Saturday, Mar. 2, 2024

Ask 3: What Makes A Five-Star Horse? 

We asked three top eventers how they assess potential and how they know if a horse has what it takes to make the jump to the highest level.
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Phillip Dutton, 60, has ridden in every Olympic Games since 1996 and has contested seven world championships. He won two Olympic team gold medals while riding for Australia and took individual bronze for the United States in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. He is one of the country’s most experienced five-star riders, earning multiple top-10 finishes at the Badminton CCI5*-L (England), Burghley CCI5*-L (England) and Kentucky CCI5*-L, and winning Rolex Kentucky in 2008 aboard Connaught. He splits his time between True Prospect Farm in West Grove, Pennsylvania, and Buck Ridge Farm in Loxahatchee, Florida. 

Phillip Dutton and Z have earned numerous top placings at the CCI5*-L level. Kimberly Loushin Photos

Every time I look at [a horse for sale], certainly if I’m buying it for myself or for [a client], you’ve got to try to weed through the horses. What you’re looking for is a horse that’s going to have the scope and the gallop and the ability to be able to bear that highest level. 

The first thing that I probably want is a horse that’s a forward-thinking horse. A horse that wrings its tail or pins its ears when you’re asking it to go forward or to gallop or whatever, generally, I don’t see that many of those kind of horses at the five-star level. So it’s the horse that naturally wants to go, a forward-thinking animal. 

You can have a horse that can jump around the five-star jumps, but then you’ve got to have a horse that has the speed to be able to not get time faults as well. There’s a lot of talk about how much Thoroughbred the horse [needs to be]. Certainly the horse needs to be a Thoroughbred type, put it that way. There are plenty of horses that don’t have a lot of Thoroughbred in their breeding, but they’re still quite fast horses. [But] there’s no point in having a great mover and great jumper if they can’t go the distance and gallop for 4 miles at speed. 

Temperament is important. You’ve got to work to get it up to that level; it’s going to take four or five years, so you need a horse that you get along with and work well with on a day-to-day basis. 

And I like a horse that when you’re jumping, it’s learning all the time and improving. So if you try a young horse, and it hits a fence or leaves long or whatever, the next time it will come around and try to change a bit. It thinks about what it’s doing. I’m not that high on a horse that just tries to get to the other side as quickly as it can. I like a horse that starts to evaluate what it’s doing and tries to improve on it. 

[Once a horse is out competing], if they get to a three-star and struggle to make the time, or they’re very exhausted, it’s kind of silly to move it up to the next level until they can do the three-star a bit easier. So before we move up a level, the horse should at least go around the cross-country doing it pretty easily. But I think at the three-star level you get a fair idea of what you’ve got because the distance is such and the time is such that it’s not that big a step below the four- or five-star level. 

I think you get an idea as you’re training them, as they’re going along, whether they kind of embrace the fitness and the dressage work and the cross-country. If it’s a bit of a battle to get them to do it, well then chances are they’re not going to make it to a higher level. But [there are exceptions] especially the Thoroughbred horses—like the last one that I had, Sea Of Clouds, each level I went up, it was a bit of a struggle for him, but then we’d spend a year there, and he’d get a bit better. And then by the time we got to the five-star level, he actually handled it pretty easily, whereas a year or two before that, I wouldn’t rule [a five-star] out, but I also wasn’t that super confident that he would handle it. 


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Jennie Brannigan, 36, West Grove, Pennsylvania, earned two CCI4*-L wins with Cambalda before collecting her first five-star completion aboard the gelding in 2015 at Kentucky. She has since completed multiple five-stars, most recently placing 12th with FE Lifestyle at the Defender Burghley CCI5*-L (England) in September. She’s also represented the U.S. in multiple Nations Cup competitions. 

“FE Lifestyle is just such a naturally gifted cross-country horse, and he’s been like that from the word go,” said Jennie Brannigan. 

For me, it’s blood. Not necessarily [Thoroughbred] blood on paper, but how they go. Like, if they’re a horse that likes moving forward, a forward-thinking horse that has blood that seems like it can gallop. It’s one thing to have a horse do a five-star once, but if you’re going to have one that’s going to stay sound for a long period of time, they have to find covering the ground pretty easy. 

It’s really hard to pick a good five-star horse. Picking a four-star horse is a lot easier! Because a five-star horse isn’t always the horse winning all the horse trials. They have to have a certain edge about them, and sometimes that makes them a bit more difficult to deal with. 

FE Lifestyle [Brannigan’s five-time five-star mount] is just such a naturally gifted cross-country horse, and he’s been like that from the word go. He’s always found cross-country quite easy. So I think a horse that seems like they like the job, that they naturally find doing the job easy. It’s obviously great to win the dressage and whatnot, but it’s pretty hard to find one that finds all of it easy. 

