Whether you’re a five-star competitor or a beginner novice rider, Olympic team gold and individual bronze medalist Phillip Dutton has the same basic message: Adjustability is key.
As he worked with a range of riders at Rutledge Farm in Middleburg, Virginia, on Oct. 26, Dutton focused on increasing adjustability by improving responsiveness in the horse. He encouraged many riders to consistently “ask for more.”
He underscored the relevance of these basics across all three phases: “What you have to do in all three tests, whether it’s the dressage, the show jumping or the cross-country, you have to have an adjustable horse. You have to have a horse that can go forward and collect. All three phases you have to be able to hold your line or turn when you need to.”
Each session began with flatwork on a large square around Dutton, who asked riders to bend the horse to the inside around the entire area, then straighten, on to counter-bend and straight again. “They can be bent through their neck, but a little bit bent around their body as well,” he said. “If we had a camera from above and looked down, you’d be in the center, and the horse would be around your leg.”
Dutton also asked riders briefly to exaggerate the bend while traveling straight, in order to improve acceptance of the outside rein as well as the inside leg on their side. He insisted on simultaneously keeping the horse moving actively forward.
“Get him a little bit more in front of you,” he reminded the riders. “Always encourage him to stretch out, to reach forward in the contact. Keep him soft and convince him that this isn’t out of his comfort zone. By soft, I mean they don’t sit there against the bit, but they don’t hide behind the bit.”
After the bending exercises, Dutton had riders leg yield, and in the sessions with professionals Allison Springer, Jan Byyny and Clare Mansmann, they also worked on shoulder- and haunches-in. With the more sensitive horses, Dutton wanted acceptance of the leg without overreaction; with the quieter ones, he encouraged riders to expect a response every time they asked at home, so it’s not an extra effort at an event.
“We have to get our horses so they’re obedient to our leg—that’s one of the first important parts to our training,” he said. “It makes sense to practice that all the time. You’ve got to work on this every day.”
As the horses warmed up, Dutton included lengthening and shortening the stride as well. He guided each of these exercises through all three gaits with frequent changes of direction and riders alternating between full seat and two-point positions.
“You Set The Tone”
Dutton began the jumping portion of the sessions by asking riders to canter through an inviting eight-stride line between two oxers a couple of times. He then asked them to move forward and reduce the number of strides, then shorten to add. “It’s not about counting numbers,” he noted. “That’s just a way to help us think about adjusting the horse and adjusting our line between the fences.”
He next introduced a bending four-stride line between a corner built of stadium rails and a natural log jump. When each pair was confident through that, he continued the theme of adjustability by adding a second bending line with striding options. Each group worked back and forth through this S-curve, changing either length of stride or their line of approach. Dutton continued to insist on response to the leg and straightness going forward and softness and active engagement through the quieter distances.
The next exercise was a bending two-stride from an oxer to a narrow coop with standards. Jumped from either direction, this question revealed some lingering issues with straightness, as a couple of horses wiggled or hesitated, but all jumped out and improved quickly.
Dutton explained that it’s up to the rider to have a plan. “You need to be confident enough and not just get stuck halfway, so that he learns to get really confident in what you’re asking him to do,” he said. “You set the tone: ‘OK, this is what we’re doing,’ so he learns that everything you ask him to do is going to be a good experience.”
From these building blocks, Dutton put together a course that combined bending stadium lines with flowing single cross-country fences around the field and returned to the bending two-stride and another similar tight line to a skinny black pipe fence. The upper-level horses were asked for more challenging turns and approaches to taller obstacles, but otherwise the courses were similar for each group.
The more experienced horses and riders were challenged to come back and stay soft after moving up to leave strides out at the start of the course. On the other hand, Dutton strongly pushed riders whose horses were less attentive to get them moving forward, from the moment they picked up the canter to start the course.
“All our training, you’re not making it complicated for your horse, but you’re very clear and you’re very definite in what you want,” he said. “So whatever movement you ask, they should still keep the contact and accept the leg aid without tightness. Even if you’re slowing down, your horse is always thinking forward.”
He instructed one rider on a rangey, playful horse to “bridge your reins and tap him with the stick the last stride before every fence,” and after taking a deep breath, she did. By their final round, he was straighter and jumping more consistently, prompting Dutton to comment that he had the biggest jump in the group but needed to be asked for more at home.
Once Dutton was satisfied with the balance of forward and adjustability over the course, he brought the riders back to the original eight-stride oxer line, and he added a vertical to make an easy eight to a one-stride. “We want to end with the horses thinking about jumping well and using their bodies,” he explained.
Riders jumped this in both directions, and while a number of horses had a rail down at first, all ended in better form and on a relaxed note.
Q&A With A Master
Between sessions Dutton took time to answer some questions from the participants and the spectators.
What do you think are some of the challenges facing eventing?
It’s a little bit too hard to understand for the general person who comes to it, especially a non-horse person. It is a great sport; it’s like the triathlon of horse sports. But with the various rules and dressage being a big subjective, it’s not the easiest sport to understand. I think probably the more that we could simplify all that would make it a bit better.
What do you think about the evolution of the sport?
In this modern era, with technology and TV coverage and livestream coverage, now it’s a sport that has so many participants from the very grassroots level to people who that’s all they do, and they’re professionals at it.
There have been so many evolutions and changes in the sport itself; it’s not so much about just endurance and jumping big jumps now. There’s a lot more technicality to it on the cross-country, and also the show jumping and the dressage test is a lot harder.
Now there are horses being purpose-bred for this sport. Many years ago, everybody just got a horse that was bred for racing and usually had a racing career and then it became your event horse.
So I think there’s been some great, great changes in the sport to keep pace with it, but it’s important to keep the integrity of our sport, which is obviously about the cross-country. That should always be the strongest part, the part that keeps us going as a rider.
What’s the best advice you ever received?
“Be nice to the people on the way up, because you’ll see them on the way down!” I always think about that because it’s a very humbling sport. It’s a great sport, and horses are very much like that—you think you know everything one day, but there are always ways you can get better.
What are your “No Stirrups November” suggestions?
That’s a great exercise to do, the no stirrups. Certainly you’ve got to be safe, so a neck strap or something like that or a horse with a long mane is helpful. Rising trot without stirrups is a good exercise for your balance. It’s not just a case of no stirrups; you’ve got to think about your position when you’re there and not grip, so that it becomes easy for you. And then being able to vary your seat in the canter [between sitting and two-point] as well.