Colleen Rutledge made headlines last year when she finished the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials CCI**** (England) with Shiraz, making them one of few pairs to have completed five of the six major four-stars in the world without a cross-country jumping penalty (the only one she hasn’t competed in is the Adelaide CCI**** in Australia).
Rutledge, 37, Frederick, Md., spent the summer and fall working on “Luke’s” dressage, the phase he notoriously dislikes, and earning good results with her homebred Covert Rights, or “C.R.”, at the three-star level.
A fall from a preliminary horse in October resulted in a broken hip and and surgery, which derailed Rutledge’s plans to compete C.R. at the Dutta Corp Fair Hill International CCI*** (Md.), but she’s been keeping busy with her new mount, Escot 6, an 8-year-old Hanoverian gelding (Escudo I—Leca, Le Primeur), and preparing for Luke’s second trip to the Rolex Kentucky CCI****.
We caught up with Rutledge to find out her plans for her horses this year, how she’s feeling after her injury, and which four-star is her favorite.
Chronicle: How have you been feeling since your broken hip in October? How was the recovery?
Rutledge: I don’t really notice my hip that much except for when I first get on, unless it’s cold. If it’s cold, I hate myself!
I got the best Christmas present ever because the day after Christmas, I went to see my doctor and he said, ‘Yeah, you’re good. You can get back on horses.’ So I was back on a horse that afternoon.
The physical therapy that I had been through had me in the pool, and walking and running in the pool to get the cardio back up and to get the range of motion back. I walked out of the doctor’s office with a little bit of a limp, and it’s essentially gone.”
You spent the fall working on Luke’s flatwork after completing the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials CCI**** (England). Have you seen the benefits of that work this spring?
He is so much more confident in where he should be. He’s so much stronger and he feels fantastic. What had happened, since I broke, was that I took him down to Mara DePuy and left him there and went down to visit so I could watch her ride him and get her input on what he needed to work on.
I’d been taking some lessons with her before and I knew that he liked her. I think it’s made a tremendous difference in him.
She worked on getting him much more through in his topline and stepping through from behind—all of the weaknesses that we’d had. She’s such an amazing rider. She didn’t have any of the preconceptions that I had gotten on him because I’ve had him for six years. She got on him and said, "OK, it’s time to go to work."
She got on him and looked at me one day and said, "This is one of the hardest horses I’ve ever had to ride. Not because he’s bad, but because he changes just a little bit every single day and you don’t know what horse you’re going to have that day."
That made me feel so much better that I’m not completely inept! It’s tough when you ride a horse that’s that tough on the flat. You begin to think maybe it’s you and you can’t possibly do it. She’s got so many extra tools and she was able to push through a little bit more, so now he’s even more confident and even more attuned to where he should be, so that when I do make a little bit of a mistake, he knows where he’s supposed to be and it’s not nearly so glaring now.”
How has the spring season gone so far with Luke?
It was a little bit interesting this spring because I was operating under the mistaken assumption that we were totally qualified for Rolex, but because I didn’t compete him last fall, I didn’t have my CIC*** within 12 months. I had a bit of a panic attack at [the Carolina International CIC*** (N.C.)] this year and rode like an absolute monkey in show jumping and made him pull six rails!
I came home from that and was like, "I’m OK, I’m better than this, we can figure this out." We came back and did a much better round at The Fork [CIC*** (N.C.).] As long as he doesn’t do anything ridiculously stupid along the way, hopefully we will be at Rolex.
[Cross-country] is the easy part. My biggest issue at Carolina and The Fork was that it wasn’t big enough, nor was it long enough! We’ve experimented with different bitting for cross-country because there’s still a little bit of a lack of brakes and/or steering at points because he is so unbelievably bold.
We are much more under control now, much to his chagrin! He doesn’t think I should have control.
He goes in a bubble [three-ring elevator] bit with big converters and a bit burr on either side. It makes it so I don’t have to be as strong in my arms to get him to do what I want. He’d been going in a Nathe pelham with a port and it had made a huge difference at Badminton, but then I ran him in that at his first run at Pine Top (Ga.) this year, and he didn’t think he should listen to it all that much! With the bubble bit, he’s right on it.”
