By Yvette Morrissey.
Ellie O’Brien, horse trainer and founder of Finesse Equestrian, has traveled the world and worked with many of the best horse trainers to develop her unique style of training.
Ellie grew up in Rotorua and started riding when she was just a few months old on her grandfather’s Clydesdale. Her parents weren’t particularly horsey, but she twisted their arm and at age six she began riding lessons.
“I had to get my grades up to a good standard before I could start the lessons,” she says.
She went to Pony Club and competed in gymkhana games like most horse mad kids. A self-confessed “speed demon” she quickly became interested in show jumping.
Her parents purchased a green five year-old pony for Ellie to bring on, and it wasn’t long before they were competing mini grand prix and speed jumping up to 1.30m.
“I have very strong memories of her when she was green- she was stubborn, would buck and wasn’t too keen to go certain places!”
The pony was named Soul Sista, who, after Ellie sold her to the Lambert family, went on to place second in Pony of the Year behind Amanda Wilson and Showtym Viking.
At 17, Ellie then purchased an unbroken, four year-old Irish Hunter mare called Touch of Mischief- her first real experience starting a horse from scratch.
“Because I’d always ridden problem horses or younger ones it taught me to be patient. Starting Touch of Mischief helped develop my interest in horsemanship.”
At age 19, Ellie fell pregnant and give birth to her daughter, Bella.
“It’s definitely hard juggling motherhood and horses. There’s no such thing as creating a perfect balance- it’s an area you have to integrate.”
Being a mother made Ellie more mindful of the risks associated with show jumping. When Bella was 18 months old, Ellie suffered a broken neck after Touch of Mischief fell and rolled on her while jumping. The accident ended her show jumping career.
“My accident made me question a lot of things. Show Jumping wasn’t worth the risk, especially after having Bella. I knew I wanted to continue with horses but I wanted to find a better way of doing it. I also wanted to understand horses better.”
LEARNING FROM THE BEST
In 2011, Ellie met the Double Dans at Equi Days.
“Meeting them was the first big eye opener that showed me you can make a living off horses. I thought it was achievable until I met them. I saw how many people and horses they were helping, and I started to think ‘I can do this!’”
She stayed with them for a few weeks and watched them teach their horses tricks and got to ride their horses and learn a few tricks herself.
She returned to New Zealand, when she discovered Buck Brannaman was going to be in New Zealand the following weekend.
“Buck is absolutely amazing, and his style was so different to what I was used to.”
She wrote down every word he spoke, and built up the courage to go and speak to him.
“It was so funny because I don’t get star struck easily. The first thing I said to him was ‘I want to be like you when I grow up, what do I have to do?’ He smiled at me and said ‘Find a good mentor, take advice from the right people and ride as many horses as you can’.”
Taking his advice, she began volunteering at a trekking business that owned 90 horses.
“I started a bunch of horses for them, and videoed and wrote down everything I did with them.“
Word spread of her affinity with horses, and she began accepting outside horses for starting and training.
In 2013, Ellie followed a boyfriend to America when he was picked to race NASCAR. While she was there, she contacted Warwick Schiller.
“What I really liked about Warwick was what you see online and in his videos is what you get in real life.”
She ended up being his working pupil for two months in California. Warwick assigned her horses ranging from problem horses to young horses, and even some top reining horses.
“It was great to play around on such a variety of horses, including some of Warwick’s trained horses to feel what was really good.”
One of the most memorable horses was a large 17.2hh Irish Draft horse that Warwick gave Ellie as a project.
“He knew all the tricks in the book- rearing, bucking, and in every direction you didn’t want him to go, he did.”
Ellie recalls holding on to the saddle horn as he bucked when she asked him to go forwards.
“He just didn’t understand the cues. I took him through the programme, found the holes in his training, and he ended up leaving in a much better place. The experience was hugely rewarding- and it taught me all of the problems that horses have are symptoms of smaller things.”
At only 25, Ellie has met and worked with some of the world’s best horse trainers. While you could put it down to luck, or being in the right place at the right time, Ellie has a simpler explanation.
“I just approached them at events they were at or on Facebook. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help. Most of the time people are willing to give you some advice or let you watch them train.”
Last year, Ellie was riding a young horse when she suffered a serious fall.
“He was going really well, and an electric fence blew up as we went past it. He got a fright, bucked, and I came off. I couldn’t move at all, and I knew something was really wrong.”
Her L3 exploded, and doctors were uncertain if she would ever walk again. She needed to undergo an operation, and there was a chance the bone could sever and damage her spinal cord.
“I invested a lot into personal development over the years and I used those skills to get through without melting down. I knew regardless of the outcome I would find a way of being happy.”
Luckily, the operation went well, and eventually she got her full range of movement back.
“There are plates and pins holding me together,” she says. “Now I encourage everyone to ride with their phone. Accidents can happen to anyone at any time.”
In 2012, Ellie started her business, Finesse Equestrian, which provides services in starting, training/schooling, problem horses, lessons and clinics. She works alongside fellow horse trainer Elise Lett, and her sister, Hannah O’Brien.
While many would label Ellie as a natural horsemanship trainer, she says different.
“I don’t refer to myself as a horsemanship trainer. That term puts you in a box. To me what I do is just common sense horsemanship. My goal is to work with the horse in a way that they understand and that keeps them happy so they don’t lose any natural character. I’m always making sure that I keep on learning myself, and that I’m working with each horse as an individual.”
While natural horsemanship tends to come from a western background, Ellie believes that the line between western and English riding needs to disappear.
“More people are starting to understand that this style of training is not just for western riders and natural horsemanship people. Good riding and training is the same, no matter what tack you’re wearing, or what your discipline is.”
Currently, Ellie is taking part in the 2016 Kaimanawa Stallion Challenge. Her adopted Kaimanawa, Tama, is a good example of how effective Ellie’s training is.
“If everyone had this knowledge, the amount of riding accidents would dramatically decrease.”