Obsessions of Daniel Zilla

By Riley McDermid

Photo by Spencer Brown.

For horse-crazy equestrians, there’s nothing better than soaking up every last bit of sunshine, space and beautiful equines while enjoying their communities. But don’t let all the love fool you: There’s a reason the area is known as the most competitive set of ZIP codes in the world, and it goes beyond Silicon Valley. These horse lovers are in it to win it.

Immediately upon meeting Daniel Zilla, you can understand why he’s able to command and win the trust of both extremely large, impressive animals and top-ranked equestrians alike. With an athletic build and still boyish countenance, Zilla is equally at ease with skittish young horses, ambitious youth riders and perhaps even more anxious parents, all of whom are hoping to go the distance in the increasingly competitive world of high-level riding.

Zilla came to the states with his wife and three children from Argentina a decade ago to begin building a now nationally known young jumper, breeding and training program at Peninsula powerhouse Branscomb Farms. Beginning things from scratch is a process he says he’s well familiar with himself.

“I started riding horses when I was 7 in Ecuador and then continued in Argentina when my family returned there,” Zilla reminisces. “No one in my family had horses, but I had such a passion for riding that except for school, I spent most of my free time working in local stables in exchange for a chance to ride and lessons to improve myself. As I grew both in age and ability, my parents recognized that I was committed, and they assisted me with buying my first horses in Argentina for me to develop.

Photo by Spencer Brown.

Visiting Branscomb Farms, the atmosphere of excitement mixes with a frisson of competition, moneyed success and the sheer delight of being around horseflesh, all wrapped into one. That’s a combo that’s led Branscomb from a simple operation founded in the early ’80s by namesake KC Branscomb to breed and raise young warmbloods into an established go-to producer of top riders and award-winning equine athletes, both of whom are in demand all over the world, from their 75-acre coastal home base in Half Moon Bay to as far as Eastern Europe and Asia. Zilla is its manager and trainer, as well as an established Grand Prix competitor himself.

The farm is best known for is Holsteiner bloodline mares and the Grand Prix stallion that Zilla rides, Contiano BF, one of the of the first USA-bred stallions to win the coveted 70 Stallion test and be accepted as an elite breeding stallion in a German Verband registry. Contiano’s achievements have continued through his genes, clearly: One of his sons, Camelot BF, also bred and born at Branscomb, went on to be an approved stallion himself and win the USEF Young Jumper West Coast Championship for 5-year-olds.

Much of this vaunted success Zilla humbly attributes to coach Linda Allan, as well as a constellation of marquee-name support team including KC, his family, sponsors, coaches, clients, assistants, grooms, vets and various farm staffers. But beyond that roster, Zilla says there is something about the Peninsula that makes its horse culture particularly well-suited to cranking out some of the horse world’s top talent — not to mention being one of the most enjoyable places in the world to be a horse lover.

“Most of the people I have met here want to do the best for their horses. Horses are quite sensitive and intelligent. They are very generous with their spirit and willingness to try to please us when we take the time to know them and listen to what they are trying to express to us,” Zilla muses.

Still, after all these years, the farm’s top rider says its still his love of horses, and watching the way others love them and learn from them, that keeps him coming back for more.

“I am very proud when I see a student improve in their own riding and understanding of their horse,” he says, “and I watch them perform well together in competition or at the farm the last time.”

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