What are your expectations for Rolex this year?
I want improvement in every phase. That’s the only thing I ever ask when I go to a competition. I want a more consistent and stronger dressage test. I want a clean, fast round on cross-country and I want a clean show jumping. If I can put those three together, then I’ll be happy.
I don’t have the expectation of where I’d like him to place. We all want to win, but if I get those three things, I have to be happy.”
Considering you’ve jumped clean on cross-country around every major four-star, what is your relationship like with him at this point in your partnership? What are your goals with him now?
I would like to go back and have a better result at [the Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials CCI**** (England)]. I’d like to have a better result at [the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials CCI**** (England) and Pau (France)] too. Because I know them so much better now, I feel like I can get everything out of them that I need to get out of them.
It’s all going to come down to whether or not his dressage at Rolex is competitive. If it’s not competitive, there’s no point in spending the money to go. We’ve already jumped around the cross-country. Competitive being he doesn’t have to break into the 40s, but I’d like to see the trend of breaking the 50s and having the 50s start to drop lower.
I know he’s going to jump whatever I put in front of him as long as he understands the question. His mistakes are not really his, they’re mine. In our relationship, I’m always going to be the weak point. He’s the most phenomenally athletic horse I’ve ever sat on. It’s an amazing feeling when you’re cantering down to one of the biggest jumps you’ve ever seen and your horse goes,"‘Eh, it’s not that big.” He’s so not impressed!
Running him around the Pine Top advanced [this spring] was like running one of my other horses around training level. He just skipped around it like it was no big deal. That almost got us in trouble because he acted like a cheeky little snob!
Since you’ve been around most of the four-stars, do you have a favorite?
Every one of them has their strengths. I absolutely loved Rolex because it was my first one. It was the biggest thing I’d ever seen. The atmosphere that they give you at Rolex is so fantastic. It’s simply fun to be there.
Burghley was my first overseas one so I was completely overwhelmed. It didn’t occur to me what was going on.
Badminton was just…Badminton is Badminton. You say those words and it just blows your mind. Those three are pretty much at the top of my list. I had a good time at Pau and Luhmühlen (Germany), but the three at the top of my list were always Rolex, Badminton and Burghley.”
What has it been like being invited to the U.S. Eventing Team training sessions with Covert Rights? How have you benefitted from the experience?
I got to participate in three—one jumping and two flat. It was fantastic, because some of the stuff [chef d’equipe David O’Connor] said on the flat just resonated so much and made so much sense. I can see very clearly where he wants us to go with it.
What are the plans for C.R. this year?
He’s not going to do anything this spring. He’s going to work on his flatwork and his strength so that I can concentrate on some of my newer ones and let Shiraz have his time in the spotlight.
We’re really aiming to come out summer or fall and have him step right back up to where he was and keep rolling. I really do want to do [the Dutta Corp Fair Hill International CCI*** (Md.)] because it will answer a lot of the questions of whether or not he’s a Rolex horse.
He’s only 8 right now, so he’s got time. He’s already so good and he can be so much better.”
Tell me about your new horse Escot 6.
Escot 6, who is known in the barn as Monkey, I bought from Mara. I got him while Shiraz was at Mara’s. I’d fallen in love with him last year when she imported him. She knew that I loved him and when she decided to sell him, she let me know.
I absolutely adore him. He is a rubber bouncy ball, just so much fun. He’s not quite as flamboyant a mover as C.R., but he’s got a little bit more bounce than Luke. He’s a really good mid point between the two of them.
He’s so fantastic to jump. He puts a smile on your face every single day. He loves to jump and he loves his job.
Mara competed him through the one-star level. He and I ran our first competition at the Carolina International and he stepped up to intermediate.
We’re aiming him for the two-star at Jersey Fresh (N.J.). If not, I’ll wait for Fair Hill this fall and see where he goes from there. I’ll give him the room and the education to step up. The idea is that he’s the next one in the pipeline to continue on his way up.
Keep up with Rutledge and Shiraz's Rolex Kentucky CCI**** adventures with the Chronicle's extensive coverage of the event, April 24-27 at www.chronofhorse.com.