The spectators who gathered ringside were silent as Frankie Thieriot Stutes and Chatwin entered the arena. The overnight leaders in the 2018 Dutta Corp. Fair Hill International CCI*** had more than a rail to spare in their show-jumping round. As Stutes and the rangy, jet-black gelding galloped through the finish line at last October’s competition in Elkton, Maryland, the crowd erupted into cheers while she pumped her fist in triumph. The amateur eventer, mother and entrepreneur from Occidental, California, had traveled across the country with her quirky but talented horse to win the U.S. Equestrian national championship.
The Early Years
Stutes, now 31, wasn’t born into an equestrian family, but her love of horses was evident early on. “I was an energetic kid, and my mom sent me to pony school when I was young, trying to find something to tire me out,” she recalls. Stutes enrolled in a riding and horsemanship program for young riders at Yves Sauvignon’s stable in Santa Rosa, California. During her 15 years with Sauvignon, she started in eventing with several ponies, first in the pony-school program and then later her own horses.
“She’s always had an outgoing, bubbly personality and was a real go-getter,” says Sauvignon. “[She] was always drawn to tough ponies and loved the challenge. I’d say she’s a bit of a ‘horse whisperer.’ Throughout her life, she’s always formed these wonderful connections with her horses.”
Sauvignon and his wife at the time, Christine, helped Stutes fall in love with eventing, partly when they paired her up with an experienced, 17.2-hand Selle Français gelding, Fric Frac Berence, “Fric,” who became her confidence-building eventing partner for more than a decade.
“Fric was the best babysitter in the world,” recounts Stutes, who started riding him at age 12. “If he could see the jump, he was going to the other side with or without you. He saved me time and time again. When you left the start box, you just pressed ‘go’ and the rest was taken care of.”
Fric and Stutes successfully tackled some of the toughest CCI*** cross-country tracks in the U.S. and Canada. Throughout this time, Stutes worked with her gelding through several serious medical issues. “In 2004, he injured two tendons and the vets told me he’d never compete again,” Stutes explains. But through patience and persistence, he came back to compete at the Advanced level for five more years.
Fric also continued at the top levels after the loss of vision in one eye due to a pasture accident. “Through Fric’s vision issues, getting the right medications and treatments, I had to go to bat for him like he has always done for me, and it made our relationship that much more special,” she says.
In 2011, Stutes and Fric were slated to compete at their first four-star event, the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, when Fric suffered a career-ending suspensory injury just three weeks before the competition. Stutes retired Fric, now 25, to her home, where he still lives today with Chatwin.
For Stutes, Fric isn’t just a “wise and sophisticated” horse, he’s a lifetime friend. “He was there through so many monumental moments in my life: high school, my first heartbreak, my parents’ divorce, college and this whole crazy chapter of me becoming an adult and a mother. Visiting Fric is still what I do on my worst days. I have always felt in a weird way that he knows how I feel, and he can make me feel better just by being there.”
An Unlikely Partnership
After Fric retired, Stutes had planned to stop riding and focus on a career in sports marketing. She was happy in her new life without horses until her friend Tory Smith asked if she would be willing to ride her young 15.3-hand Holsteiner mare, Uphoria (Roo), for a few months while Smith got used to the rigorous schedule of law school. “I was honest with her and I told her I wasn’t a fan of mares, and I haven’t ridden anything under 17 hands for the last 10 or 15 years,” she recalls.
Stutes tried to convince Smith to find another rider, but Smith persuaded her to try out Roo. After riding the mare at a local event venue, Stutes agreed to take her for a bit and brought her home. “I hadn’t fallen off Fric in five or six years, and the first month I had Roo, I fell off three times. I thought, Either she’s going to kill me or we’re going to figure this out.”
They did, and a few months turned into six years together. Stutes fell in love with Roo, guiding her to the two-star level and many accolades, including U.S. Eventing Association Intermediate Horse of the Year. “Everything was true about what people always said about mares, as stereotypical as it is,” she says. “Once they trust you, there’s nothing they wouldn’t do for you. Fric had been the best babysitter, but because of that I didn’t always have to learn how to ride well, and Roo taught me an incredible amount.”
During those years, Stutes knew that she wanted to keep riding indefinitely. “Roo was the one who made that happen in my mind, and I realized how important it was for me to balance that with my daily life,” she says. “The support of the entire Smith family also made riding so much fun.”
After her success with Roo and with an invigorated passion for riding, Stutes began to look for a new eventing partner. In early 2014, she visited her longtime friend and fellow eventer Kelly Prather in Florida and tried out some horses.
Australian Olympian Clayton Fredericks had a youngster named Chatwin for sale whom he’d recently imported from Germany. As a 5-year-old, the Oldenburg gelding had competed in the Bundeschampionate, the national championship of the German breed associations, and had done a handful of events in the U.S. with Fredericks.
