Deonte Sewell began working for Phillip Dutton in September, and this is his first blog about the experience. Sewell, 23, grew up in Elkton, Maryland, and started riding when he was 12. After high school, he worked at Tom Proctor Racing Stables in Elkton, where he got his first horse, Godard, an off-the-track Thoroughbred gelding.
Sewell went on to work for Overlook Farm and Appleton Equestrian before joining Chris Barnard and Justine Dutton at show jumping barn Notting Hill Stables (Florida) earlier in 2020. The Chronicle published a profile of Sewell in the Sept. 7 & 14, 2020, issue.
On an average day, I wake up before 6 a.m. That’s what I’ve always done, even when I was working at the track. I have breakfast, usually [Eggo waffles] that I pop in the toaster oven. I go down to the barn, straight out to the field, grab horses, and bring them in. Usually, after all the horses are brought in, I’ll check out the setlist to see which horses I’m on that morning, what I’m doing that day, which horses need to go out for extra grass, or what horses need medication—typical barn things.
Around 9 a.m. is when I’ll usually get on my first horse. It depends on what Phillip has planned for the week: whether or not he’s preparing for a horse show, having a jump school, or how many people he’s teaching. Every day it changes, but typically I get to ride at least two a day, sometimes more. Recently, I’ve been getting to flat a lot of horses, which is fun and good for my education.
I was really nervous [on my first day]. You don’t really know what to expect when stepping into a barn with someone who has been riding at the top level for years. For the first week and a half, I was nervous like, “I must execute everything. I must try my best.” In the barn, I can confidently muck a stall, and I can brush a horse. If a horse has any markings, I can go up to Phillip and confidently be like, “This horse has this. What do you want on it?” Definitely, for me, my nerves really kicked in when I had to start riding.
I think that’s for everyone at a new job. I was that same way at Justine’s. My very first day, she was like, “Can you flat this horse and ride this horse?” I was like, “Oh no. I can do it, but if it’s not done well, I’m sorry.” You see them ride every day, and they make it look so easy, and you’re sitting there like, “I want to make it look easy,” but they’ve spent the time doing it, so it becomes second nature for them to just be good on any horse they sit on.
My first day [at Phillip’s] was big and educational because I got to ride some horses; I called it the test day. I got to jog his daughter [Olivia Dutton’s] newly minted two-star horse Iniesta, and that was fun to sit on such a quality horse. I got to sit on Z and Apollo. Apollo, still to this day, is my favorite horse. He was very straightforward, easy to ride, and he just had a lot of personality to him; he reminded me a lot of Godard. I sat on him, and I felt confident and sure of what I was doing.
Getting on the horses was a big eye-opener for me because I found out where I was weak on the flat and where I was stronger and confident enough to execute a job. As soon as I got on the horses, it was like a lightbulb went on, and everything clicked together. I knew when it was going well because the horses were responding, and when I wasn’t clear on an aid, they’d be like, “That’s not right.” They very much let me know that it was wrong, so obviously, that’s where I have to sit and be like, “OK. My leg needs to be here to get this response here.”
That is the best part about getting to sit on his horses: Every day, I learn because it changes in the barn. You get to sit on some experienced horses, and then some days you sit on the greener horses, so you get to learn what makes things tick or tack. I spent the time learning what buttons made each horse work.
I’ve gotten to watch Phillip flat his horses. I can see what he’s doing and then being able to get on that horse the next time he asks me to flat them translates into understanding that, “This means this.” It’s not just, “Get on and pull the head.” If this leg isn’t here, I’m not going to get the response that I need. So, that’s the best part about getting to sit on a lot of his horses. You know that they know, and they will let you know when you’re not doing it right.
There are still some days where I feel like maybe I should be a show jumper, but I think that’s just me beating myself down because my confidence is up and down. Adjusting back to eventing, I have to pay attention to what I’m doing for [Phillip] because I rode the show jumpers completely differently than you ride the event horses.
Riding—it’s just so much to put together and process all at once. The biggest thing for me is I haven’t had any real structure as far as my riding for the last year. After I knew Godard wasn’t going to be able to do what I wanted to do, I didn’t really take any lessons anymore; I didn’t really ride much besides when I went to Florida. I went from having a structured program to nothing, kind of just filling in when I needed to fill in. Now, I’m slowly getting back into the structure, and my body and my mind is still stuck in the limbo of, “I don’t know what I’m doing. I really need help.”
It’s not that I don’t know what I’m doing; it’s just that mentally, when you haven’t been in something for a while, you come back into it, and you’re not going to be so sure about it. You’re going to be in that stage of up and down until you start having more consistent moments, and that’s where I’m at now. I’m starting to get more consistent moments, which is very beneficial for me. This winter, I started to find what’s worked for me, finding out where I needed to improve in leading up to coming [to Phillip’s]. Here, I’m learning something new about myself and my riding. I would’ve never experienced that or had known that had I not been able to start sitting on nicer horses and ride with professionals.
The hardest thing is not having the money or the people to back you. In this industry, to really make it, you need supporters who are going to help you out with horses. Every rider needs help, and every day it’s finding the correct horse that’s going to push you to your next level.