Phillip Dutton: ‘Hold Your Head Up High’

A common-sense attitude has driven this Olympic eventing star’s success.

Photo: Shannon Brinkman

Phillip Dutton is a product of his Australian upbringing. He grew up on a sheep and cattle farm in the Australian Outback, where riding horses was just part of every day on the farm. “I didn’t ever think I would ride for a living,” he explains. “If you were a guy, once you got out of college, it wasn’t cool to ride. It just wasn’t something that you did.”

When interest rates skyrocketed in the 1980s, the family farm came under severe financial pressure. Phillip decided that, being the youngest and still single, he was the logical one to leave. He left the business in the hands of his two older brothers and set out to concentrate full time on his riding.

In 1991, he moved to the United States and began a decade of performances at the Olympics, Pan American Games and other international competitions. He was on the gold-medal Australian team at both the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, riding True Blue Girdwood, and 2000 Sydney Olympics with House Doctor. In 2006, he became a U.S. citizen and competed on the U.S. Olympic team in 2008 in Beijing with Connaught and in 2012 in London with Mystery Whisper. At the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016, he won the individual bronze medal on Mighty Nice.

It turned out that 2016 was a year of unbelievable highs and incredible lows. Phillip’s family encountered tragedy in December when his 22-year-old stepdaughter, Lee Lee Jones, suffered brain trauma when her horse spooked, slipped and then fell on top of her. Following the accident, Phillip has cut back on the number of horses in his program to spend more time helping in Lee Lee’s recovery but still competes on the international circuit.

Phillip lives at his True Prospect Farm, located south of Philadelphia, with his wife Evie, Lee Lee and two daughters, Mary and Olivia. During the winter, the Duttons reside at Red Oak Farm in Aiken, South Carolina.

Practical Horseman: Why did you choose to move to the U.S.?

Phillip Dutton: I had a very green horse, True Blue Girdwood, who was at the Preliminary level when I came over [from Australia]. I had been to America before and I really liked being here. Having this green horse, I felt that I might have a better chance of getting work and making ends meet in the U.S., rather than going to England where the sport was so saturated.

I like that everyone has a chance in this country. Someone once told me that for an hour’s work in America, you get more reward from that than anywhere else in the world. I believe that. It’s not a perfect country, but I believe that.

PH: Was it hard to switch to U.S. citizenship?

PD: It was one of the toughest decisions I went through. On one hand, my parents gave me an incredible upbringing and were big cheerleaders for my riding career. I am proud to be Australian and what that stands for.

But I hadn’t done much in Australia. I was in America and my career was happening here. There were a lot of people here who believed in me and helped me. Nobody said anything to me, but hearing the Australian anthem being played when I did well on their horse was not the greatest thing for that owner. I decided it was the right thing to do.

PH: What has led to your success?

PD: A lot goes into it; it is not one simple answer. I am pretty passionate and I do love this sport. I think every day about how I can improve myself, my riding and my horses—how to get better, what to do with a horse, what events to go to, what horses are out there.

You have to have an attitude of being reasonably humble. You want to get better and be prepared to accept criticism and take instructions. But you also have to be ballsy enough to have belief in yourself and your horse.

You have to have grit as well. A lot of the time it doesn’t go right. Have an attitude of “I don’t really care, I am just going to make this work.” And at the bottom of the list, you obviously need some talent as well.

PH: What habits have you adopted that have helped your career?

PD: Realistic horses are expensive. Get people around you who have the same goals and interests that you have. Find a way to interact with them and make them feel a part of it, too. That’s not so easy to do. I am not the most outgoing person, so I have tried to become a good communicator with people. I have tried to work with a smaller group of people but make them feel that we are in this together.

PH: Do you have a favorite horse?

PD: I have read stories that there are certain things in your life if you did not do, your life would be changed. I don’t know that my life would be the same if I didn’t have True Blue Girdwood. I came to the U.S. with that horse. I didn’t know much. He was a tough horse and he was able to go to the world championships and the Olympics. I look back and thank my lucky stars that we got together.

PH: What traits do you look for in an eventing prospect?

PD: They’ve got to be good jumpers. I know that sounds simple. But even when a horse is exhausted and tired and his blood is up—whether it’s raining or there’s an atmosphere of 50,000 people—he has to have the instinct to work hard and look after you on cross country. Then work backward from that: a horse with a mind that you can teach and a horse that will take to the sport. And he needs the movement for the dressage. It is a pretty special animal who can be at the top of the game at the four-star level.

