Jennie Brannigan: Eventers as Exercise Riders?

Jennie aboard Apologize. Photo by Andie Bicho. Jennie aboard Apologize. Photo by Andie Bicho.

One night after Rolex last spring, Jennie Brannigan decided to venture out of her comfort zone and try something new. After some prodding from her friends, Jennie went to renowned race trainer and Hall of Fame show jumper Michael Matz’s barn to try her hand at exercise riding. “I happened to have a day off, and I only went to gallop once, but I ended up falling in love,” Jennie said. An established eventer at the top level of the sport, Jennie has picked up a new hobby working for Michael as an exercise rider.

Jim Wofford wrote a research article for Practical Horseman that dissects the galloping position that is used for cross country riding versus the position that jockeys use. I found this article interesting because there are similarities between the two positions, and finding ways to integrate elements from both can be useful in creating the most effective position for event riding.

“One important finding of the study is that each time horses take a galloping stride, there is a vertical displacement of their withers as well as the horizontal reach of their legs. This means that if riders stand straight-legged, each stride horses take must push the weight of the riders up, as well as carry the riders’ weight forward. In effect, a straight-legged rider is driving his weight straight down into his horse’s withers, while a ­rider who gallops with a bent knee “floats” over his horse.” — Jim Wofford in “The Science of Galloping

I asked Jennie if she noticed any of the traits from her exercise riding position transferring into her cross-country position, or vice versa. “I will say that it is completely different because your stirrups are so short,” Jennie said. “The muscles used are different, but I’ve evented some pretty strong Thoroughbreds, and I think it would help me now going into handling a strong horse and learning how to handle and go with it. It is a certain skill that galloping helps.”

What about the overall benefits of exercise riding? Jennie is very grateful for the opportunity to work for such a wonderful trainer in Michael, and she thinks that just getting out of her normal comfort zone has been instrumental.

“David (O’Connor) is very keen on me doing it, and he said that it’s a very unique experience to go that fast, even though there’s no reason why I would ever go that fast eventing. Pulling yourself out of your comfort zone and opening your eyes, being open to meeting new people and trying new things and having a lot of respect for things that you don’t know anything about is important.”

As far as the differences between her event horses and the racehorses she has been around recently, Jennie said she has a whole new sense of respect for the racehorses. “I couldn’t have Cambalda trotting towards horses galloping the opposite direction without him being an orangutan, and therefore I have a lot of respect for OTTBs to be able to handle themselves in that sort of situation.”

I also asked Jennie for any advice or major takeaways for those who may be interested in exercise riding.

“I think the trainer you work for is important. I wouldn’t tell some kid to just go to any track and start riding horses. For me, having an interest outside of just eventing has been a big mental improvement. I was the fittest I’ve ever been from exercise riding. Michael has been out to watch me jump, and there are just so many connections to make when you mix the two worlds together.”

Many thanks to Jennie for taking the time to tell us about her experience as an exercise rider. We love to see eventers branching out to experience new areas of the horse world.

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