Sunday, Apr. 21, 2024

Free Rein With: Jennie Saville

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Jennie Saville (née Brannigan) brings three horses and a new surname to this year’s Land Rover Kentucky CCI5*-L. She’ll pilot Twilightslastgleam and FE Lifestyle as well as Stella Artois, who is returning to the level after rehabbing from a tendon injury.

Jennie Saville will compete in this year’s Land Rover Kentucky CCI5*-L with three horses, including FE Lifestyle (pictured). Lindsay Berreth Photo

Saville, 35, Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, has ridden Twilightslastgleam, or “Comic,” since he was 4. He was in training to race at the Fair Hill track (Maryland) but barely got out of the shedrow because he bucked people off. He went to Phillip Dutton’s True Prospect Farm (Pennsylvania) to be rebroke, and after Willie McCarthy rode him around his first event, Saville took over the ride. Last year the 12-year-old Thoroughbred gelding (National Anthem—Royal Child, Northern Baby), bred by Tim and Nina Gardner, won the Mars Bromont CCI4*-L (Quebec) and finished 16th at the Mars Maryland 5 Star At Fair Hill.

“As a young horse coming up, he was very special, and then he had to have a year off when his back started to fuse. He has kissing spine to the max,” Saville said. “Getting that flexibility back in his body has taken awhile, but he just tries his guts out. I admire him a lot because he just proves that you don’t have to have some big, fancy warmblood, and them trying is what matters the most. He tries his guts out every day whereas [FE Lifestyle] finds it very naturally easy.”

FE Lifestyle, or “Foxy,” a German Sport Horse (Leo Von Faelz—Berina A, Brandenburger), came to Saville when he was 6 from Clayton Fredericks. He and Saville finished fifth at the Mars Maryland 5 Star last year.

“He’s always been an unbelievable cross-country horse. He’s been a little tough on the flat, but I think we’re really starting to get through that,” said Saville. “They’re very different. Twilightslastgleam has a very small stride, and FE Lifestyle has a big stride. They both tried their guts out and gave it their all [at Maryland]. He was great at Maryland, but I think there’s a lot more in there.”

Saville has had Stella Artois in her barn since the 15-year-old Hanoverian mare (Satisfaction FRH—Comtessa, Contender) was going novice, and she’s worked her way up to the top of Saville’s string, winning the Dutta Corp. Fair Hill International CCI3*-L (Maryland) in 2016 and the 2019 Rebecca Farm CCI4*-L (Montana). In 2021 she finished fourth in the inaugural Maryland CCI5*-L, but after that, she injured a tendon and had a year off. Now she’s back and feeling good.

“She’s very strong, so she’s never been a horse I try to win horse trials or CICs on; I just set her up to be a long-format horse,” said Saville. “It’s easier for me with more galloping. She was wild when she was a baby, and she’s still a lot of horse. Liz Halliday-Sharp and Ian Stark helped me find a bit for her; it’s a cherry roller American gag—the same kind that Ian rode Murphy Himself in. I’m quite little, and she’s pretty big for me, so I like to set her up to be rideable. I produced her through intermediate in a snaffle, but I fell because I couldn’t control her. I kept running her in different bits, but she’s a mare, she’s sensitive, and this cherry roller has worked consistently well with her.

“I’m grateful that Liz and Ian and my coach, Erik Duvander, are so helpful, and we can talk through things,” Saville continued. “Liz in particular has helped a lot of people with bitting. She’s very good at it and very generous with her time.”

Do you have a motto or philosophy for training your horses?

Every day I have empathy for them, and I try to feel and recognize how they’re feeling. I do not train any of my horses off a cookie-cutter schedule. I gallop using a heart rate monitor, and all my gallops are reviewed by a specialist at New Bolton Center [Pennsylvania]. I know what it takes to get my horses fit, and I do not overdo it. I don’t believe in running their legs off. I believe in vacations. These horses will get three months off in the off season. They’ll go to the Gardners’ farm and go in the field. The second they go there they know they’re going to relax.

I think it’s sad now to see a lot of horses breaking down. I know it happens to everyone, but I think we don’t give them enough breaks, personally. I’m quite old-school in that way.

When people say, “Oh, my horse doesn’t like vacation,” I’m like, “I think maybe you don’t like vacation.” It’s hard when they’re sitting in people’s barns.

Do you have any superstitions before a competition?

No. Since I had a good finish with the 2021 Nations Cup team at Boekelo [the Netherlands], that was really good for my confidence, and I have a completely more relaxed mindset in general when it comes to these things. It’s nice. It used to be that no one could really talk to me, and I was really nervous when I was competing. I had some baggage, I think, and now I’m finally becoming the rider I was supposed to be, the rider that’s always been in there, but that I hadn’t shown, and I want to be that rider from now on. Erik told me, “That’s the old you; this is the new you.”

If you could ride any horse, past or present, who would it be?
I’d love to ride [Phillip Dutton’s] Woodburn cross-country. That was my all-time favorite horse.

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What’s the most used app on your phone?

Tamie Smith turned me on to a couple of dressage apps: the USEA and FEI apps, and they’re great. I’d love to throw my phone out the window, to be honest. I used to enjoy social media, but I’m more of a private person these days. I’m more anxious than I used to be, and my circle of friends is smaller.

