California-turned-Pennsylvania eventer Jennie Brannigan is finding inspiration through personal tragedy and is continuing her path as a rising star in the eventing community.
Young and humble, Brannigan is just 22 years old and resides in West Grove, Pa., working for eventer Philip Dutton. Her most recent success came in early May when she won Jersey Fresh CCI** on Cambalda, owned by Nina Gardner, but luck hasn't always been on her side. In December 2009, she lost an amazing partner when her upper level event horse, Cooper, was euthanized due to complications from an injury and subsequent colic surgery. Prior to that, the pair was unstoppable. With a virtually flawless competition record, they were named to the Developing Riders list, won the CCI** at the North American Young Riders Championships in 2008 and competed at the Bramham CCI*** in England on a grant from the USET Foundation.
"Cooper was such a huge horse in the sense that, I think Cooper and my name were like one. He was such a successful horse, and he was so young. He was not only an incredible partner, but he was also a really sweet animal. He was still my pet a bit, and it was terrible losing him," Brannigan said.
She continued, "He was a huge part of my career. My job, every sponsor I have now, every owner I have now – he touched my life in so many ways and really set me up to have a lot of the incredible things that I have."
Brannigan now rides not just for Dutton, but also Gardner, breeder Beth Battel and a handful of other local owners, as well as teaching both children and adults. Since relocating to the East coast from California with Cooper, she's had her share of ups and downs, especially considering her young age.
"Losing a horse like Cooper at my age, at that point in someone's career, can do one of two things: It can send you spiraling down, or it can send you spiraling up. It's all in the way you decide to handle it," she explained. "And, I feel like I've got more things going on right now then I did at this point last year. I wish I had him still, but I'm not going to dishonor him – I'm going to kick on and keep going and do my job because I love this sport."
Her current star is Cambalda, informally known as Ping, whom she competed alongside Cooper. Brannigan originally owned Ping, but Gardner took over ownership this spring. After a winter off due to an injury, Ping has come back with flying colors and has been unbeatable this season.
"He's got a really good record, and I always got along with him in the sense that we'd go to competitions and always do well, but I never felt we were really on the same page. But, when you're sitting on a horse like Cooper…it's pretty hard for anything to seem that good. Cambalda was always put, in my mind, second fiddle because we lacked that partnership. Last fall, I started to laugh a little bit because I realized, ‘This is a really good horse!'"
She continued, "We went to the American Eventing Championships and won, and he won his first Intermediate. I started to feel like we were clicking a bit. The best thing in the world for the horse, honestly, was having this winter off and having a slow spring…I was figuring out so many more things about him, and he is so much stronger in his body."
Luck Can Change
Brannigan's future is obviously bright, and she said she knows how lucky she is to have Cambalda and these opportunities because luck can change so quickly in the world of horses.
"How lucky is it to have a horse like Cooper, and then another one like that, backing up it? (Ping) has been a bit fairytale-like; Cooper was a bit fairytale-like, and so now I'm just kind of holding my breath. I think he's ready to go Advanced for sure, but I'm just holding my breath a little bit because I've had a bit of bad luck and it just seems to keep coming," she said.
With a bit of good luck, hard work and the opportunity to learn from the best, she's finding success in a notably difficult sport. And, in the meantime, she's managed to make a home for herself in Pennsylvania hunt country.
"This is home. I haven't been able to call a place home in three years. This is home now, and I love it. Where we live…it's stunning. When I go teach in Unionville, I drive by Plantation Field, the Cheshire Hunt kennels and Bruce Davidson's yard, in two seconds! When you live in California where the name Philip Dutton is like, ‘Oh my God!' This is my life!" she said, in laughing amazement. "I live in fairytale land everyday."