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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Irishman Finds a Home on the 'Prairies'

MTRaymond O'Brien on Leticia, one of 10 horses he keeps in Golubkino, where he has lived for five years. He came to Russia on a business trip in 1994 and never left.
GOLUBKINO, Moscow Region -- In this village south of Moscow, everyone knows the thin man in the Wellington boots. When he walks by, the children of the village nod and say "Hello, Ray" in a cheery if uncanny Irish accent.

He is Raymond O'Brien, 54, or Ray to everyone in Golubkino, a village of about 150 people 70 kilometers south of Moscow, where he lives with his family and an eclectic collection of horses.

An expert in security systems, O'Brien works in embassies and businesses in Moscow and then heads home at the end of the working day to ride through the vast expanse of land that begins just beyond his small house and yard. What he calls the prairies.

"You come home, get a cup of tea and then you can go out and ride for hours without stopping. There are no fences," he said.

A business trip first brought him to Russia 11 years ago.

"I came for six weeks and I have been here ever since," O'Brien said, standing in the kitchen of his house, where he has lived for the past five years. Through the window, chickens and ducks wandered around the backyard, clucking into the homemade stables, where they attacked a large stack of hay as his 10 horses waited for their feed.

The horses inside include Alaska, saved from the slaughterhouse, and Malvina, lassoed from a herd running wild on a neighboring collective farm. A horse who died is buried on a nearby hill, after O'Brien refused to let the neighbors eat him.

His friend Andrei, whom he calls Aidan, said O'Brien had done more in his life than Forrest Gump, though horses have usually been in some way involved.

Being on a horse is as natural as breathing for him. Off a horse, O'Brien has tales that come fast and quick, and perhaps sometimes long.

"I don't sleep much," he said, pointing to his forehead. He said he landed on his head when he fell out of a fifth-floor window when he was a small boy and spent a month in a coma. Since then, a few hours' sleep a night is all he has managed.

"It was the seventh floor the last time you told the story," said Andrei, who had driven down to the village on a Sunday for a ride.

O'Brien grew up in the 1950s on a farm with more than 50 horses in the wilds of Wicklow in the west of Ireland. He rode bareback through the forests, hunting young deer with a bow and arrow from the horse.

"All my life has had horses," he said. "It's in my blood, my parents' and their parents' before them."

Desperate to ride races, O'Brien left Ireland for England when he was 14 to become a jockey. He showed pictures of himself as a skinny, tanned teenager, sitting bent over the back of a horse on a beach in Merseyside, where he went riding with one of the Beatles, whose horse he was looking after.

"That's Paul McCartney's horse," he said, pointing to the same picture. Not that it meant that much to him when he was riding with McCartney and his then girlfriend, Jane Asher, on the Kirby sands. "We didn't listen to the music in the mountains."

A sudden growth spurt put an end to his hopes of becoming a jockey and he returned home to go to college. He eventually became an expert in security systems, but not before trying out a number of jobs, from working on the railroads to helping out some of Ireland's best trainers, breaking horses and performing as a horse stuntman in films.

Twenty years after he had tried unsuccessfully to get a visa for a motorcycle trip to the Soviet Union, a business trip to Russia in 1994 changed his life. He broke up with his wife, settled permanently in Russia -- even if the kids in the village speak better English than he does Russian -- and lives with his partner of seven years, Marina Lyutko, and their 18-month-old son, Daniel.

Since moving to the village five years ago, O'Brien has bought horses that others had given up on. He found Malvina in a herd that was roaming the land of a collective farm virtually unchecked.

Vladimir Filonov / MT

Leticia bucking but not unseating O'Brien, who grew up with horses in west Ireland.

"She was running free on the prairie," he said, his eyes lighting up as he told the story of riding out with the local herders and picking out the wild mare. "It took five men to put on the head collar. It was like in the Wild West."

Another time, a local man came up to him and said, "Do you want to buy a horse?" and took O'Brien to the local slaughterhouse. There, visibly out of her mind, was Alaska, trapped between boxes as on either side of her the slaughterhouse work went on. The mare kicked him, but he took her home.

Together with Lyutko, a painter who since meeting him has become a dressage rider and a trained veterinary assistant, O'Brien is building a modern stable for more than 20 horses in the village, where he hopes to concentrate on show jumping, drag hunting and teaching.

When O'Brien first came to Golubkino and rented the small house he still lives in from a vet he met at a show jumping competition, the villagers, most of whom work on a local cattle farm, were wary of the horseriding Irishman. Over time, they grew to accept him.

When villagers decided to privatize the land under their houses, partly because of a fear of development in the area, O'Brien paid their attorneys' fees. In return, they agreed to allow him to buy the common land nearby where he will build his stables.

Lyutko and O'Brien have become well-known in show jumping and dressage circles, both for winning and for the way they approach the competitions.

"Everyone thinks it's very serious, they look as if they want to kill you," Lyutko said. "Ray is smiling and waving at everyone, and then no one can remember who won, but they remember Ray."

They told the story of one incredulous wealthy horseman who openly sneered when he saw O'Brien enter a draft horse in a show jumping contest, boasting how his horse had cost $50,000 compared to the $400 O'Brien had paid for his. Almost inevitably, the horse that was bred to pull a plow jumped a clear round and won.

Vladimir Filonov / MT

O'Brien and Marina Lyutko at home with 18-month-old son Daniel, who is wearing a medal won in an equestrian competition.

With another horse, O'Brien would stop after every jump and give the horse a sugar lump. Another time, with a particularly stubborn horse, O'Brien got off, reduced the jump to 50 centimeters and did the jump himself as an incentive for his horse and to the bemusement of the audience.

When a horse that had been with O'Brien for more than a year went down with colic, he got the villagers to help him put the horse back on his feet in an attempt to save him. The horse, a black stallion called Noi, stood up once but then lay back down. As the horse was dying, the villagers offered O'Brien $150 for the body. He bluntly refused.

"You fool, we could eat that," he recalled them saying. "We'll even give you a bit."

He was too sentimental about the horse to agree, and instead got the still-grumbling villagers to help him dig a grave for Noi, on a high spot with a view of the prairies all around.