Apr 13, 2024

Now On Course: AEC Dreaming After a 30-Year Hiatus with Kelly O'Brien

Photos courtesy of Kelly O'Brien

Kelly O’Brien has her eye on a prize.

“Pretty much the rest of this season will be targeted towards getting fired up for the AEC,” says O’Brien, 54. She and B E Never Say Never, a 19-year-old Dutch Warmblood, have qualified for the 2024 USEA American Eventing Championships (AEC) presented by Nutrena Feeds already, thanks to decisively winning all three of their 2024 outings thus far.

The 2024 AEC will be held Aug. 27 through Sept. 1 at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Kentucky.

“I would say we’re going there to win!” said Susie Beale, who runs Cairn O’Mount Stables with her daughter, Amanda Beale-Clement, in Malvern, Pennsylvania. Beale owns Connor (Spirit House x Renkum Blathainn), who she said is talented, but not necessarily a packer. He keeps a rider on their toes, she said.

“He’s a good guy,” Beale said. “He definitely knows his job. But at the same time, he’s got a sharp edge to him. He’s the first to spook at a golf cart or at a plastic bag floating by.”

O’Brien hopes that she and Connor, with whom she’s partnered for just over a year, will be in contention for one of the Beginner Novice championship divisions this year. Best case would be a win on their dressage score, which the duo has done eight of 16 times together.

“Connor is a phenomenal dressage horse,” said O'Brien. “He’s a great jumper, too, but he excels in the dressage ring. He’s got a lot of buttons that I’m learning to push, and he provides instant feedback when I’m not doing something right, which is phenomenal for me.”

O’Brien and Connor started competing together in late 2022 after O’Brien returned to the saddle following a 30-year hiatus from the horse world. The duo won nine of 13 horse trials in 2023 at the Beginner Novice level and recently were awarded the 2023 Catoctin Sporthorses Night Magic Memorial Trophy for Open Beginner Novice Champion and the American Rising Perpetual Trophy for Adult Amateur Beginner Novice Champion as part of the 2023 USEA Area II year-end awards.

The two trophies come on the heels of a very successful first season for O’Brien, who gave up horses when she headed to college as a teenager. She said Connor has been an excellent partner to help her build her confidence in the saddle as she’s discovered the sport of eventing.

“He’s full of spunk, and for as old and experienced as he is, he’ll never not take a chance to find something he’s seen 100 times truly frightening,” O’Brien said. “But when I do the right things on him, he’s phenomenal. He’s so fun. He loves cross-country, and he loves it even more now that I’m a little more relaxed up there and we can gallop along.”

She said that when she first started jumping, “It was terrifying. Some days, it still is. But thankfully, Susie has such a fantastic ability for coaching. I knew she would never ask me to do something that the horse I was on couldn’t do successfully.”

O’Brien first learned to ride as a little girl while growing up in Northeast Philadelphia. There was a horse farm near her house, where eventually, she’d end up spending hours every week.

“I was a horse-crazy little girl, probably when I popped out, but I’m not from a horsey family,” she said. “I used to walk over and hang on the fence and watch the horses. I begged my parents to take me for riding lessons.”

Her parents arranged for her to take weekly lessons, but “of course, once a week wasn’t enough,” O’Brien said. So she plotted how she could get more time in the saddle each week, and decided that if she started grooming horses, she’d earn money to offset the cost of lessons. That morphed into spending every day at the barn, and eventually, her parents bought her an Arabian mare named Abbi. The young girl and her first horse showed English pleasure and saddle seat equitation.

“After a couple of years, it became kind of clear that my aspirations and her ability were not quite aligned,” O’Brien recalls. When she was 13, she sold Abbi and got “Sam”, a 4-year-old Arabian. With Sam, she continued competing in saddle seat equitation and English pleasure and added in-hand classes to her equine resume. O’Brien and Sam were strong in-hand competitors, earning a trip to the 1986 U.S. Arabian Horse Association National Championships in Louisville, Kentucky. Sam got sick on the way to Kentucky and wasn’t at his best during the competition, she said, adding that “just to qualify and get there in an open class at 16 years old was a pretty big thrill.”

When O’Brien graduated from high school, she made the difficult decision to give up horses. After earning her undergraduate degree in 1992 from the University of Delaware, O’Brien relocated to Colorado with the hopes of being accepted to the Colorado State University veterinary school. However, after three years of not making the cut for the competitive program, she took a pragmatic approach to finding her next path.

