Saturday, Sep. 23, 2023

Amateur Showcase: Danielle Flavin Keeps Her Cool From The ICU To The Show Ring



Amateur rider Danielle Flavin and her mother and trainer, Leann Kelly, have a ritual whenever Flavin heads into the show ring: Kelly calls to her daughter, “have fun,” and Flavin responds, “heels down, thumbs up.”

“It’s basically as simple as it gets,” Flavin said. “That’s what you tell a beginner in their first lesson. But the whole purpose is, this is a pretty intense lifestyle, but if you’re not having fun, none of it would be worth it.”

This mother-daughter ritual speaks to the ethos of the program at Winslow Farm, in Valatie, New York. The training is grounded in a philosophy of solid basics paired with a joy for riding. 

Flavin called on her strong fundamentals last weekend at the Saratoga WIB Spectacular in Stillwater, New York, where she won the grand amateur-owner hunter championship on her mother’s homebred mare, Layla. The win is especially sweet because Layla, a 14-year-old Dutch Warmblood/Holsteiner by Ariadus, is the last offspring out of Kelly’s grand prix mare, Gigi. 

Danielle Flavin and Layla won the grand amateur-owner hunter championship on July 16 at the Saratoga WIB Spectacular in Stillwater, N.Y. Dashing Paws Photography Photo

“She’s always the proud mom and trainer,” Flavin said of her mother. “It’s probably rewarding to know she trained both of us right from the beginning. It’s her horse and her daughter; we make a good pair.”  

Pressure Makes Perfect

Flavin is good under pressure. It’s part of what makes her both a strong competitor in the show ring and a good nurse. While Flavin shows regularly most weekends and helps at the family farm, she also holds down a full-time career in the medical field.

For four years, Flavin worked as an intensive care unit nurse, and now has a role in medical management. She appreciates how pressure can influence performance. 

“There’s definitely pressure when you’re in the ICU in nursing,” she said. “But I think as long as you’re confident in your skills and your knowledge, the pressure is actually a good thing. It makes me perform at my best if I feel a little pressure. I feel like it sharpens me.”

For Flavin, who grew up on her grandfather’s horse farm in East Nassau County, New York, horses were an inevitability, but she wasn’t sure what she would do for a career. Her grandfather’s “better half,” Kate O’Hara, is a horsewoman who was also an ICU nurse, and her example may have planted a seed for Flavin. 

“She worked nights and she could be at the barn every day,” Flavin said. “I was like, that’s really cool. You have a little bit of flexibility in your shifts. I kind of put that in the back of my mind for a while.”


Eventually, Flavin decided to pursue nursing school in her late 20s. 

“I honestly thought, ‘I’ll go to school just so I have a degree,’ ” she said. “But nursing is not something you really do casually. As I completed the program, I realized I really liked the science portion of it.”

Out of nursing school, Flavin moved directly into critical care and found that the intensity of the work was compatible with her meticulous personality. 

“It’s very hands-on, very intense,” she said. “In the ICU, we have a lot of different machines and medications, and it’s all very important. None of it is just because. A lot of it is life and death.”

When her daughter was born, Flavin transitioned out of ICU nursing into medical management to have a more consistent schedule. She calls her current role her “dream job:” She is able to work from home—and home, for Flavin, is the literal center of the family’s horse operation. 

“I built my house on the farm, so as I look out of my office, I see my horses in the paddock,” Flavin said. “The jumping ring is right in my front yard. It’s pretty special. Even in the moment, I’m like, this is amazing.”

Flavin is delighted to be able to raise her daughter Giselle, now 7, on a horse farm, just as she was raised. Her community, including her mother and stepfather, Jeff Jones, have helped her balance her career in nursing and passion for horses with parenting. 

“Watching [my daughter] integrate into our little community here—everybody embraces her,” she said. “When she was smaller it was, ‘Somebody get Giselle, somebody watch her so I can go to the ring,’ or somebody’s on the golf cart with her, or somebody’s chasing her through the wildflowers. Everybody’s on board.”

Growing Up In The Show Ring

Flavin sees echoes of her own horsey childhood in her daughter’s upbringing. She initially learned to ride from her grandfather, Dan Kelly, whose style for teaching his 10-year-old granddaughter was a bit rough-and-tumble. 

“He would put me on every horse in the barn and just set jumps,” she said with a laugh. “When you’re a kid, you’re fearless, so you just learn. It was pretty amazing.” 

While she learned to ride on a range of horses, Flavin remembers when he brought home a pony just for her. 


“He got me a pony that he had found,” she said. “His name was Frosty, and he was a little Appaloosa that was running off with children in a school horse program, so he thought to bring him home for me.”

They were able to turn the naughty pony into a winning children’s jumper, and Flavin and Frosty were competitive at shows like Washington International and Pennsylvania National. The two showed together until Flavin outgrew the pony at age 14. 

That’s about the time when her mother stepped in to polish up Flavin’s riding style, and she began taking regular lessons from Leann. Luckily, the mother-daughter duo seemed made to work together. 

“We never argue or disagree, really,” Flavin said. “I think mainly because I’ve seen the incredible things that she’s done with unconventional horses and difficult horses, so I have more than enough respect for her to really value what she’s saying. And we work together as a pretty good team.”

Riding is a family business for nurse Danielle Flavin, shown here in 2018 with (from left) mother Leann Kelly, daughter Giselle Flavin, and grandmother Joan Kelly. Photo Courtesy Of Danielle Flavin

During the week, while Flavin works with her window view of the paddocks, Kelly keeps the horses primed for horse shows on weekends. 

“My mom kind of keeps [Layla] in condition during the week for me when I’m working,”  she  said. “I ride on weekends, mostly. I have a lesson on each horse on the weekend. This time of year we spend most weekends at horse shows—constant turnover.”

Despite all the action, Flavin said her mother focuses on keeping the barn a safe and joyful place.

“My mom is probably one of the most positive people you’ll ever meet,” she said. “She is the center of our universe here. Everybody gravitates towards that positive energy.”

“For the farm and her program and all of our clients, we want this to be their sanctuary,” she added. “Everybody works all week or has other lives doing other things, and when they get here, this just needs to be like a really peaceful, happy place.” 

For Flavin, that focus on peace and balance has been a key to making her unrelenting work and show schedule not just doable, but enjoyable. 

Her mother’s legacy—to do right by the horses while having fun—is an example Flavin is happy to set for her own daughter. She knows how special it was for her Kelly to see Flavin ride the horse she bred from a beloved mare, and she can’t help but daydream. 

“Maybe one day, my daughter will get to do [Layla] in the junior hunters when she’s a little older,” she said. 

Whatever Giselle is passionate about, you can be sure that Flavin will impart the same simple wisdom her own mother does before each ride: “have fun.”



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