Skip to main content

Winning a Day with Phillip Dutton

Nine friends get the chance of a lifetime—riding with Phillip Dutton, an Olympic gold medalist and renowned three-day event trainer.

The challenge: Take a small group of novice but determined eventers with no regular access to professional event training and give them eight hours with one of the country’s best riders and coaches. How do you make the most of it as a rider? How do you make the most of it as the coach?

Contest winner Shannon Brown keeps her Black Jack straight and centered over a vertical in a bending “S” line of three verticals. © Amy K. Dragoo

Contest winner Shannon Brown keeps her Black Jack straight and centered over a vertical in a bending “S” line of three verticals. © Amy K. Dragoo

That was the scenario when a close-knit group of friends and barnmates from the Savannah, Georgia, area won a clinic with five-time Olympian Phillip Dutton through Practical Horseman’s “Training with the Stars: Win a Day with Phillip Dutton,” presented in partnership with Cosequin.

The contest winner, Shannon Brown, 27, of Guyton, Georgia, brought a group of eight friends who call themselves “Team Misfits”—a barn family ranging from preteen to middle-aged, who hail from a variety of equestrian backgrounds but share a common love of horses and help each other improve as riders.

The night before the clinic, the sense of giddy anticipation among the friends made the barn aisle feel more like backstage at a Justin Bieber concert. Instead of fussing over hair and makeup, though, they buzzed around making sure tack and horses would gleam for their face-to-face meeting with their own superstar. When the clinic day dawned rainy and gray, the riders’ smiles and the white patches on Paint horses were the brightest things in sight—an outward sign not only of their excitement and desire to make a good impression but also of their dedication to give and get 100 percent out of the clinic experience. That meant showing up for every session and listening to every word Phillip shared with them. The information was stashed away so they could remind each other of his tips once they returned home, where they serve as eyes on the ground to help each other improve.

For Phillip, more accustomed to coaching Young Riders or short-listed U.S. Equestrian Team hopefuls, the day meant delivering instruction that provided the most bang, with an eminently take-awayable bottom line: “Do the simple, important things really well.”
The “simple things” Phillip focused on were fundamentals to help the riders and horses, most of whom were relatively new to the sport of eventing, build correct foundations: First, teach the horse to go forward from the leg; second, connect him from inside leg to outside rein; and third, teach him to stay on the line you ride.

‘Training Is All the Time’
Each participant rode in a morning arena session of flatwork and jumping and in an afternoon cross-country school at Lellie Ward’s Paradise Farm in Aiken, South Carolina. The riders were divided into three groups for the morning session, roughly based on the horse’s eventing experience level: never-evented/Starter, Beginner Novice and Novice.

The arena sessions began with a speech from Phillip about the importance of having clear goals for every ride and understanding that everything you do on your horse is training in some way.

“Every time you ride your horse, you should be creating good habits. You can’t just pick and choose when you are going to ride the horse correctly,” he said. “Training is all the time.”

That doesn’t mean your horse must be on the bit every ride. Instead, it means that whether you are doing a formal dressage school or on a relaxing hack, you always insist that the horse respect certain parameters, like going forward when you put your leg on and following your steering aids. Don’t allow him to ignore your leg or cut corners because you’re on “just” an informal ride. “Horses are creatures of habit, they learn by repetition,” Phillip said. “Every time you get on, you should re-introduce the correctness of your riding. Keep it simple but the same every day: He should be obedient to the leg, going forward and coming back easily, and should be connected from inside leg to outside rein. He should know when you get on that it’s time to get into work mode.”

First Priority: Forward
Phillip underscored the importance of good habits from the moment he sent riders out to the rail with their first assignment: Create a forward walk. Every step counted, and those who ambled away from the center of the arena were admonished to get their horses marching.

Kick him or use your stick if he doesn’t immediately move forward from your leg, Phillip told a rider whose horse moved off lazily. When the horse cantered in response, Phillip instructed his rider to try again. “The canter isn’t wrong. He went forward from your leg,” he said. “Now walk again and try to make the walk more forward and active.”
Once the forward walk was established, Phillip asked for the same exercise in trot and canter. At each gait, riders were told to lengthen and shorten the strides to make their horses adjustable. For the green horses and riders, this translated to “big trot” and “trot on the spot.” Phillip wanted the horses to respond quickly to the forward aid and shorten again willingly.

