Cheers to an Impending Return to 5* for Stella Artois

Jennie Saville and Stella Artois finish up their final Kentucky prep at Stable View. Photo by Shelby Allen.

After a top placing at the inaugural Maryland Five Star in 2021, the absence of Stella Artois during the following competition season was keenly felt. The striking dark bay mare owned by the Stella Artois Syndicate is one of Jennie Saville (neé Brannigan)’s top horses, one she’s produced since the Novice level, and together they had achieved Jennie’s highest five-star placing so far in her career, finishing fourth overall and the second highest placed American combination.

Even after a triumphant clear showing, Jennie felt a tug of concern for “Toddie’s” right front tendons after the competition, but scans of both front legs immediately following Maryland – a routine practice for Jennie’s horses after any big event – appeared fine and Jennie sent the mare off on her normal postseason vacation.

It was the following spring during Toddie’s first jump school in preparation for the final running of Red Hills when Jennie felt something was not quite right. She and her team had already begun bringing the mare back from her vacation and she looked good as they brought her back into work. Toddie had spent the early part of 2022 in training with Silva Martin and at a planned dressage-only outing at the Ocala Winter I Horse Trials she and Jennie scored a stellar 23.2 in a Preliminary test.

“She’s a pretty stoic horse,” Jennie says. “I have to really pay attention to how she feels, because she won’t show anything and then something like [Boekelo] will happen.”

Jennie Brannigan and Stella Artois. Photo by Sherry Stewart.

When we talk about tough event mares, we can count Stella Artois, a 15-year-old Hannoverian mare (Satisfaction FRH – Comtessa, by Contender), amongst the toughest. Jennie cites the Boekelo Nations Cup in 2019, as an example. The mare jumped a beautiful clear show jumping round to finish out the competition, despite elimination on the cross country the day before (this event was used as a test event for the new Olympic format, thus Jennie and Toddie were able to jog and jump the following day). After the competition it was discovered she had jumped that round with a ruptured muscle.

This time, just ahead of her 2022 season debut, Toddie actually showed just enough of that ‘not-quite-rightness’ for Jennie to feel that something was up. Scans revealed a tendon injury in the left front leg and her 2022 season ended before it began.

“I’m a big believer in horses getting breaks,” says Jennie. For her that always includes a generous postseason vacation period as well as an ample amount of time off for injury.

“I think a lot of people do a lot of therapies thinking they’ll get they’re horse back fast,” Jennie says. While Toddie did respond well to the Artemis Class 4 Cold Equine Therapy Laser, a therapy that Jennie says she’s seen great results with, she always considers time to be the greatest healer of all.

“Once they get hurt I’m like, ‘OK, I’m not gonna see them for a year,’” says Jennie.

Many of Jennie’s competition horses enjoy their vacations and time off at long-time supporters Nina and Tim Gardner’s farm in Pennsylvania, where they are tended to by Karen Hokanson, who treats them like her children. Jennie says she and Karen share the same philosophy when it comes to allowing horses to heal: slow and steady wins the race.

You could argue that ‘slow and steady wins the race’ applies to Jennie’s perspective on competing as well.

Jennie’s aim is to set her horses up for success at the big goal events, not to win as many horse trials as possible – a mistake she says she sees some of today’s young riders making which results in over-running their horses, but Jennie is quick to admit that she made similar mistakes at that age as well.

Jennie Brannigan and Stella Artois. Photo by Abby Powell.

Even when she first sat on Stella Artois as a 5-year-old at Philipp Kolossa’s in Germany, Jennie knew she’d be a bit of a tricky horse for her, but she fell in love regardless.

“The second I saw her I thought, ‘Oh wow, she’s amazing. This is the nicest horse I’ve ever found,’” Jennie recalls. “I knew this horse is too big for me and she’s going to be strong, but I love her. Her gallop is amazing and it’s very easy on itself. I wanted a horse that could gallop and could gallop easily.”

Though Toddie is a great galloper – even at 40% blood – her long back puts some extra stress on her body when she lands from a fence. Because of those hard landings and also because of how strong she is across the country, Jennie is careful to pick and choose the events that she lets the mare go all out for.

“I never take Stella to any horse trials trying to be competitive,” Jennie says. “I like to event my horses less frequently and I choose to go slower at [national] events.”

Last month, Stella Artois made her return to competition after the careful rest and rehab for that tendon injury over a year ago. Jennie first took her for an easy spin around the Open Preliminary at Rocking Horse Winter III Horse Trials followed by a showing at Carolina International in the CCI3*-S, adding only those planned cross country time penalties at both events. They then contested the CCI4*-S at Stable View last weekend, again solely adding cross country time penalties to their score, as their final preparatory event before heading to the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event, where we look forward to cheering them on in Toddie’s return to the five-star level.

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