“I literally sat down with the newspaper on a Sunday—I’m dating myself here—which is when the help-wanted ads [were published],” she says with a chuckle. “I looked at jobs and decided that if I was going to go back to school, where I was going to get a job was in nursing or computers, and I didn’t want to be a nurse.”

O’Brien switched her major to computer science, earned a second bachelor’s degree from CSU in 1997, and eventually made her way back to the East Coast. She’s still in computers, as the Principal Engagement Manager for Workday, a software company that specializes in products for human resources and finance. It was during the COVID-19 pandemic that she first started thinking about riding horses again.

“When COVID hit, like a lot of other people, I was sitting around and thinking about what I could do,” she said. “I thought, ‘Why am I not riding?’ It had been such a passion of mine up until I went to college.” She’d “dabbled in a lot of things before” she got back in the saddle, including three years as a competitive road cyclist. However, once the idea of riding horses again took hold, she said she realized she “was itching to get back to it.”

She decided to try jumping, which she hadn’t done as a youngster, and asked around about where she could pursue lessons near her home.

“I kept hearing ‘Susie Beale. Susie Beale. You should contact Susie Beale,’ ” says O’Brien. So she did. In May 2022, Beale was back in Malvern after having wintered in Aiken, and O’Brien took her first lesson and soon was jumping under Beale’s watchful eye.

O’Brien is thrilled to be back on horseback, although there was some ramping up required, despite all of her hours logged on a bike saddle.

“I was really surprised that even though I was physically fit, all the muscles and little support muscles that need to be fired up [to stay on a horse] were sore,” she said, adding that she discovered her inner child again once back in a barn. “I’m like my 10-year-old self in a 50-something-year-old body. I love horses. I love to be around them and be in that environment.”

And it shows, said Beale.

“She’s passionate about horses and passionate about learning,” Beale said. “She’s always trying to improve her skill sets and is very mindful about the horses. At the competitions, she gets a little nervous, but we have fun. We go as a team, and there’s a lot of camaraderie, and everybody roots for each other and helps each other. If she’s not competing, she’s the first one to help.”

O’Brien said she slowly but surely worked her way into jumping “a full course and then on to the tiniest of cross-country jumps” at Beale’s farm, and then discovered how truly fun cross-country could be after a schooling outing with Beale to Windurra USA, home of Olympic eventer Body Martin and his wife, Silva Martin, an international dressage rider.

“I was pretty white-knuckled with heart palpitations but once I’d done it, I was hooked,” O’Brien said. “It really helped build my confidence to not be paralyzed with terror in the start box.”

O’Brien competed for the first time, with Connor, at an unrecognized horse trial and a combined test in October 2022 and then they did their first USEA-recognized horse trial at the January 2023 Stable View Aiken Opener. They won the Open Beginner Novice division on their dressage score of 26.2.

“The first one was a highlight because after I walked [cross-country] and ran the course, my friends were telling me they call it the Beginner Novice Olympics because all the [fences] are maxed out,” O’Brien said. “It seemed huge, but then I went back and did it this year, and it didn’t seem as high, so I must be getting used to it.”

In 2023, the duo completed 12 horse trials, winning eight of them and placing third and fourth in two others. O’Brien chose to withdraw at another because “the conditions were too bad to go cross-country” and then at the other where they didn’t place, O’Brien said they were eliminated on cross-country when she made a “rookie mistake” of skipping a jump.

“I’m, like, the walk-it-three-times person,” she said with a laugh, adding she was surprised to make the mistake. “I walked it three times, and I thought, ‘How did I miss it?’”

Next up for O’Brien and Connor are outings to the New Jersey Horse Park, and they’re also competing in dressage shows so O’Brien can earn her United States Dressage Federation bronze medal. And firmly on the horizon is the AEC, where O’Brien hopes they’ll have a strong showing to cement their successful partnership. After that, she’s considering a move up, likely with a different partner. For now, though, she’s taking it one day at a time.

“I’m trying not to get ahead of myself, but I would like to move up and test myself,” she said. “I feel like I have a lot of options.”

Do you know a horse or rider with a cool story? Email Lindsay at [email protected] for a chance to be featured.

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