“The horse needs to understand and be obedient to the leg, so that when you put your leg on, he doesn’t ignore it or pin his ears and bolt,” Phillip said. “As he gets more trained, you’ll use the leg to move him laterally or slow down by coming under himself and collecting.”

Asking for forward and back in the canter, Phillip noted that the ability to control the canter stride is a cornerstone to success in all three phases of eventing: “You want to have lots of options in your canter, so you can ride an 8-foot or a 14-foot stride,” he said. “If you can’t do that, you can’t do a proper dressage test, show jump successfully or go cross-country, where it’s so important to have your horse in front of your leg because there’s so much more out there to back him off.”

For most of the riders, opening their horses’ stride and having them respond quickly to the leg proved a bigger challenge than shortening the stride. After 20 minutes of Phillip’s instruction to “find a new gear” (a bigger stride within the gait), however, there was a visible change in the lazier horses as they became sharper to the leg and more forward-thinking without getting anxious.

Add Flexion and Connection
Once riders had established that leg meant forward, Phillip asked them to create a connection from inside leg to outside rein.

He first had each rider ask the horse to flex around her inside leg, applied at the girth, while on the rail. Cueing the riders to “see the horse’s inside eye,” he explained that flexion involves softening the horse’s jaw and neck by using the inside leg to create a better connection to the outside rein. (With greener horses, Phillip said, he asks for flexion only; as the horse’s education and suppleness increase, he asks for bend through the entire body.)

Next, he asked them to trot up the centerline and leg-yield to the track beginning at X, all on the same rein. The tighter turn onto the centerline gave riders an opportunity to emphasize flexion around the inside leg and feel the push into the outside rein as the horse straightened onto the centerline. The leg-yield to the rail helped further establish the connection from inside leg to outside rein, while also encouraging the horses to step under themselves with the inside hind leg for a more engaged, powerful stride.

“With a green horse, we don’t expect anything too marvelous in terms of lateral work, but we do expect a reaction,” Phillip explained. “The first priority is forward, then we add flexion to the inside, then connection.”

Flexed and Straight
After the leg-yields, Phillip asked riders to trot straight down the entire length of the centerline while changing flexion several times. Riders had to focus on staying straight and keeping their horses forward and in front of the leg through the changes in bend.
“Flexion doesn’t just happen on a bend or circle. Your horse also needs to be able to stay straight on the long side or centerline,” Phillip said. “Having the ability to ride the line you want is so important. Your horse needs to stay forward and straight when you change flexion.”

When Phillip noticed the occasional rider depending too much on the reins and pulling the horse into a frame, he gave her a visualization to focus on: “Imagine the bit being in front of your horse’s mouth,” he said. “Instead of pulling back, you want to push him forward into the bit for a softer, springier horse.”

And while his emphasis was on the exercises happening on the centerline, Phillip also instructed riders to “do simple things well” around the rest of the arena—stay straight along the rail and ride deep, square corners, for example.

Those who allowed their horses to cut the corners or overshoot the turn onto centerline were reminded about establishing good habits: A horse allowed to veer off his line on the flat is more likely to do the same thing over fences, where it could translate to a run-out or bad jump. A horse allowed to cut corners at home will be confused and less willing to ride deep into those corners when asked during a dressage test at a competition.

Hold the Line

Over fences, Phillip used two basic exercises to reinforce the lessons of forward, connected and straight: a bending “S” line of three verticals that required riders to be disciplined about their line and a vertical-to-oxer line that rode in five to seven strides, depending on the canter stride the rider created.

Phillip started riders over a single small vertical in the center of the arena, asking them to trot in and canter away, flexing the horse to whichever lead he landed on, then turning that direction at the rail.

The exercise seemed simple, but it helped Phillip make two major points:
First, the horse must stay forward and in front of the leg. For those horses who wanted to stall and land trotting, riders were instructed to give a tap with the stick over the fence to remind them to land and go forward. Second, the horse must stay straight over and after the fences, then flex properly around the turns rather than collapse into them.

From the first vertical in the center of the arena, Phillip added a second vertical on a 90-degree turn, then a third vertical on the opposite side of the center fence to complete the full “S” line. Riders were instructed to approach the line at a canter and jump the fences center to center, riding straight after the first fence, bending their horses around a left-hand turn, riding straight to the second, then riding the right-hand turn to the final fence. The focus was on riding a straight approach and departure and a good turn, as opposed to getting a specific number of strides.
For those who didn’t jump the center of a fence, Phillip again emphasized doing simple things well: Discipline yourself to build the good habit of jumping 12-foot-wide fences in exactly the spot you want, and you and your horse will be much better prepared when you progress to jumping cross-country accuracy questions that are half that width or less.

