When Ellen Doughty packed her trailer in Terrell, Texas, before the Dutta Corp. Fair Hill International CCI***, she had relatively modest goals. After all, not only was it her first trip to Fair Hill, Md., for the event, it was also her first three-star, and the first for her horse, Sir Oberon, as well.
“Everyone says Fair Hill’s a very tough course; I wanted to see how we did and see if we would be ready for a four-star in the spring,” said Doughty. “I was hoping for a qualifying score for [Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event CCI****].”
Doughty went well beyond just earning a qualifying score, finishing sixth and earning the Amanda Warrington Memorial Trophy as the highest-placed first-time three-star rider and the U.S. Equestrian Federation Alexander Mackay Smith Trophy as the highest-placed rider in the USEF National Developing Rider Championship.
Doughty and Sir Oberon paired up five years ago, when the Holsteiner-Thoroughbred cross (HQ Outrigger—Cher) was 5. He was a recently failed dressage horse, and she was a 23-year-old professional who had never gone above training.
The two quietly climbed the levels, contesting their first advanced this spring at the Texas Rose Horse Park Horse Trials, where they finished on their dressage score to take second. They had their prep run for Fair Hill at the Nutrena/USEA American Eventing Championships (Texas), where they took third in advanced.
“My mom flew in from Michigan [for the AEC], which was really special,” she recalled. “That was such a highlight, and then this is the icing on the cake. To do as well as he did at Fair Hill was just fantastic.”
Doughty’s road to Fair Hill started when she won a $4,000 Land Rover USEF Competition Grant to enable her to travel the 23 hours from her Pegasus Eventing outside Dallas to Maryland.
“I wouldn’t have been able to afford to go without a grant,” said Doughty. “It’s so expensive with the gas money and travel and overnighting and hotels. But it’s important to get to the big shows and compete against the best of the best to up your game and make you a better rider.”
Things started out on a good note at Fair Hill for Doughty in dressage. Their trot work showed improvement over their last few outings, thanks to the extra tests they’ve been putting in at fourth level and Prix St. Georges at dressage shows. On cross-country Sir Oberon made a big jump up the leaderboard with a clean and clear round, moving from 21st to sixth.
On cross-country day, Doughty was able to take advantage of Sir Oberon’s adjustability, especially through the combinations.
“The course suited him; it rode forward,” said Doughty. “He’s super adjustable, and he goes in a French link snaffle, sometimes a mullen mouth rubber snaffle. I sit up, and he’ll go to a two-foot stride, I’ll let him go, and he’s got an 18-foot stride. I’ve been working on making the time with him, and this is the first time I’ve made time on an advanced course. I tend to adjust too far away, but I’m learning to let him stay on a bigger stride and have confidence he’ll come back to me when I need him to. He finished raring to go, with plenty left in the tank.”
They ticked a single rail on Day 3 to hold onto their spot.
Watch Doughty and Sir Oberon's show jumping round...
Not only did Doughty and “Obie” make the time, but he also won the fitness award as the best conditioned horse in the CCI***. She wasn’t expecting that honor, as she doesn’t exactly have rolling country to train on in Texas.
“I do trot sets and gallop sets with him, and I don’t even know if you’d call what I have a hill that’s part of our circle,” she said. “A lot of riders I know get up at 6 a.m. to do their galloping, but I do it in the heat. I start them out gradually and work up to it. When you’ve been galloping in 95 degrees and on cross-country day it’s in the 60s, it feels great.”
Doughty, who runs her Pegasus Eventing out of Southern Cross Equestrian in Terrell, Texas, doesn’t have a regular trainer. She gets help here and there, such as from Mary D’Arcy-O’Connell during her first advanced outing and squeezing in a dressage lesson with Capt. Mark Phillips recently. At the last few CIC***s she contested, she walked the course with David O’Connor, and she tagged along with Clayton Fredericks at Fair Hill.
“They’re super knowledgeable, and it’s really good to get their opinion,” said Doughty. “At the end of the day, I know my horse best. When I walk it, I try to think of what’s best for him. When I go out there I have to plan for myself. I’ve gained confidence as I’ve done a couple CIC***s and placed well. I’m starting to feel like, ‘Yes, I guess I can ride at this level, and I guess I know what I’m doing.’ In the future I hope to get more coaching and keep improving.”