After top international results in the late aughts (including FEI World Cup Champion in 2005 and 2008, a win at the Rolex Kentucky CCI5*-L in 2007 and medals at both the FEI World Equestrian Games and the Olympics), Australian eventer Clayton Fredericks stepped back from elite sport as a competitor to focus on other aspects of his business. But with several top contenders in his barn in 2020—led by Diana Crawford and Kingfisher Park’s 11-year-old Hanoverian gelding FE Stormtrooper—Fredericks has returned to the international spotlight with one goal: selection for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.
Fredericks, 52, has enjoyed a multi-hyphenate career—top international competitor, successful business owner, international course designer, technical advisor to the Canadian eventing team—that gives him a rich perspective on the sport. A former member of the Fédération Equestre Internationale Eventing Committee and chairman of the Eventing Riders Association, Fredericks is once again focused on competing.
We caught up with Fredericks, his wife Lisa Baker and their 6-month-old son Hunter Fredericks in the truck near their home in Anthony, Florida, just after FE Stormtrooper (Stakkato’s Highlight—Levina, Levisto) bested 30 starters to win the advanced division at Chattahoochee Hills (Georgia), Aug. 29-30.
Tell us a little about your winning mount, FE Stormtrooper.
We imported him originally, and we sold him to Kingfisher. He has always been a super talent, but he is a very strong horse. Dana Cooke was riding him for those guys, and he ended up being way too powerful for her. I’ve been training her as well, and she said she wasn’t really comfortable on him and maybe I should ride him again. I think this is my third season on him, and I’ve really been taking him very steady, trying to get everything to fall into place, really spending time building him up and getting him confident and trusting. He’s always been kind of a nervy horse, in a funny way. He’s very quiet to handle and do everything with, but when you’re riding him, he’s really quite nervy. He’s an interesting character!
He’s really started to trust me. Now I just sort of feel like, especially after the weekend, I’ve got a bit more confidence to really go and crack on the speed as far as the cross-country is concerned.
What is up next for you two?
The plan at this stage is that he’s going to go to Stable View [South Carolina] and then run in at the CCI4*-L in Tryon [North Carolina]. The original plan was for this horse to go to Kentucky, then the plan was to go do well at the [USEA American Eventing Championships], with the prize money and everything. But basically, I’m pleased we were able to set him up and have him peak at the right time at Chatt Hills.
Obviously, the pandemic cancellations this spring forced a change in your schedule. What has been your strategy to adjust?
Honestly, it’s been a real flip flop around for us. When we started the year, I was going to have three horses entered at Kentucky for the five-star there, so then that got canceled, and we go OK, then we’ll aim for the Fair Hill five-star, then that got canceled. We’ve been sort of aiming at a moving goal post. Having said that, we decided we weren’t going to take on too many competitions, just try to set them up for the main ones, and that’s it.
Did this shift in competitive focus cause a change in your training strategy at home?
Yes and no. It’s always a bit tough in Florida; there’s not much of a hill to give [them] real good blows up, and I always feel like we’ve been a bit sensitive to that. I suppose in a funny way, we’ve been trying to have competitions that have a bit more of the hilly terrain. It has been about trying to balance keeping them fit and sound for a bit of a longer stretch. I had actually planned to have a bigger break in the middle of the year, where we wouldn’t be doing as much, and obviously that changed. [Normally] we wouldn’t have as much pressure to have them going and as fit as they have to be. [Instead], we’ve had to keep the horses in much harder condition than normal. It’s been a real sort of mix up, and it’s been trying to keep on top of it.
(Clayton’s young son Hunter contributes several excited shrieks to his father’s response.)
Hunter seems to want to join the conversation, so let’s talk about him. What has it been like adjusting to life with a newborn again?
It’s been interesting. I had forgotten most of it, really, so it’s like starting again. My daughter Ellie [with British eventer Lucinda Fredericks] is 17, and dealing with him brings memories back about her. It has been tough in many ways with COVID, as we’ve got no parents to fall back on over here; we’ve got really little family around to get a break. We’re lucky he’s being a really good boy. So many people comment that he’s always smiling. (Hunter responds, loudly and joyfully. Clayton laughs.) He is really finding his voice at the moment!
Ellie lives with her mum in the U.K., and that’s been hard. She would normally come over for every school holiday, but I haven’t seen her since Christmas. We speak on FaceTime, but it is probably five of my texts to her one, or 10 calls just to get her. She is good; she’s enjoying her riding, and I think it’s going to be a big part of her life going forward. I’m sort of hoping that eventually she might compete over here during the crappy winter weather in the U.K. Ellie just did her first intermediate double clear on the weekend as well—it was a good weekend for the Frederickses!
Have you continued working as a course designer this year?
It’s funny how things happen. With the cancellation of the [Ocala] Jockey Club [Florida], I sort of was a bit worried about what was going to happen there. I just picked up the CCI-3*/4*-L course at Galway Downs (California) for October and November and their spring event as well. That’s actually going to suit me quite well. Although I loved doing the Jockey Club event, you know, I really regretted not being able to ride in it!
What do you see as the role of the course designer?
My job as the course designer is to really see if the training has been done. As far as designing a jump on course, the job is to create a situation where the horses jump the fences in a nice way. You can’t control the riders who don’t have control or shouldn’t be at the level, or the riders who make a wrong decision on course, but what you can do is create fences that when met in the right way, at the right pace on the right line, will create good pictures.
What I certainly try to avoid is ugly looking jumping efforts, where the horses are not making a nice shape. There will always be the odd ones who meet the jump wrong. But we can make profiles of the fences that make the horses jump in a nice way. I think that’s what is important. You can’t control the riders and who enters them and whether they’ve done the training or not. But you can at least set a [standard] where they realize they maybe shouldn’t be at that level.
Has being an FEI course designer influenced your riding?
I think it’s the opposite way around. My work as a course designer is really benefitting from the fact that I am still riding. My whole course design has never come from the technical side of it. One of the things about starting this sport in Australia, then moving to Europe, and then spending so much time in the U.K., and now to America—I’ve got a good global view of the sport. It has influenced me as a designer. There is definitely a different style in Britain to what there is in France, to what there is in Australia and to a certain degree what is here in the U.S. I have a good understanding of the level, what is right for the three-star, for the four-star, and that is the biggest challenge of the course designer—to keep the star level right.
If you make the Australian Olympic squad in 2021, it will have been nearly a decade since your last Games. What has setting this goal done to your daily program?
It does make you realize how focused you have to be on the horses, [especially] the good ones. I’m frequently having to readjust where I’m focusing things on. It’s been tough.
Very few riders have the luxury of just being able to concentrate on their riding and their horses, and certainly I’ve never been able to have that luxury. Whether it’s just teaching or doing other sections of the business, I’ve always had to split my time. What I’ve tried to do—if you are in the position where you have good enough horses to do the major stuff—you make sure you are spending 100 percent of the time that you ride focused on that. That basically means throwing your phone away when you get on. (Hunter again chimes in.)
You must have to whisk Hunter away in order to focus, as well!
He is a huge distraction! He sat on a horse for the first time just the other day. He sat in front of me, and he’s a natural. He grabbed the reins like he’d been doing it forever. There’s something about this kid; it’s like he’s got an old soul. He looks at me sometimes, and I just think, “You’ve been here before, mate.”