Between the Ears with Jennie Saville

It seems like these days we look at each other’s lives through the lens of a highlight reel. We get to see the incredible trips, the best jumps, and the moments that we’re proud enough of to put on social media. What we don’t talk about is how much pressure this adds to athletes on both ends of the news feed.

Riders, whether professional or not, are made to feel like they ‘have to’ post something that makes them look cool and successful. Then, as we consume this content, we are stuck with the disillusioned perception that the sport is easy and that if you’re not succeeding, then maybe you aren’t cut out for it. I would like to take this opportunity to go ‘between the ears’ of some of the riders that make up our Eventing Nation and work to understand some of the real challenges this industry presents.

To read more from the Between the Ears series, click here.

Jennie Saville and Stella Artois. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

As a Certified Mental Performance Consultant, I am privy to hearing the journeys of riders from different disciplines at different stages in their career. Working on this series for Eventing Nation has given me even more insight into what riders at the top of this sport are feeling and experiencing — and it’s been awesome. Awesome to hear how open riders are about sharing the ins and outs of all the hard things that we rarely see on social media. Awesome to have readers reach out and tell me how the article helped them with something that they were struggling with.

This edition of Between the Ears is going to be a little bit different because I was on the sidelines witnessing and experiencing many of these events along with Jennie. When we sat down to do the interview for this article, we both marveled at the fact that this is the first time that we’ve had a chance to really reflect on the hardships and successes that we faced together. I know that I’ve learned a lot from Jennie and I hope that by writing this article, you guys can learn from her journey too.

Jennie Brannigan and FE Lifestyle. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s hear about how it all started…

“I got my start in riding in this little town in Illinois, just doing trail riding at a local barn. I ended up taking some lessons and doing some endurance riding. One day, I heard about three-day eventing — and I know this sounds crazy because I laugh when people say things like this, but I swear I heard about it, and I was like, ‘That’s what I should do for a living.’ And I remember having the paper omnibus in my hand and just thinking it was the coolest thing in the world even though I didn’t know what it was.”

Jennie followed this dream, and her intuition and eventually found her horse of a lifetime, Cooper. In 2008, Jennie won the Young Rider Championship on Cooper and just a year later was sent overseas to do her very first CCI4*-L competition at Bramham. “Cooper won a lot. And because of that, I had all this false confidence and put a lot of pressure on myself,” Jennie says. At Bramham, the pair was first after the dressage, but after picking up a 20 on cross country, they dropped out of the top placings.

Jennie recalls the experience as a big hit to her confidence:

“When I had that 20 at Bramham, it felt like my world was over, which is silly to think about now. Perspective is crazy, but when you get a taste of success and winning, it’s easy to become obsessed with it. At the time, it was this huge loss for me and now my time with Cooper is just a fraction of my career and I bet a ton of people don’t even know who he was.”

Fast forward 12 years and dozens of horses later and we arrive in another confidence-testing time for Jennie, where I just so happen to be along for the ride.

Jennie Brannigan and Stella Artois. Photo by Sally Spickard.

After the challenges we all faced in 2020, 2021 was looking to be an exciting year for multiple reasons. Plans that were put on hold became “full steam ahead” and we had Stella Artois (Toddie) and FE Lifestyle (Foxy) on track to do their first 5* at the Kentucky. The spring season leading up to Kentucky did not come without its challenges (because…horses) but we arrived in Kentucky ready. Unfortunately, after Foxy put in an incredible cross country round, Toddie went down in the water in a seemingly “freak accident” kind of fall. With Jennie and Toddie both OK, we were soon thereafter making arrangements to give it another go at Luhmühlen, a little over six weeks later. After a misjudged distance and a fall for Jennie early on in the course, Toddie’s 5* status was yet again put on hold.

“That was a time where I felt most defeated,” Jennie explains. “I remember going up to Erik (Duvander) and saying ‘This horse deserves to be famous, I think Boyd should ride her’ and I was questioning my abilities. And then there was so much other stuff going on in our lives, it felt like a really difficult spot to pull out of. But Erik has always been there believing in me. Even after Luhmühlen, I was put on the Boekelo team with Foxy and he selected me to be the anchor of the team and I thought ‘Wow, why? He still believes in me? That’s crazy.’ And then I was in a position where I needed to go clean for the team and I did and Erik said to me ‘This is the rider you are, this is the real you’ and I swear, ever since then I’ve been completely different.”

