CURRENT CHAT… PHILLIP DUTTON… The Chronicle’s Eventing Horseman of the Year, and seven-time USEA Rider of the Year, Phillip answers your questions about training, horses, riding, and what it’s like to be one of the world’s best. Phillip has two Olympic team gold medals to his credit, and is very rarely out of the top-10 at any three-day event.
PHILLIP DUTTON CHAT…………………………
Laurie, Stockton, N.J.
What do you think about the young horse classes (4- and 5-year-olds)? Do you believe that our future eventing stars will come from the top finishers in these classes? If you have a young horse competing in these classes, will you also take them out in regular events throughout the year? Finally, do you have a breed preference when considering prospects?
I like the young horse classes. I think they add excitement and prestige, especially for breeders and people who specialize in bringing on young horses. It is only a judge’s opinion, so we’ll have to wait and see whether those judges know what they’re looking for. I think there will be cases where horses develop later and can become successful even though they didn’t show a lot of potential when they’re young. I definitely think you should go out and do regular events because that’s where your horse learns the skills he needs to become a confident event horse.
I’ve been asked breed preferences a lot lately, and if I had to choose, it would be a good-sized, good-moving, good-jumping, sound, sane Thoroughbred.
Ceirin, Lexington, Ky..
With the change in eventing from the long format to the short format, a lot of questions remain open. My first one is with the ability of the horses to possibly do more than one short-format event in a spring or fall season. Are we not pushing them to do a CCI** then a CCI*** within one season? With the long format, you were guaranteed to give a horse time off. I see that almost not happening.
I think the horses may recover from a CCI without steeplechase quicker and, therefore, do not maybe need as much vacation time. Whether to move your horse up a level shouldn’t be affected by the lack of steeplechase. Also, how often you run your horse should be made on a case-by-case basis.
Ceirin, Lexington, Ky.
My second question refers to a column by David O’Connor, in which he said that today’s courses do not allow the horses to breathe between fences. So, how does one prepare for the fitness?
I believe David was trying to point out that nowadays the tendency in course design is to not have big, long, galloping stretches. A big break between jumping efforts allows your horse a short mental break from the intensity of the course. As a rider, you can use these galloping stretches to accelerate and possibly catch up on your time. As you and your horse become more experienced, hopefully you will be able to handle courses with more intensity, but I think it’s important not to try to go too fast if it’s becoming a problem for the horse or rider. You need to not be too concerned with time faults while you’re making sure your horse is jumping properly.
Ceirin, Lexington, Ky.
My third question is this: Despite the apparent support of the long format at the one-star and two-star levels, what is to keep the organizers from just switching all to the short format? Is it not beneficial for the young horses to do a long format at the one-star and two-star levels to prepare for three- and four-star?
It would not surprise me if at some stage at the future, the one-star and two-star in this country does not have the steeplechase. It obviously takes more land and organization, although there does seem to be a demand for it, especially at the one-star level. I don’t really believe that trotting phases A and C and galloping 1 1/2 miles over steeplechase will really influence how your horses handles a three- or four-star. A well-trained, all-around horse will still be able to excel at a three- or four-star without doing the long format.
Tonia, Harrisburg, Pa.
Since you seem to have success with off-the-track Thoroughbreds competing at the upper levels, when choosing horses from a racing background what do you look for in one that will stay sound for the work required of the upper levels? What qualities do you look for in a young prospect? What will steer you away? What convinces you to take a chance on a horse with an unproven record?
I probably have a similar thought in mind if I’m looking at a horse that has raced or hasn’t raced. I’m trying to find a young horse that I believe in the future will be a good-jumping, careful horse with good movement and a nice mouth. And a quiet horse will obviously make the journey of educating him a lot more enjoyable—and obviously soundness is important.
I don’t like a horse with a weak canter; a horse that switches leads behind is one that I would not pursue.
Ashley, Milford, Conn.
After reading about The Foreman in his Horse of the Year article, I saw that he has the same sire as my horse, whom I am beginning to do eventing with. The description of The Foreman sounds a lot like my horse. He was also very nervous at the beginning, and his biggest problem is that he gets nervous being by himself on cross-country and he hates the actual dressage ring. Do you have any ideas about how to get him to relax through the first couple of fences on cross-country and not be so tense in the dressage? Once he gets going in the cross-country he loves it!
I would try to expose your horse to more atmosphere at home, try buying some cheap plastic flowers and putting them around your arena at home. Once he settles at home, you’ll have a better chance of him being less nervous away from home. I’ve found that repetition is very good for “Chip,” and trying to expose him to his competing area as much as possible before he competes is always beneficial. I just try to get him used to his surroundings. You have to remember that nervous horses are more difficult and are not suited to every rider.
Melissa, West Grove, Pa.
Considering the changes in eventing, what characteristics do you look for in a young horse as a prospect to be an upper-level horse? Are they different from what you looked for when the traditional long format was more prevalent?
