentucky four-star event for the last time in 2008, O’Brien, 45, had to go through upper-level withdrawal on her own.
It has been a remarkably smooth transition, thanks to O’Brien’s new focus: coaching the next generation of prospective U.S. eventing team riders.
Five years ago, O’Brien and her husband, David — who, like Lauren, has taken a step back from the upper levels in recent years — signed on to coach the Area II Young Riders for three weeks leading up to the annual North American Junior and Young Rider Championships, held at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington. Nine riders trailered into the O’Briens’ Kincora Farm in Vass last week for seven days of intensive training in flat work and jumping before the competition starts Thursday.
In 2007, the O’Briens were asked to commit to three years as Area II Young Rider coaches. After guiding the team to a gold medal at the CCI* level and a silver medal in the CCI in 2009, the O’Briens were happy to sign on for three more years.
“I wish I had done Young Riders as a kid,” O’Brien said while watching her charges hose off their lathered horses following a mid-morning jumping lesson. “I was so busy working for other people … it was just never really offered to me.”
While teaching her riders, O’Brien admits she sometimes forgets to leave her ultra-competitive nature at the gate. “It’s hard,” she said, laughing. “Your competitiveness wants to make everything perfect. I have to remind myself to back off a little, because it’s not all going to be perfect. And that to the kids it MAY be perfect.”
A native of Glastonbury, Conn., Lauren Hart grew up in a non-horsey family, and found her way to eventing the way many kids do: through her local Pony Club. She left the U.S. to work for Torrance Watkins in England right out of high school, and did her first one-star with her horse, Selected Hopps, in 1986.
She came to Southern Pines in 1988, to work for Karen Stives and Michael Plumb, and was Plumb’s traveling groom for the 1990 World Equestrian Games in Stockholm, Sweden.
That year, O’Brien took on a 5-year-old Irish gelding as a sales project. Wexford had done two novices, and O’Brien planned on showing him for a couple of months before selling him. She took him to an event in Dover, N.H., and was riding him in the warm-up ring when Stives approached to give her advice.
“She said, ‘You’d better buy him, because pretty soon you won’t be able to afford him,’” O’Brien recalled, smiling.
After selling her own thoroughbred eventer, and asking her grandparents for a loan, O’Brien was able to buy Wexford — or “Lockie” — for herself. They competed at Rolex four times (1995-96 and 1998-99) and were on the gold medal winning team at the 1999 Pan American Games in Winnipeg, Canada.
Though Wexford had already been imported when O’Brien acquired him, she was so impressed with his foundation that she began looking to Ireland for more eventing prospects. O’Brien estimates she and David, whom she met in Southern Pines and married 11 years ago, have imported more than 60 Irish horses, including David’s former advanced horse Fox In Flight, Summer Hill (another of David’s upper level mounts now being ridden at the lower levels by one of the O’Brien’s students, Erin Rothweiler) and recently retired local legend Able Sportsfield, owned and ridden by Michele Lobsinger, of Southern Pines.
“The Irish horses have a great foundation,” O’Brien said. “They’re not broke until they’re 4, and they’re taken out hunting so they already know how to look out for themselves. They have a ton of limestone in the soil over there so their bones are really solid.
“A lot of times (in the U.S.) you get, ‘Oh, I can’t ride her because she’s always lame, she bites, she rears … so I’ll breed her!’ They don’t do that over there. They only breed quality. They put a lot of time and effort into it, and they’re proud of it.”
As if one Irish horse-of-a-lifetime weren’t enough, O’Brien was lucky enough to have two cross her path. After Wexford injured a tendon in 1996 that forced an almost two-year layoff, O’Brien began shopping for a young prospect.
She found one in Dunrath Alto — “Guinness” — and imported him as a 7-year-old in 1998. Guinness packed O’Brien around Rolex fives times, though technically he carried two people in 2003, when O’Brien was 20 weeks pregnant with her oldest daughter, Ailish. In 2007, 3-year-old Ailish paid the 17.2-hand gelding back for the free ride by walking him in the vet box after cross-country at Rolex … which must have been a sight.
“People sort of ask, if you had it to do again (ride in a four-star while five months pregnant), would you?” O’Brien said. “Honestly, I think I would. I was never nervous, beyond the normal nerves you get riding at Rolex.”
While Lockie was an all-business, ride-me-but-don’t-try-to-pet-me kind of horse, Guinness is a gentle giant who seems to prefer the company of people.
“He’s the kindest, most intuitive, sweetest horse,” O’Brien said of the 20-year-old gelding, now retired and ruling Kincora with an iron hoof. “Wexford didn’t like people. Guinness loves people … NEEDS people. Doesn’t have a problem letting you know he needs you. The team never liked him because he never blew anyone away, but that horse finished every single three-day he ever did … trotted up every Sunday morning.”
In comparing the two horses, O’Brien finds it hard to equate Lockie’s scope and talent with Guinness’ unconventional jumping technique.
“Although Guinness could jump a house, he never had a good canter, so you never knew how he did that,” she said, laughing. “Lockie was extraordinarily correct. Guinness did it his way. Guinness melted in the ring; Lockie just marched down that center line like, ‘Here I am.’”
O’Brien’s current mount, Little Swift, recently moved up to intermediate at the Virginia Three Day Event and Horse Trials. A 9-year-old Swedish Warmblood gelding, Little Swift was imported from England by Carolina Horse Park executive director Jane Murray in 2007.
“Jane did a beautiful job with him,” O’Brien says of Little Swift, known as “Ellis” to his family and friends. “All I had to do was get on him and build a partnership. He’s quiet, he’s sweet, he doesn’t pull any punches. He’s a blast.”
Though she clearly has the horse, O’Brien says she has no desire to revisit the stress of team-focused competition. “A lot of horses go by the wayside at the team level,” she said. “I can’t be around that stuff. That’s not a healthy place for me to be. They do what they have to do: They produce a team that will win a medal. And unfortunately, it doesn’t matter how.”
O’Brien is encouraged by the affection and care she sees her Young Riders lavish on their own horses.
And as gratifying as she knows winning a medal would be to them, she hopes they remember it’s supposed to be fun … even at the top levels.
O’Brien remembers standing in front of Rood and Riddle Equine Clinic in Lexington in 1996 after being told that Wexford’s tendon injury was so severe he would never compete again.
“But he was all I had, in life, in general, so I put everything I had into getting him better,” O’Brien said. “I was not going to hear that. I can remember to this day walking out and thinking, ‘Oh my God. I never appreciated what I had.’ I was so wrapped up in all the Team stuff, and the ‘being good enough, am I good enough, will I ever be good enough?’ I never stopped and just enjoyed it. From that moment forward I enjoyed every second I had on him.”
Lockie was euthanized last year at 25. He is buried near the shady corner of the pasture where he and Guinness often napped.
“Guinness was very protective of Lockie,” O’Brien said fondly, “but Lockie always had the last word.”
Contact Stephanie Diaz at MediaPlan88@aol.com.
More like this story