Top hunter trainer and U.S. Equestrian Federation judge Tom Brennan’s family supported his interest in horses at a young age—“I talked about horses all the time and wanted to be around them,” he says—which allowed him to take weekly lessons at a local hunt-seat barn in Worcester, Massachusetts. But his parents didn’t have the wherewithal to buy him a horse or take him to shows, so he made do. “They had good school horses,” Tom recalls. Then laughing, adds, “I remember falling off a lot, but it wasn’t that dramatic. It was sort of what happened. And you really looked forward to [each lesson] because it was scarce.” In what Tom calls, “dumb luck,” the stable’s trainer Bonnie Robinson, whom he is still friends with, had worked for legendary trainer Ronnie Mutch for a few years, so “although the setting was casual, the instruction was quality.”
The stable was not focused on competitive goals but instead, Tom worked on making his riding better each week. In his senior year of high school, Tom applied to Stonehill College for its strong liberal arts program. He didn’t realize the college had an Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association riding team, but as soon as he learned about it at the beginning of his freshman year, he signed up. The team became his family away from home. “I really stumbled into a great group of people who didn’t mind that I had no experience,” Tom says of the team. Having no experience in the IHSA setting “can be quite beneficial. I was very comfortable around horses but they rank you in divisions according to the history of showing that you come in with and I didn’t have one. I think they were able to place me in levels that I could be very competitive at, at the time.”
Winter Hill Farm: From Groom to Rider
By the end of his college career, Tom had won two individual championships at IHSA Nationals and captained his team to the IHSA team championship title in 2002-03. The experience, developed him as a business person and an adult—having to work with a lot of different personalities and plan things out. Team coach Sheila Murphy “was great at strategizing when to peak riders,” Tom says. “She had a real mind for the big picture and it’s very hard to run a farm without an appreciation of the big picture because you can get really caught up in the details.”
Tom planned to be a counselor for at-risk youth but he wanted to take some time off to do something else. Equine massage therapist Jo-Ann Wilson, whom he met in college, put him in touch with trainer, champion hunter rider and USEF judge Tony Workman. Tony initially hired Tom in 2004 as a groom at Lynn Rice’s Winter Hill Farm in Hillsboro, Virginia, but gradually offered him more opportunities to ride. He said that from the beginning Tom really watched him ride and learned from that. “It was a free lesson,” Tom says. “I still do that. Whether I see Tony at a show or any other rider that I think is good at something.”
As for what Tom learned from Tony, Tom says Tony is “a talented and gifted trainer. … He was great at particularly young horses. Just very, very good at understanding, bringing them along, pushing them at the right time, backing off at the right time.”
Together Tom and Tony brought along young horses for Lynn, and Tom eventually was able to ride them to multiple championships. He qualified for Indoors for the first time on Dividend then rode Gramercy Park and Purple Heart to multiple major championships. In 2012, Gramercy Park was named USHJA World Champion Hunter Rider Program Hunter of the Year and Tom was named USHJA WCHR National Emerging Professional Champion. “Those are horses of a lifetime. … Gramercy was going to be great no matter who had him. … He was the shipper’s favorite horse to ship, the farrier’s favorite horse to shoe, the dentist’s favorite horse. … He just came out of the womb trained. He was perfect.”
Purple Heart was another story: “Purple was a little different and more special in that he had to choose all of us. He was quirky and difficult and opinionated and he had to decide that we were worthy of his talent.” In the beginning, he wouldn’t change his lead, he’d be oddly spooky about things he’d see every day, he’d back up down the barn aisle. But over time, once he decided Tom and the others were “OK,” he’d do anything for them.
Starting Vineyard Haven Farm
Tom’s wife, Tracy, who was coaching the Wellesley College IHSA team when Tom was riding for Stonehill, devoted her early career to animal health and nutrition. A professional rider, too, she started Vineyard Haven Farm in 2015 focusing on her passion of teaching young riders. When Tom decided to move on from Winter Hill Farm after 14 years, they combined efforts. Their clients, John and Suzanne King had always wanted to buy a farm and did so in Round Hill, Virginia. Tom and Tracy manage the facility and operate their business from it. They have about 18 horses in training. “I didn’t know how this would be, you have this idea,” Tom says. “Businesses, at least in the horse world, have a way of attracting like-minded people and we’ve just sort of been fortunate enough that the people who’ve taken an interest and trusted us with their animals and their goals and their money have been people we want to be around. It’s great.”
Training and Judging Insights
Tom’s approach to teaching stems partly from his psychology degree. He believes riders, especially younger riders, learn much better and faster through experience as opposed to dictation. “It’s sort of like when we build a gymnastic for a horse. We let the gymnastic teach that horse something about his own body or his balance or his own timing and we want to do the same thing with the younger riders. So they might not think in their lesson when they’re out there in the field making circles or counter cantering or going up the hill or going back down the hill—I’m not sitting there saying now balance yourself. They just have to.”
As far as being a judge, Tom says, “I think everyone should judge. It will change how you exhibit and what you value. You will never complain about a judge again. …” He also says that it would be eye-opening in that they would realize that as a judge “you want nothing more for everyone to do well. You are craving all day to reward good horses and good riding. Judges, I think are really in your corner.”
One of the most frequent symbols for the first fence on Tom’s judging card, especially when he’s judging amateur riders, indicates slow and close. “I’ve never been the most accurate of riders, but pace will give me options,” Tom explains. “Pace will straighten my horse, pace will send an image to the judge that I’m confident and prepared. That I want to go jump the jumps.” He believes, though, that there is a trend where riders are so cautious and controlled, they are not jumping with enough pace. Great riders like Jenny Karazissis still ride forward to the jumps, he says, but he thinks that a lot of good professionals are falling in the direction of being so cautious. Why? “I think there’s a lot of focus on distance, which is unfortunate. I would love the focus to be on jump and definitely the best distance gives the best chance for the best jump.” Tom says that he thinks that riders, in an effort to be perfect, try to create more time for themselves and go slower and slower. When they do see a distance, they make a big move to get it. Tom explains that while he was judging the USHJA International Hunter Derby Championships in August, one horse missed the distance to a fence on course, but still jumped the fence beautifully. He and Danny Robertshaw, with whom he was paired judging that day, gave the horse a 92. “I don’t really care that he missed,” Tom says. “I thought it jumped out of its skin. It never lost pace, it was smooth, it just didn’t come up perfectly.”
The fix is to be brave and practice galloping forward to the fences—the same number of times that you slowed down to the jumps. To help one of his amateur riders ride forward to the first jump, Tom told her not to “walk on egg shells to the first jump.” That clicked for that rider. He told another rider to imagine an old Kool-Aid commercial where the pitcher of Kool-Aid burst through a brick wall. When she picks up the canter, she has to imagine bursting through that brick wall.
For more of Tom’s insights on riding with pace, read his articles “Ride Your Hunter Round Like a Pro, Part 1”
and “Part 2.”
To hear more about Tom’s training insights as well as his thoughts on the U.S. Center for SafeSport, which is an independent non-profit organization focused on ending all forms of abuse in sport, listen to the podcast, which can be found at iTunes, Stitcher and Soundcloud.
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About the Practical Horseman Podcast
The Practical Horseman podcast, which runs every other Friday, features conversations with respected riders, industry leaders and horse-care experts to inform, educate and inspire. It is co-hosted by Practical Horseman editors Sandy Oliynyk, Emily Daily and Jocelyn Pierce. Future podcasts are with show jumper Georgina Bloomberg, hunter rider Sandy Ferrell and Olympic eventing legend Jim Wofford. Find the podcast at iTunes, Stitcher and Soundcloud.