PH: What do you like about yourself?

PD: I have become pretty tough if things go wrong. And I don’t get too excited if things go right. I would say that I’m fairly even-keeled. When I was growing up, I wasn’t looked at that way. But when you compete for over 20 years at this level, experience the highs and lows, it levels out everything in your life.

PH: What do you not like about yourself?

PD: I think any competitor has a selfish side to them. Sometimes I am a bit embarrassed that I go do this for myself when I have a family. But I look at it that I am putting this time into the business also.

PH: How do you show up as a leader in this sport?

PD: I don’t know that I have any great leadership skills. Certainly, I am respected in our sport. So I try to be responsive when people come to me with questions—questions as simple as walking a course, asking about what events to go to or, on the macro level, asking what direction our eventing team is going, how to train for the next Olympics.

Setting a good example is leadership in itself. In the barn where we work, I set out each day what everyone needs to do. I try to do it in a quiet way and create a happy environment. It is the same as when I compete.

PH: You often reference your parents. What did you learn from them?

PD: My mom and dad brought me up to be humble and take the good with the bad. Go about it in the best possible way you can. Hold your head up high. Try to be nice to everyone and have fun along the way.

Photo: Courtesy Phillip Dutton

PH: How is your stepdaughter Lee Lee doing in her recovery?

PD: Lee Lee is literally improving every week, but it is a long, long process. She had a horrific fall in 2016 [when her horse slipped and fell during a schooling ride at home]; she is lucky she is still alive. We try to celebrate every little improvement she has and not get too far ahead of ourselves. She is young and a determined girl. It is not easy for any of us, especially Lee Lee. And, of course, my wife Evie is burdened with most of the care when I am on the road. We are making do and determined to get Lee Lee to the best possible place for her.

PH: Has her accident changed you?

PD: I like to think I should have been like this before, but I appreciate things more now, even winning an event. How fortunate I am to have a nice horse that I can do that still. You get closer to your family and closer to the friends that have gone through it with you. It is unfortunate, so many traumatic things happen in life. You never know what is around the corner.

PH: Does this make you worry more about risks in your sport?

PD: When you are there up close with somebody you love with all your heart, who has just had that accident, it is life changing. It is literally like coming up on a car accident—it is chilling and brings home to you the reality that something really bad can happen. I have seen so many falls in my career—I teach a lot and people fall off a lot—but nothing like this accident with Lee Lee.

In eventing and anything with horses, there is an element of risk there, no question. But there is risk and danger in everything we do in life. Lee Lee was just cantering around the track. She was at the wrong place at the wrong time.

PH: What is the most important thing you have ever done?

PD: Have a family. After that, being able to come to this country and get to where I’ve gotten to. I didn’t come with any backup plan or anyone telling me what to do. I have had to navigate it myself. That might be something that I am most proud of.

PH: What life lesson do you want your children to understand?

PD: Appreciate success and understand that you are not invincible. You have a good week one week, but then don’t get too carried away with yourself. It does not mean it will happen next week. The horse is a great leveler—he keeps us all pretty humble.

PH: Who do you admire outside of riding?

PD: I really appreciate individuals who have changed their sport or industry: Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Muhammad Ali, Lance Armstrong, Usain Bolt and even Secretariat. I don’t necessarily always like the way they have gotten to the top, but am fascinated by their passion and determination.

PH: What would you change about eventing?

PD: There is a mentality in eventing that people want to move up the levels. Sometimes the horses or riders are not ready or talented enough. It is a problem in this sport and something that needs to be addressed. The four-star should be like Formula One: a pretty elite level of horses and rider should be there. At some stage in the future, it will have to be restricted so only the horses and riders who are totally capable and ready to be there can compete.

There is also so much emphasis now—especially with the up and coming riders—on social media and the image they want to put out. In a lot of cases, these riders put more energy into this than improving their riding and horsemanship.

PH: How does winning feel?

PD: There is winning and then there is winning. With an eventing horse you can’t be out there trying to win all the time. A lot of the time it is just a school. You can’t gallop hard all the time. So on a daily basis, winning is just getting a good school. Once you get to the big events, you get a little immune to getting too excited about it. But then also understand that it is sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Don’t get me wrong—I don’t like losing—but I have learned to manage it.

PH: What goes through your mind when you stand on the Olympic podium?

PD: For those couples of minutes that I am up there, I think back to the people who supported me and how I got there. And it is a luxury to say, “I did it!”

This article was originally published in the August 2018 issue of Practical Horseman. 

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