Three years ago, Dr. Kristen Brennan found herself growing sour on the hunter ring. After a lifetime of riding hunters, she wasn’t having fun anymore.
“Between work and the hunter ring, I was putting so much pressure on myself to jump eight fences perfectly, and I could not let go of imperfections,” said Brennan, who is a research project manager at Alltech and an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Kentucky. “So I just walked away from it.”
After a break from the show ring, Brennan realized she didn’t want to stop riding, and she got to thinking about a running joke with a few of her friends. They used to come visit her in central Kentucky during the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, and she would regale them with tales of her adventures with her Thoroughbred, Moscato, on the trails at Masterson Station Equestrian Park. They would say, “He’s trying to tell you he wants to event.”
So, Brennan did what few of us do as adult amateurs: She switched disciplines, away from everything she had been taught as a child.
“I thought, ‘Well starter’s not that bad. I can try it,’ ” she remembered. “I told myself if I got scared or hated it, I could always go back. I also told myself I never had to do more than what I wanted to do. So my first year at starter, my only goal long-term was to run a beginner novice and finish on a number.”
Each time Brennan reached a goal, she set a new one, to the surprise of even herself. Novice used to be her ultimate goal. She has competed at novice this year with three double-clear cross-country runs and is contemplating a move up to training sometime next season.
The hardest part about moving up has been her anxiety. Perhaps ironically, show jumping sometimes makes her nervous, and she often picks one or two cross-country obstacles to fret over.
In the beginning of her eventing career, she remembers every professional photo taken of her on cross-country caught her face in an expression of terror—even though her coach, Julie Congleton, jokes hers was the slowest starter cross-country course she’d ever seen. Now, Brennan can often be spotted wearing a smirk or a confident smile.
But the transition from hunters to eventing wasn’t just new for Brennan—it was a discipline switch for Moscato too. “Marcus,” as the big gray is fondly known, had taken Brennan through the adult and pre-child/adult divisions after spending his life in the hunter ring with adult and young riders. One of many unknown factors in Brennan’s decision to event was the way Marcus would react.
Luckily, Marcus has proven a brave mount in the cross-country field, if a little bit of a character.
“He’s the quirkiest animal. I always joke that the reason I’ve had him for so long is that nobody else would take him,” Brennan said.
“He’s so reliable. Unless he’s in pain or you throw your body forward, he’s like, ‘OK, I’ll try.’ At May Daze Horse Trials [Ky.], the second jump on course was a maxed table. I remember in the start box I leaned over and said, ‘Please take care of me.’ But he’ll bite you as soon as you hop off and try to untack him.”
There’s just one thing Marcus really does not want to see on a cross-country course: mums. Mums sitting on top of tables, mums next to ground lines, mums near the starting line of a hunter pace he went to. He snorts, spooks, runs backward—anything to avoid the flower phantoms.
“God forbid you put a mum anywhere,” she said. “I’m like, ‘You jumped over these your entire life.’ ”
In some ways, their hunter base proved to be a good education. Brennan has a good eye for distance and is soft in the tack. She’s still learning to let go when she misjudges a distance, however. Eventing has proven helpful in changing the way she thinks about “the perfect ride.”
“In the hunters, you have one bad fence and that ruins your entire round,” she said. “In dressage, Marcus’ favorite thing is to jig in the free walk. That ruins our free walk score, but it doesn’t affect any of the other parts of that test.
“I think a lot of people could use a start in the hunter/equitation world because it does teach you things,” she added. “I learned so much about stride length and making you horse adjustable that it was a really nice foundation that carried over. I just had to add the bravery, which luckily Marcus has a lot of.”
Brennan noted that an amazing support system helped her transition to eventing. Congleton fosters a team atmosphere where a core group of five to six students support each other.
“When Julie is judging we walk courses with each other, we warm each other up, everything,” said Brennan. “They were the women who were crying tears of joy alongside of me when I crossed the finish line and had run my first novice clean. They are the same ones who commiserate with a lame horse or provide a laugh when a show isn’t going our way. We often sit in the barns at the Kentucky Horse Park on Saturday afternoons when everyone is done and have Team Heronwood Happy Hours. I don’t know that I would show as much without this group.
“That support is important,” she continued. ” When you are out schooling, and Julie is pushing you out of your comfort zone, it’s way easier to put on your big girl panties and jump something that scares you when your barn mates are there cheering you on and encouraging you. I never had that in the hunter world, and it’s made a huge difference.”
Keeping herself and Marcus in training requires some juggling. Brennan and her husband, Chris Liebold, purchased a farm near Lexington not long after her transition to eventing and built everything—barn, fences, arena—from the ground up. In addition to Marcus, Brennan has a young Thoroughbred named Frankie she keeps in light training. Luckily, the couple share tasks like feeding and turnout. Brennan rides both horses on weekends and one each weeknight.
“It was actually Chris’ idea to buy the farm,” she said. “He had never really been around horses before he met me, but when he figured out how much we were paying on board he went, ‘I know you’re going to own more horses.’ I kept saying, ‘Do you know what you’re getting into?’ He just laughs and says he loves this. He has zero desire to ride.”
Three years into her new discipline, Brennan’s hard work is paying off. She and Marcus picked up year-end awards from the Mid-South Eventing/Dressage Association in senior horse trial and combined test divisions in 2016, as well as a $500 educational grant from the organization, which she said will go to lessons for Marcus and Frankie.
“I don’t have any desire to be an upper-level rider,” she said. “My horses are pets. First and foremost they’re my friends and my pets. I really want to be good at novice and below.
“Julie cried when I crossed the finish line at [my first novice] at May Daze Horse Trials,” she said. “I turned around, and all the girls I ride with were crying, and I’m crying. They knew how much that meant. Novice was my Rolex, I guess.”