Coming off the high of Boekelo, Jennie and I flew back to the States and headed immediately to the 2021 Maryland 5 Star, where Toddie not only completed for the first time but did it in style with a fourth place finish.

Jennie’s ability to keep moving forward through hard times has always impressed me. As a student of Sport Psychology, I’ve always stopped to wonder “how?” How do you find the confidence within yourself to continue to get back out there with past failures staring you in the face? How are you not afraid? How can you turn it around and be so successful?

But I know how because I watched it. I was a fly on the wall for almost every lesson that Jennie took, and I don’t think Erik had anything truly negative to say. He never criticized weakness, he simply helped support, encourage, and find solutions. I think that style of coaching helped Jennie to let go of the need to win and refocus on the steps she needed to take to be successful — ironic isn’t it? The more we latch onto the outcome the further and further away we get from what we are supposed to be doing.

Jennie Brannigan and Twilightslastgleam. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

In many ways, Jennie has kept the momentum of 2021 going, adding Twlightslastgleam (Comic), an OTTB with just about every physical limitation betting against him, to her 5* roster — but unfortunately in this game, there are always bumps in the road. One of the most recent bumps came in the form of Toddie breaking down just a few fences from home at Kentucky this year. Toddie is now happily recovering at the Gardners’ farm in Chester County, PA — but obviously, that event was an emotional one. Jennie shared with me some of her thoughts on the situation:

“For me, one of the biggest obstacles in eventing is loving these horses and caring about them and having something happen where they get hurt and you kind of have to just be tough enough to keep on going. With Toddie, I couldn’t even go on the ambulance with her because I still had to get on and ride Foxy, and that takes some real compartmentalization for me because I am an extremely sensitive person. But once the heat of the moment is passed and I’ve done what I need to do, I want to be able to talk about it.

“I feel like these things happen and so many people just say ‘this is a tough sport’ and you end up not talking about it. But I don’t think it’s something we should ignore. When Toddie swapped leads twice on course, I didn’t think twice about the fact that I had to pull her up. I think so close to home that if you’re so focused on winning or finishing, it would be easy to just keep going. I’m not sure the old me would have made the decision to pull her up and I have no doubt in my mind that Toddie would have tried to keep going, but you have to be a horseman first.

“We can’t ignore the realities of the sport and horses do get hurt, but if it’s happening to you all the time, I think you have to ask where your priorities are. I know competing is about winning, and don’t get me wrong, I still love winning but the result on paper doesn’t tell the whole story. You could be winning every single horse trial on the calendar but sacrificing horsemanship to do it, and I think that horsemanship should count into how successful you feel.

Jennie Saville and Pascal claim victory in Montana. Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

“The reality is we’re going to spend more time in this sport losing than we are winning — and that counts for riders like Michael Jung too. Being a good boss, taking time off to ensure you don’t get burnt out, and listening to what your horse needs should all be a part of what ‘winning’ means to you. Pulling up Toddie was a win because she’s a friend and partner to me regardless of if she ever crosses the finish flag at an event again. Heck, even finishing seventeenth place on Comic was a win, because I know he tried his heart out. Yes, you want to win, but ask yourself ‘What else is going on in my life and with my horses?’

“Being honest with yourself is an important quality to have. If you make a mistake, you have to own up to it instead of making an excuse or lying to yourself about it. I don’t feel like any less of a rider because I can admit that Tamie Smith is better at dressage than me – it just makes me want to learn from her and it inspires me to be better, so I have her teach me.

“I’ve found this sort of in-between space, where things like Comic having a pin at Kentucky or FE Connery slipping between fences at Rebecca Farm don’t faze me like that 20 I had at Bramham so many years ago — but at the same time, I’m always working to make my horses the best they can possibly be. Winning has become a byproduct of that mindset, not my only obsession or source of self-worth.”

It’s OK to set big audacious goals — we’re naturally inclined to. But when you feel yourself struggling or falling short of what you set out to accomplish, you have to be able to pause and think about what’s really important. Chances are, it’s already right in front of you.

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