“Attention to detail is how good athletes get great,” Phillip told a rider whose horse, who had been cutting arena corners on the flat, repeatedly drifted over jumps and collapsed through the turns. “Make him bend correctly around the turn and stay straight after the jump. On his own, he’ll do what’s easiest. He’s not going to improve unless you take the lead.”

‘Options in the Canter’

Riders next moved to an oxer-to-vertical line set at 60 feet. The distance offered a range of striding options, challenging riders to test the adjustability they’d developed on the flat.

In their first trip, riders were asked to count their strides in the line, a simple exercise in building awareness of what their horses were doing underneath them. Later, Phillip challenged them to develop a more sophisticated feel for how forward the horse was, asking the riders first to jump the line in one fewer stride than the horse got naturally in the first pass, then to jump it in one more (for either five, six or seven strides).

Getting the right number of strides in the line started by establishing an appropriate canter beforehand. Although you may need to push or hold between the two fences if you realize you’ve misread the canter, your focus should be getting the job done on the approach, he said.

For a short-strided, unhurried Paint pony whom Shannon uses for walk-trot lessons, that meant his 12-year-old rider had to use the full arena to get a true gallop before successfully attempting the line in six strides. (Over the course of the day, the pony appeared to discover extra forward gears he didn’t have at the beginning of the day, prompting Shannon to joke that her beginner riders back home would be in for a surprise at their next lesson.) For other riders, that meant approaching in a slightly collected canter to get six strides in what rode naturally as a five for their bigger-strided horses.

As a final challenge, Phillip asked riders to ride down the line in six strides, turn around and immediately jump it in reverse in five strides. For the more experienced Novice-level riders, he asked for a bigger difference in pace, riding it first in seven strides and back in five.

“You need to have a feel for what’s underneath you,” Phillip said. “Go through a checklist when you start—is he forward or connected enough? Is the canter connected enough to jump from? And if the answer is no, fix it before the first fence.”

Taking It Outside
Riders were divided into two groups for the afternoon’s cross-country school: Beginner Novice/Novice and never-ever/Starter, the latter of which included two jumpers who had never seen cross-country fences before.

For the relatively green horses, much of the school was about gaining experience with banks, water, ditches and varying terrain. In that context, “do simple things well” echoed again: Keep the horse in front of the leg, make the horse stay straight over fences and demand that he ride the line you dictate.

“Cross country is all about the horse staying in front of your leg and jumping out of stride,” Phillip said. “You want to have your horse in front of your leg and then have the jump to hold the horse, rather than you pulling as you approach the fence. On a really well-trained horse, you could drop the reins and the horse will keep coming, shorten his stride if necessary, and jump.”

Phillip had the riders practice using their whips correctly, by bridging the reins in one hand and using the stick behind their leg in the last stride before the jump. “An important part of keeping the horse in front of the leg is knowing how and when to use the whip,” he told them, asking them to practice the hand motions over several fences. “If you use the whip too far away from the fence, your horse rushes. If you use it in the last stride, the fence holds the horse and the whip keeps him in front of the leg.”
Occasional run-outs gave Phillip a chance to re-emphasize the morning lesson about jumping straight and holding a line. Most riders’ natural, but incorrect, reaction to a run-out was to circle the horse in the direction he ran out.

“If he runs out to the left and you circle to the left, you are training him that he decides where you go,” Phillip said. “Like staying straight over the fences in the arena, if your horse always drifts left, make him stay straight. If he runs out to the left, turn him right to correct him.”

The riders finished the clinic with a wealth of knowledge that they planned to bring back to their barn and practice, while helping each other. During an unmounted session earlier in the day, Phillip said this was a great asset. “Eventing is an individual sport, but when I have other great riders at my barn, I watch what they are doing and it pushes me to be better. You can do that for each other. It’s great that you guys work together. If you can encourage each other and push each other, everyone will continue to improve.”

Practical Horseman thanks Lellie Ward for the use of her Paradise Farm for the clinic and Buckleigh Farms in Aiken, South Carolina, for serving as the clinic’s backup facility in case the rain proved too much, which thankfully, it didn’t.

This article originally appeared in the March 2014 issue of Practical Horseman.

Related Articles