Early on the morning of March 12, Jennie Brannigan received a terrifying phone call.
“I was getting my teeth worked on in Daytona Beach [Florida] that Wednesday, and it was the first time I’ve had my teeth all fixed at one point since the accident, so I was all excited about that,” she said. “My boyfriend and I got up at 3 a.m. to drive back to Ocala [Florida], and I had gone home to have a quick nap and change and go to the barn. I got a call that something had happened and scared the horses, and Peekaboo had jumped out of the field and was missing. There was one other loose horse that was still on the property and fine and a lot of broken fence boards. We think a lot of wild hogs or something scared the horses.”
“Peekaboo,” a 5-year-old warmblood mare (National Anthem—Vidalia, Contango) who competes with the name Keepsake and won last year’s gallop award for 4-year-olds in the USEA Young Event Horse Championship program, was bred by Brannigan’s longtime sponsor, Nina Gardner.
“We immediately set about looking for her, and it was also stressful because the Ocala Horse Trials was going on, and the advanced combined test was on Thursday,” said Brannigan. “My girls are wonderful, and we all love the horses, but Alexa [Lapp] competes Peekaboo as well, and I know she was extremely upset, and I was beside myself. Peekaboo is out of Vidalia, Nina’s favorite mare of all time—Phillip Dutton and I both competed her up to the three-star level. She had to be put down last year, and Peekaboo is the last foal out of her.”
The crew tried various methods to track down the mare, starting with extensive searches of surrounding properties at all hours, then putting up posters all around Ocala, and finally contacting an equine psychic and bringing in two different drones for searching, one regular and one thermal. But by the end of the weekend, no one had seen her.
“You think the morning of, ‘Oh, she’ll be back by nighttime.’ But when I drove around a few hours that morning and then had to go to the horse show, it was very hard to focus with her still missing,” said Brannigan. “As the weekend went on, and I made it more public that she was missing to try and see if anyone had seen her, I got asked like 100 times, ‘Did you find your horse yet?’ Everyone was being kind, but I was so upset about it, and I was trying to soldier on while we were all devastated and looking for this horse. My close friends were awesome—Jamie Alnwick was out at night looking, and Alyssa Phillips was out looking; Matt Flynn was out looking. Max Corcoran came out at 10:30 at night to help me look for this horse in the woods. As the days went on, I was very drained and very upset.
“We were worried she might have gotten stuck in a pond on a neighboring farm, so we had a normal drone out and a thermal drone out,” she continued. “Then we had a scare with the thermal drone that she was in the pond. My poor groom Tyler Held kayaked out into the middle of this pond, and I was beside myself. Of course I immediately got really sick after Ocala Horse Trials—just the stress.”
The first real break in the case came on Monday, March 16, after Brannigan and friends had distributed posters all around town with information about the mare.
“A gentleman called me and said, ‘I was driving at 2:30 a.m., and there was a horse galloping down the road—down Highway 225,’ ” said Brannigan. “Matt Flynn, who’s my neighbor, said he heard all his horses screaming at 2:20 a.m. He was spot on. The guy was like, ‘I wish I would have called someone or tried to catch it.’ This mare actually galloped down the middle of Highway 225.
“But that was a relief because still in the back of our minds we were wondering if she was maybe in the bottom of this spring-fed pond that was like quicksand,” Brannigan continued. “You also go, ‘It’s been six days,’ and you’d think the horse would have run into someone else’s field by now—there are so many horse properties there. I did wonder [before he spotted her] if someone had picked her up. She’s a pretty beautiful horse. So Nina wanted to offer a reward.”
Then on Tuesday, a second call proved even more helpful.
“I was like beyond unconscious sick, but someone had seen on an Eventing Nation or other eventing news post that someone was looking for a horse, and the article mentioned it had a Kool Coat on,” said Brannigan. “She called the cops and said, ‘This horse has been coming in and out the woods for four days, and it looks like it has part of a jacket on.’ She wasn’t a horse person. Alexa and I rushed out there.”
Lapp went into the woods behind the woman’s house with some grain, and there was Peekaboo.
“She had run probably two miles down the road and ran into the middle of the woods, and I think she was so panicked she ran so thick into the woods, and she was in an area she just couldn’t get out,” said Brannigan. “She still had all four shoes on—shout-out to my farrier Rebecca Ratte. She’s quite thin, but I got the vet out right away, and we ran tests and fluids, and she’s great otherwise.
“Everyone is a little shocked, and it’s an unusual story, but on Monday I had this feeling, when I knew she wasn’t in the pond, that we would find her,” continued Brannigan. “She’s a really quirky mare on the ground, and I was like, ‘Leave it to this mare.’ There were 10 farms she could have gone to, with pastures with horses in them. She’s a little skittish and a more high-strung mare on the ground, and obviously she was just terrified.”
After first calling the Gardners, Brannigan’s second call was to Karen Hokanson, who runs their breeding program.
“It was Karen’s birthday on Tuesday, the day we found Peekaboo, and she was just so happy when I called her,” said Brannigan. “I would be sick regardless of any horse this happened to, but it’s a horse we really do believe in for the future, and it’s a horse near and dear to Tim and Nina’s hearts. I feel like all top event horses are quite quirky, and she has plenty of talent, so this will be a good story when she goes upper levels.
“Thank you to everyone who helped,” Brannigan added. “Thousands of people shared she was missing and helped.”