There’s an Alden Corrigan black-and-white photo from the 2023 Platinum Performance USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship (Kentucky) of John French’s mount Paradigm with his groom, Leo Basualto, in the winner’s circle. Basualto is kissing “Mikey’s” nose as his owner, Meredith Lipke, pats Mikey’s neck in appreciation. French said the picture describes Basualto and Mikey’s bond to a T.
“Leo loves his job and the horses,” French said. “He’s not just a groom; he cares about the whole team. He really cares for all of our horses and how they do, and I think that’s hard to find nowadays.”
It’s hard to believe that a couple of years ago, Basualto knew almost nothing about showing hunters on the A circuit. Basualto, now 33, had cared for grand prix jumpers in his native Chile, but he had never experienced the United States’ show circuit before.
“When I started working for John, I didn’t know anything about him,” Basualto said. “I looked John up on the internet and learned as much as I could about him. I never imagined I would be working for someone like John after one year in America—he wins a lot!”
Basualto had only been in the States for a year when French’s barn manager, Kim Davidson, hired him at the end of 2022.
“At the time, he was grooming for Andrew Vaziri,” she said. “Last fall, Andrew texted John and I about Leo and told us that Leo was ready to move on to do bigger things. He thought that Leo would be a good fit for us.”
For the past several years French’s horses have spent downtime at Vaziri’s barn in Davidsonville, Maryland, when they travel to the state for the Capital Challenge and Washington International horse shows. Davidson and French met Basualto there and saw his work ethic in action while caring for Vaziri’s horses.
“Two days after the text, I had Leo on a plane to Wellington [Florida],” Davidson said. “I picked him up from the airport, went to the grocery store, and he’s never left!”
At the beginning, Basualto’s charges were mostly sales horses to give him more experience.
“When he started with us, he would come to the show ring with just the horse and no towel or ring bag,” Davidson said. “But as Leo’s skill set improved, we gave him more consistent horses to care for. At that point, I asked him which horses he wanted, and he told me Milagro, Mikey, and Babylon, because they’re the best horses in the barn.”
To this day, Basualto is responsible for the daily care of those three horses. He also helps with the rest of the horses as needed.
“Leo never stays at home now; he’s always at the shows with us,” Davidson said. “Between here and Florida, I have 13 to 14 guys, and Leo is a part of my A-team for the shows.”
While he once showed up to the ring empty-handed, Basualto is now prepared for anything—so much so that French jokes that he doesn’t know how Basualto carries his overflowing backpack to the show rings.
“He’s got Gatorades and snacks for everyone, and all the in-gates know him now,” French said. “He just loves to be a part of everything.”
Basualto joined the KPF team right around the time Paradigm won his first USHJA International Hunter Derby in December 2022, and has been part of many of Mikey’s firsts since then, from his first derby win during Week 11 of the Winter Equestrian Festival (Florida) right up to his August victory in the Platinum Performance USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship.
“Leo had two horses in the Derby Finals that were in top 10—Mikey won it, and Milagro was 10th,” Davidson said. “It was a huge deal for Leo all-around. He also helped with Ocean Road and Ariana Marnell in the Derby Finals consolation class, and Ariana ended up tied for first with [professional rider] Colin [Syquia]. Leo’s horses mostly just do the special classes and derbies. If the class is special for John, then Leo wants to do well.”
And Basualto loves a good photo op: All the horse show photographers know him and take candid pictures of Basualto with his horses.
“He loves to get in the pictures,” Davidson said with a laugh. “He doesn’t need John in the pictures; he just wants him and the horse. Leo posts selfies and reels with them on his Instagram all the time. The smile on his face in the photos—he’s so proud of the horses, and he always wants them to do well.”
Basualto’s affinity for top horses means he’s found himself center ring many times since derby finals. At Capital Challenge, Babylon was grand junior hunter, 3’6” Junior Challenge winner and won Trip of the Show with Marnell along with winning the WCHR Pro Challenge class with French for the third year in a row. Basualto himself was the recipient of the Groom’s Award for the grand junior champion.
During the Pennsylvania National Horse Show’s Junior Weekend in Harrisburg, “Crumbles” again won the grand junior title after topping all three jumping classes with scores in the 90s to claim the small junior hunter, 16-17, division championship, and Basualto again won the Groom’s Award for his hard work—twice, one for each of Crumbles’ championships.
And after Crumbles won the small junior hunter, 16-17, and grand junior hunter titles at the Washington International (Maryland) Basualto was again center ring to accept another Groom’s Award.
Although Basualto does not have any children of his own, he considers his three main horses to be just like his own kids.
“Each horse that I take care of is special in their own way,” he said. “They have come into my life for a special reason.”
What Davidson loves the most about Basualto is his investment in the whole KPF team, including Olympic show jumper Kent Farrington’s side of the business.
“Leo is a team player and our team cheerleader,” Davidson said. “He’s the one that keeps everyone laughing and makes the hard days easier. If someone else has a big class, he’s going to go to the ring to drop off the rails needed for schooling, or he brings up the ring bag, or he comes up to give the other guy a hand. Leo also has his own ClipMyHorse account so he can follow all of the shows, and he will watch Kent, our riders, and the clients’ rounds religiously. Leo has learned so much in his short time with us, and we’re so grateful for his help.”