“Chatwin didn’t have a conventional jumping style and he still doesn’t,” explains Stutes. “He kind of stood in the cross-ties like a donkey, and I remember calling [my coaches] Andrea [Pfieffer] and Tamie [Smith] and saying, ‘Well, he’s not the most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen and he doesn’t have any personality,’” she recalled with a laugh.
But when Stutes popped him over a crossrail, he reminded her of Fric. “He just felt safe to me, and that’s what I really wanted.” She called her cousin Zib and uncle Eric, and with their help purchased Chatwin and brought him to California.
As she got to know Chatwin, she discovered he had some quirks. “When he would get afraid, he would just turn and bail. I think I discounted a little bit how green he still was.
“I remember my first Preliminary event on him,” she continues. “We were winning, and I went into show jumping and came around the corner to an oxer and he got so scared that he stopped dead in his tracks and turned and bolted. It took everything I had to get him over it. But I think he closed his eyes and he took out every pole on the jump.” Afterward, Stutes focused Chatwin’s training on jumper shows to help him overcome his spookiness in that phase and exposed to him to as many different experiences as she could.
“She’s worked so hard to develop a close connection to Chatwin,” says Tamie Smith, who, in addition to being Stutes’ trainer, is her good friend. “She’s inspired me to have better relationships with each of my horses, too,” she notes, adding “she’s one of the most fiercely competitive people I know.”
The Turning Point
Stutes’ and Chatwin’s partnership blossomed, and the gelding’s charming personality began to shine through. The pair began moving up the levels, picking up win after win all along the West Coast. In the spring of 2016, they made their first trip east together, finishing fifth in the Jersey Fresh CCI**. “The following year I went back to Jersey to compete in the three-star, and he overreached and injured himself in the wash rack. I had to withdraw before cross country,” Stutes says.
The pair re-routed to the CCI*** in Bromont, Canada, the next month and ended up fourth. Between the two competitions, Chatwin stayed with Prather, who kept him in prime condition. Stutes returned home to be with her family, including her husband, Mike, and her first child, Drake, and run her two businesses.
Though Bromont was a success, Stutes realized it was not in her own or Chatwin’s best interest to be apart for so long. “I hadn’t been riding as much leading up to [Bromont] because Chatwin was out East, and I was so caught up in what everyone was doing and I started to alter my own plan,” she explains. “My program was working, so why was I changing it?”
Pregnant with her second son, Kingsley, Stutes spent the months afterward reflecting on the previous season and planning future goals for herself and Chatwin. After Kingsley’s birth in late 2017, Stutes entered the eventing circuit the following spring with renewed vigor, making a commitment to stay focused on her goals and stick to the training regimen she’d laid out. Her plan came to fruition in July 2018, when they won the Rebecca Farm CCI*** in Montana.
Rebecca Farm was a turning point for Stutes because she told herself to live in the moment. “I wasn’t on social media and I wasn’t going to worry about what other people were doing,” she says. “More than that, Rebecca Farm is such a magical place. I wanted to take in that my family and friends were all there and that Kelly had flown all the way to be there for me and see the boys. We all get so caught up in social media and we forget to enjoy what we have going on.”
After their victory at Rebecca Farm, Stutes and Chatwin had their sights set on Fair Hill CCI*** in October. “I came back from Rebecca Farm and I stayed home and trained in my zone the whole time. Other than my regular conversations and guidance from my coach Tamie, I didn’t worry about what anyone else was doing,” she explains. “I knew that I would be more successful if I focused on my plan until we left. Before Chatwin flew out to Fair Hill, I think I was apart from him for maybe three days to stay home with the boys.”
A financial boost from the USET Foundation’s Jacqueline B. Mars Competition Grant helped fund the trip. “I was so lucky to get that grant because it’s a big stretch financially competing at this level,” she admits. “That also meant Chatwin could fly out, and I was able to ride him at home until just a few days before the event.”
The two led the CCI*** from start to finish and were the only combination in the division to end on their dressage score. “I kept telling myself that I wanted be happy with how things went in all three phases,” Stutes says. “I didn’t know where that might end up [in the results]. The most important thing was that my horse was healthy when it was over and that I got to bring him home to my son Drake, who constantly reminds me that Chat is his horse and I can borrow him sometimes.”
To Stutes, the victory was a reflection of the trust she’d worked so hard to build with Chatwin. “At Fair Hill, I said during the press conference after dressage, there was a moment [in Chatwin’s test] when he got really afraid because of a blowing bag on a camera but he didn’t bail. It showed me, ‘Wow, he believes in our partnership so much now.’”
With the best eventing season of her career behind her, Stutes isn’t resting on her laurels. In 2018, she began riding with dressage trainer and judge Lilo Fore, who is based just 20 minutes from Stutes’ home. She credits Fore with helping to take her dressage training to the next level. “The exciting part of it is that I feel like we’re just starting to see what we can do on the flat. I have so many things I want to improve and so much work that I need to put in to get better.”