After having Cambalda, who was a great four-star horse but not really a great five-star horse, I have gone out and tried to have blood horses. The five-star horses I have now are very bloody horses; that probably makes the dressage difficult, and luckily, show jumping is one of my stronger suits. 

You always seek out what you were missing with the horse before when you’re looking for the next one, right? I really want to have five-star horses and not horses that are just winning horse trials and the shorts. 

Obviously, I’m green; these are my first five-star horses. My thing is, I produced all of mine. So I will say that those traits I was looking for are traits that I sought out from the beginning. 

Although I did get a five-star out of Cambalda, [there were a lot of] failed attempts. People told me he wasn’t a five-star horse; our team coaches told me that. The year I did jump around Kentucky, I had to ride the hair off of him. And then I started realizing, once more livestreams [from five-star events] started coming out, people don’t have to ride like that to get a horse around. 

As a young person who was very competitive on that horse, I never went out of the box going, “OK, let’s jump around and have 20 time [faults].” I wanted to do it double clean, or I’m going to fail. I think maybe I should have looked at that differently. I was just young and competitive. I probably ride a lot better now. The horse didn’t sweat very well. He didn’t breathe very well. And even though he was a ton of blood on paper, he just didn’t find it easy. Stella Artois and FE Lifestyle are like 37 and 40% blood, but they’ll gallop like … I haven’t found a bottom. So I don’t think the blood on paper matters as much as people were thinking at one point. 

I just think it takes a special type of freak to want to do it, and I’m excited to get to have a couple. 

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Boyd Martin, 44, is a veteran of three Olympic Games and four world championships, winning team silver at the 2022 FEI Eventing World Championships (Italy). He won the 2003 Adelaide CCI5*-L (Australia) with True Blue Toozac and the 2021 Maryland CCI5*-L with On Cue, as well as earning team and individual gold at the 2019 FEI Pan American Games (Peru) with Tsetserleg TSF. He has earned multiple top-10 finishes at almost all of the world’s five-star events, including Kentucky, Luhmühlen (Germany), Pau (France), and Burghley (England). He bases at his own Windurra in Cochranville, Pennsylvania, and winters at Stable View in Aiken, South Carolina. 

“You’ve got to have the feeling that it has the will to take on anything; to me that’s just an essential ingredient in a five-star horse,” said Boyd Martin, pictured riding Contessa, a horse he debuted at the level at this spring’s Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event. 

You’ve always got to imagine the end goal with the horse you’re selecting. It seems like a lifetime away, but you need an animal that can gallop flat-out over 4 miles in deep mud over about 36 massive obstacles. So you’ve got to look at the horse and imagine: One day has this horse got the athleticism to be able to meet that criteria? And to me, that’s a deal breaker if the horse doesn’t have a great gallop, a big stride, a bold jump, and a strong character. You’ve got to have the feeling that it has the will to take on anything; to me, that’s just an essential ingredient in a five-star horse. 

In the young horses, I suppose the length of stride is really important. They can’t have a short little pony stride, and they’ve got to have a natural engine. When I try a young horse, when I touch them with the leg they’ve got to go. You can’t be begging them to go. 

Second to that, I think the sport’s changed now as we saw at the Olympic Games and the last world championships, where the dressage and the show jumping is now so important. The show jumping seems to be getting bigger and more technical, and the poles are getting wider. So the horse has just got to be a naturally careful, sharp jumper that’s got a ton of scope. And beyond that, if you want to have a championship horse, it has to have the attributes and the ability to score in the low 20s in the dressage. 

Tsetserleg [Martin’s mount for two world championships and the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games] got sent to me as a sort of a run-of-the-mill intermediate horse. And funny enough, he didn’t look like much, and he never showed me those qualities in training at home. And then the first intermediate I took him to was Plantation Field Horse Trials [Pennsylvania], which was around the corner for me. And that’s quite a hilly course. I was just blown away by how much of a change [there was in] the horse at the competition compared to at home. At home he was a bit lazy and did just enough to skim over the fences. And when I was actually under the lights of a competition, all of a sudden, the horse grew 6 feet tall, and smoke was coming out of his ears! I’ve never experienced anything like having such a change. 

Have there been horses that didn’t live up to their potential? Over and over and over again; this is the heartbreaking part with the sport. You really put your heart and soul and your belief into your decision. We scour the world looking for these horses that we think have the qualities to be a five-star horse. I think if you get it right 60 or 70% of the time, you’re an absolute legend. It just takes such a special animal to compete at that level. It takes years and years of training and a bit of good luck and soundness and health, and all the stars have to align for it to get to that level. And I think that’s why nowadays the horses that are at a high level are worth so much money. They are a needle in the haystack, and it takes a decade to produce them. 


This article originally appeared in the Oct. 16 & 23, 2023, issue of The Chronicle of the Horse. You can subscribe and get online access to a digital version and then enjoy a year of The Chronicle of the Horse and 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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