It was an incredible week throughout the world, like none most of us have ever experienced. The horse community and its leaders have embraced the seriousness of this pandemic, which will hopefully aid and help slow down the spread of COVID-19. It seems that a vaccine is at least 12 months away, so the immediate goal is to slow down the spread of the coronavirus, which will help to not overburden the hospitals and caregivers throughout the country.
Unfortunately, it looks like this pandemic will be with us for a while, so it seems like we need to plan our lives around this new norm. Most of us have family or loved ones that are at a higher risk for this virus, which could have disastrous consequences, so while most of those who are infected recover quickly, the main concern is for those who have suppressed immune systems.
My week was upended like everyone else. From being excited and determined to train and prepare my horses well for the upcoming season, specifically the five-stars at Land Rover Kentucky and Badminton, to an unknown short-term competition future. At this stage, the Olympics are reportedly going to be postponed, although the International Olympic Committee hasn’t rolled out all the details yet. Training and preparing from home without competitions is an added challenge. Competing on a weekly basis is a great way to get both horse and rider sharp and in form. Driving home from a competition is a great time for me to analyze and think of what I need to improve on with my own riding and each horse the next week.
So, without the benefit of competitions, my training at home needs to be as thorough and honest as possible, so that when we can start competing again, we are ready to fire. I still have stored away in my mind what my good friend George Morris once wisely said, “A championship will bring out the horse and rider’s strength and weaknesses.”
With all of this in mind, on a daily basis the horses will be training and working to improve each phase, specifically working on our weaknesses. Until we have a better idea of when we will start competing again, I will be backing off of their fitness work. I have also been thinking about possibly having in-barn competition days—going through dressage tests, show jumping and cross-country rounds to keep the horses and riders motivated. I am planning as well to utilize video more (being of a certain generation, I haven’t done this much in the past) to work on my position and study how the horses are going as well as a way to keep my owners involved remotely. Of course, traveling to teach will no longer be an option.
It is going to a quieter time for grooms and working students as well. We all do better with goals and events to aim for, so making short-term internal goals might help. Maybe there is a hayloft that needs cleaning out, or horses may benefit from extra grooming. We will all need to make the most of this quieter time, so that we are ready once the quarantine is over.
It is frustrating as well for owners who have invested so heavily in horses and riders to see the competitions stopped just as the season is getting started. I am trying to keep everyone involved and updated and assured that each horse is training full steam ahead and will be ready when we are given the green light. This should not affect the up-and-coming horses’ careers too much, and hopefully the veteran horses (and riders) get a chance to do something this year.
I feel that it is important to keep it all in context. This is just a sport, and to have these horses and these competitions is a privilege. Many of us who are riders and trainers are blessed to live on farms where we can be in the fresh air and take advantage of being outdoors. I know that there are years of work and effort that have gone into getting to this point, and if we all work together we can help control this terrible outbreak.
Please stay safe.
Phillip Dutton moved to the United States from Australia in 1991 and won two Olympic team gold medals for Australia before becoming a U.S. citizen in 2006. He’s represented the United States at all the major international games, including winning individual bronze at the 2016 Olympic Games aboard Mighty Nice, as well as team gold and individual silver at the Pan American Games in 2007 and team gold in 2015. He has been the U.S. Eventing Association Rider of the Year 12 times and was Fédération Equestre Internationale World Event Rider in 2005. He’s a founding member of the Eventing Riders Association North America (formerly the Professional Riders Organization) and has served on the U.S. Equestrian Federation Safety Committee and the USEF Board of Directors. He currently sits on the USEF Eventing Sport Committee. Also a top international coach, he lives in Avondale, Pennsylvania, and trains out of True Prospect Farm in West Grove, Pennsylvania, and Aiken, South Carolina.