Lesson of a Lifetime: Riding with Phillip Dutton

Shannon Brown, the winner of the "Win a Day with Phillip Dutton" contest, recounts her experience training with an Olympian.

I had the privilege to see five-time Olympian Phillip Dutton at the 2010 Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event and was struck by his quiet demeanor on horseback. So when I learned that I’d won Practical Horseman’s “Win a Day with Phillip Dutton” essay contest last summer, I was honestly shocked and immediately grateful for the opportunity.

Shannon Brown was all smiles during her day with Phillip Dutton. | © Amy K. Dragoo

Eight friends—we call ourselves Team Misfits—joined me for the clinic last December. We began with a session of flatwork and jumping in the arena, where, right off the bat, Phillip taught me the difference between “forward” and “quick.” I was riding Black Jack, my 7-year-old Standardbred/Quarter Horse cross, and our effort improved immensely as soon as I stopped letting him be quick and instead asked him to be forward. As Phillip worked with all of us, he emphasized the importance of being able to make quick decisions, such as reacting the instant you feel your horse start to back off. We also worked on encouraging our horses to bend not only on the flat but in our jump courses as well so they wouldn’t fall in with their shoulders on turns.

During lunch, Philip talked to us about the importance of training together. He told us how being in a barn of great riders encourages him to work harder and ride better and said the same should hold true for us. I loved this advice because we Misfits always try to encourage and motivate one another. I know that without this group of amazing friends and riders I would really feel lost at times.

Our cross-country lesson in the afternoon was phenomenal. Phillip reiterated the importance of forward and said that a horse who is not thinking forward is busy thinking about whatever else is going on around him—maybe that person holding an umbrella on the sideline or the trees blowing in the wind. A horse who thinks forward and trusts you will move freely to the jump and will focus on the task at hand, Phillip said. Then he demonstrated by climbing on Forwin, a jumper whose rider, Haley Zimmerman, couldn’t get him to settle. I believe it was a life-changing moment for that horse. Phillip galloped him around the course and jumped quite a few obstacles. The whole time, Forwin was in front of his leg and happy about it. When Haley returned to the saddle, they looked like a brand-new team.

At the end of our lesson, I asked Phillip if we could work on the ditch for just a bit because it’s an issue for Black Jack and me. I had debated asking, but I’m so glad I did. We were a little sticky getting over it at first, but Phillip worked us back and forth, incorporating other jumps and constantly reminding me to give my horse a good, straight and forward approach. In the end, we were jumping back and forth with no issue.

Since the clinic, Black Jack and I have been hard at work. We’ve started aiming for Training level but have also been reviewing fundamentals, remembering a remark of Phillip’s to do the little things well. We’ve been taking lessons with three-star rider Missy Miller in Savannah, Georgia, and and four-star rider Kristin Schmolze in Aiken, South Carolina. And I recently got the opportunity to ride with Phillip again at his farm in Aiken. We worked on show jumping. My new goal is building to the jump because Black Jack has a tendency to jump out more than up when I don’t set him up correctly. As we progress through the levels, we definitely need more up!

I’m also excited that Black Jack is now showing Macy Harden, my 12-year-old student, the ropes at Beginner Novice height. I’m proud of him and of Macy’s confidence in riding him, which is definitely a result of her participating in the clinic with Phillip. The rest of the Misfits are doing well and we are still smiling about our awesome experience. Some of us have started an organization that will host local combined-training events and clinics. We’re focusing on offering a fun and educational environment that we hope will create a greater interest in eventing in our area.

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