What items can be found in your refrigerator at all times?

Michelob Ultra and lemonade.

What do you do in your downtime?

I like to sleep. I like to visit [my friend] Rachel [Dwyer] in Manhattan Beach, California, because I feel like I can let down. I either work on “off” or flat out, but I’m pretty happy to take time off. I’ve learned that, but it’s taken a long while to learn to relax. I always have this guilt that I’m not working as hard as everyone else, and I’ve tried to let that go because I used to work twice as hard as everyone else. Rachel’s coming to Land Rover this year, too.

What traits do you value most in a horse?

When they give their all, no matter what. Bravery and their trust in us.

In a person?

I try to be friendly to everyone. I don’t believe in us all being fake. If I have a problem with someone, I don’t believe in just saying hi and pretending everything’s fine. I like to be real. I like people that are up-front and honest. If they have a problem with you, they’ll talk to you. And I believe in kindness and empathy.

There have been a couple of people in the sport who’ve come into the sport and started winning quickly, like Marilyn Little. There are things that other people might do that no one would notice, but the second she made a mistake, or anything happened, she was attacked online.

If everyone is funny about someone, I will purposely try to get to know them. People often comment that we’re so kind in eventing, but we do some really mean things to other riders, as far as criticism behind their backs, especially if they’re better than us or they beat us. I think that’s not OK.

I have noticed, when a woman comes in and starts winning—Marilyn, Tamie [Smith] and Liz, for example—I feel like people are strange about it. I value loyalty, and I’m friends with all three of those women, and I would say they are all very loyal. I don’t think people react the same way when men win, but when women are successful, I think there’s a lot of tall poppy syndrome. I’d never thought about sexism in eventing, but for example, I’m getting criticism lately for being too skinny, and if I was a guy, nobody would say a thing.

You don’t know what people are going through. You don’t know who’s close to a mental breakdown. We just need to be kinder.

What would you want to change about the sport?
I think it’s tough for people that don’t have a lot of money coming up now. I’m really grateful I came up when I did, because having one good horse was a big deal then. These days, I don’t even know, honestly, if I would have made it. I just want to give kids a shot that are willing to work through it.

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I had Cooper, and he was a big deal; now there are kids with five Coopers. I’m so grateful I had that horse and that I got to work for Phillip Dutton and that I’m at his farm again now [renting his back barn]. He’s just a really steady human in my life. I think it’s discouraging now when you see these kids with a lot of money. Don’t get me wrong, wealthy kids have their own kind of pressure, but I’m lucky I came up when I did because I don’t think I could have done it now.

Do you have a greatest influence in your life?

I’ve been lucky to work with some of the classiest people like Michael Matz and Susie Hutchison and Phillip Dutton. Phillip’s been a huge influence in my life, but I think Erik [Duvander] believing in me and not giving up and keeping trusting me, he’s really changed me. I don’t know what I would do without him. I just really rate him as a person, and I’m disgusted by how he was treated by the USEF [when he was let go as U.S. Eventing High Performance Director].

Do you have a favorite piece of advice you’ve been given over the years?
Phillip always told me to never let one thing define me. When we had to put Cooper down [Saville’s former top advanced horse who was injured at Fair Hill in 2009], he said, “Don’t let this define you.” If you let any moment define you when it’s bad, you carry that with you.

Do you have a favorite competition venue?

I loved Richland Park [Michigan]. That was my favorite event. My second favorite was Red Hills [Florida], and I’m really disappointed with how both of those events were treated. They both put on great events, and even though Richland was a long drive north, all of us drove whatever it took to make it to that event. We talk about it all the time—just today, in fact, I talked to two professionals about how much we miss those events. I want to make sure Bob and Kay [Willmarth] know how much we miss Richland, and I’m sad that they’re gone.

Jack Russells, yes or no?

Previously I would have said no. My dogs have typically been whippets and sighthounds. But I love the Duttons’ dog, Fern—she’s made me love Jack Russells, and she’s having puppies. So I might be getting one now!

Congratulations on your recent marriage! Tell me about your wedding and married life.

Niall is such a saint. He’s a race horse trainer, so he understands the lifestyle. I’ve been going through a hard time personally lately because this job in general is so tough, and he’s my best friend, so being married isn’t more pressure or anything than when we were just dating.

His brother is Michael Matz’s assistant; I knew him for seven years before we dated. He was married before, and I galloped race horses for him before, so we knew each other really well before we started dating.

We paid for our wedding ourselves and kept it small. It was in Miami because I wanted it to be easy for everyone to get there. We only invited about 15 people; I never dreamt of a big wedding, and there are so many people that I like and care about in life, I’d have had a hard time inviting everyone. My polo player friend, Allen Martinez, walked me down the aisle, and Joey Williams, Nat Pollard’s fiancée, was the officiant. He was my Crossfit coach before, and I really rate him, and they were both there, and it meant a lot to me.


This article ran in The Chronicle of the Horse in our April 24 & May 1, 2023, issue. Subscribers may choose online access to a digital version or a print subscription or both, and they will also receive our lifestyle publication, Untacked. 

If you’re just following COTH online, you’re missing so much great unique content. Each print issue of the Chronicle is full of in-depth competition news, fascinating features, probing looks at issues within the sports of hunter/jumper, eventing and dressage, and stunning photography.

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