I don’t believe the change of format has changed what to look for in a horse at all. What has changed is the standard of the sport in general. Now you need to be very good in dressage and show jumping, as well as to jump clean on the cross-country. So a good-moving, careful-jumping, trainable young horse that will be able to gallop is what we’re all looking for.
Carol, Chantilly, Va.
I know a 15-year-old girl who would like to ride in the young riders division, or even higher, but thus far her two “event horses,” both half-breds, have lost interest at training level and found the speed too difficult to make. Her current trainer has told her to only consider horses under 8 years, no older horses with intermediate or advanced experience. I consider this very dangerous. Your thoughts, please? Should a rider her age ride a schoolmaster or a younger, inexperienced horse?
I think having a green rider on a more experienced horse is generally a good idea. However, there may be a reason the trainer is not recommending this. I feel that being on an experienced horse is a good way for the greener riders to get a feel for each phase, and, because of this, the rider is not trying to learn and educate the horse at the same time.
Anastasia, Nashville, Tenn.
You ride a lot of horses at competitions, which must take a lot of stamina. Do you do anything besides riding to stay fit? What fitness/stretching exercises do you recommend to your students?
The best exercise to do for riding is riding itself, so the more you can do of this, the better. I’m certainly not an expert as far as what to do to stay in shape, but staying in shape is very important to me. Keeping a check on what you eat is important. The goal is to have long, stretchy muscles, not bulked up muscles, so your exercise program should be based around this.
Sharon, Chelmsford, Mass.
How do the special athletic qualities of The Foreman compare to True Blue Girdwood, the horse you brought with you to America [and rode in the 1996 Olympics]? Would he be as successful today as he was then? Is True Blue Girdwood still living on your farm?
True Blue Girdwood (“Jughead”) is living on True Prospect Farm. He is 23 and still gets ridden and looked after. Chip and Jug are both spooky horses and are both on the nervous side. Jug was just a brilliant cross-country horse. The other two phases were not quite as good or a bit more average. Nowadays you need three good phases in your horse. Having said that, no horse or person has taught me more than Jug.
Jamie, Tucson, Ariz..
My horse has been growing more and more dull to my leg. She’s very laid-back and willing to work, but I’d like her to move off more promptly when I put my leg on. What kind of exercises would help with this?
It’s very important to get your horse what I call tuned to your leg. Possibly carry a dressage whip, not to punish, but to help get a respectful reaction to your leg. Leg yielding in walk and trot and lots of transitions in all gaits may help as well.
Casey, Aiken, S.C.
I own a 7-year-old Thoroughbred eventer who competes at training level. He’s an athletic jumper but has a tendency to jump from underneath the fences and get lazy with his front end. He clears the jumps by a foot, but his shoulders are down and one or both knees are hanging. Sometimes it seems like he almost stalls on take-off. I know that if I get him more forward and positive, he improves. What can I do to encourage him to be more forward without just racing around? What exercises do you recommend to teach him to be tidier with his front end?
Moving the ground pole out so the jump is not so square and keeping the horse in front of your leg, especially the last couple of strides and being strong off the ground with your leg would be the first things I would work on.
Sian, Herndon, Va.
There seems to be more of an emphasis on dressage ability in the last few years, whereas previously cross-country seemed to be the true test. What are your thoughts on the seeming increase in importance of dressage? How does this affect your decision on which horses to work with?
You’re definitely right that the standard of dressage now is much, much higher, and you have to remember that cross-country courses in some ways have probably maxed out. There’s a limit to what a course designer can ask without it becoming unfair to the horse or dangerous. So now the dressage and show jumping get a lot more influence. I would definitely put a lot of emphasis on the dressage ability of a young prospect in selecting a horse for the future. Just having a brilliant cross-country horse is not going to win you a big event nowadays.
Sian, Herndon, Va.
Also, what do you look for in a working student? How should a young rider approach a top-level professional to discuss working student opportunities? Do you encourage them to bring their own horse? Why, or if not, why not?
I think a working student is a good way of getting a feel for the sport and what’s involved behind the scenes. I think you’ll find most riders are quite approachable, and I think there’s a lot of very talented people out there, so trying to associate yourself with someone you admire is probably good for your career.
Sian, Herndon, Va.
Finally, what do you think makes you different from the many professional eventers who work hard but never make it to the top of the sport? (This is not meant to be a difficult question, I’d just like to know what helps).
I think there’s a lot that goes into being successful. Obviously talent is one; you need to be able to work hard, be a good competitor, have an ability to get on well with owners or potential owners, and you need to be good at horse selecting. I see a lot of good riders out there who aren’t on good horses. You need to be able to manage yourself, stay organized, stay in shape and that kind of thing. You’ve got to be a good employer because you’ll have people working for you. Those would be some of the things that go into being successful, and, obviously, it’s not just about having talent alone.