Last December, at the U.S. Eventing Association convention in New Orleans, Stutes was awarded the $50,000 Rebecca Broussard International Riders Grant, an enormous financial boost for her 2019 competition plans with Chatwin.
Additionally, Stutes was named the top USEA Adult Amateur for 2018 and received the Amateur Impact Award from the Eventing Riders Association of North America. Chatwin finished out the season as the runner-up USEA Horse of the Year.
Stutes was also the only amateur rider named to the USEF’s 2019 Development Pre-Elite Training List. “I want amateurs to know that if they want to compete at the upper levels, they should dare to dream and can hopefully figure out a way to reach those goals,” she says.
One dream for which Stutes has charted a direct course is competing at the 2019 Land Rover Kentucky CCI*****. But she’s not setting anything in stone yet. “I’m just happy to be doing what I’m doing for as long as I can.”
A Balancing Act: Family and Riding
The support of her family has always been one of the pillars of Frankie Thieriot Stutes’ riding career. Everyone pitches in: from her cousin and uncle’s help purchasing and supporting Chatwin, to her mother’s daily care of Fric as well as Stutes’ two young boys Drake and Kingsley, to her husband Mike’s encouragement of her riding and help with their family.
Competing in upper-level eventing typically requires a multiple-day trip. “I always say to myself, ‘This trip is time away from work and family, so I’d better do the best I can,’” Stutes says. “Sometimes I think, What am I doing? Am I being a good mom being gone and sometimes dragging these boys all over the place?”
Mike played baseball professionally for the Philadelphia Phillies and understands her competitive drive. “He knows that riding, for me, is so important emotionally,” she notes. “Riding does make me a better mom because I’m in a better place for it. I need it in my life.”
Stutes continued riding and competing throughout both of her pregnancies, though fellow eventer Tamie Smith briefly took over the reins with Chatwin both times. “That experience of riding while pregnant is different for everybody. [When I was pregnant], I knew if I ever left the start box and I wasn’t feeling 100-percent mentally focused on Chatwin it was time to stop. I also had good eyes on the ground who I trusted and would check in with me to make sure I still felt safe and comfortable when riding.”
After the birth of Drake, Stutes felt like she bounced back quickly, but “getting back into riding after my second child, Kingsley, was a different experience physically,” she says. “I thought, Am I ever going to be back to the way I was? Will I ever be able to properly sit that trot again? It’s hard and it takes a really long time.”
She admits that having kids also changed her perspective on the sport. “It’s really rewarding getting back home to the boys after an event. Or crossing the finish line to see them waiting. And if I’ve had a frustrating competition, I know that there’s always something going on in my life that’s much bigger than just a horse show.”
Stutes also tries to find time to maintain a level of fitness for high-level eventing. She rides Chatwin six days a week (twice a day leading up to an FEI event) and supplements that with working out or going for a run. “You just do the best you can to reach your goals. I carry a lot of kids around, too, so that helps my arm strength,” she says, laughing.
Running Her Own Businesses
Frankie Thieriot Stutes has always competed as an amateur, but she found a way to unite her love of sports with a professional career.
After earning her Bachelor of Arts degree at Santa Clara University in northern California in 2008, Frankie interned and freelanced at several sports marketing agencies. She planned to attend Northwestern University for her masters, but instead took a job as the Director of Communications at New Evolution Ventures (NEV), a fitness, media and sports company. Stutes was the youngest person at the company by close to 20 years, but she got the chance to learn from some of the best professionals in the industry. “A lot of the things I do in running my companies now are because of the way I was trained at NEV and the amazing people who I was fortunate to work with there,” she says.
Stutes juggled a corporate career while competing, but then in 2011 she launched her own sports marketing agency, Athletux. “It allowed me a more flexible schedule to work, ride and see my family,” she explains.
The company skyrocketed. Professional riders, many of whom Stutes had known for years on the eventing circuit, looked to her for guidance in marketing and managing their businesses. As a result, Stutes soon hired three full-time employees to help manage clients. “I love getting to be a part of [the riders’] journey as an extension of their team,” she reflects.
In 2017, she introduced a new company called Frankie Cameron, which features handcrafted leather bags. After the birth of her first son, Drake, Stutes came up with the idea of diaper bags that were both functional and fashionable, so she created bags to include zip-out liners for easy washing. The inventory now includes regular handbags, travel bags and other styles as well.
Stutes designs every bag herself, which are then manufactured and shipped to her house. “After riding in the morning, I basically devote all day to Athletux and then after the boys go to the sleep, I pack bags to be shipped,” she says.
Diving into the world of sales has lit a fire under Stutes to start some fresh marketing initiatives with Athletux. “These companies have taught me to be passionate about my ideas and the work I do,” she admits.
This article was originally published in the Spring 2019 issue of Practical Horseman.