“There are all different kinds of approaches to all kinds of riding,” said Phillip Dutton to a mixed group of riders yesterday at a jumping clinic in Middleburg, Virginia. And if the Olympic gold medalist has shown us anything throughout his own star-studded career as a rider, it’s that clear consistency leads to consistent success.
Phillip came to Rutledge Farm just outside the village of Middleburg to lead four sessions from Beginner Novice to Intermediate during a one-day clinic. Rutledge, a new clinic venue set on several hundred bucolic acres, welcomed Phillip as its first eventing clinician.
Organized through EventClinics.com, the day was attended by groups of up to five riders at each level. Auditors lined hay bale seats along one side of an open, rolling grass field set with a mix of stadium fences, pole corners and solid obstacles.
Phillip doesn’t waste any time in his own riding, and he passed that mindset onto the riders straightaway. A mixed Advanced, Intermediate and Preliminary group kicked off the morning at 8 a.m. and set to work with clear goals to accomplish in their flat warmup.
“Teach your horse to get up in front of you so that when you go to jump it’s going to be good,” Phillip said. “The common thread through all phases is flatwork — you want your horse quick and sharp.”
Leg yield at the trot and canter, shoulder-in, and lengthening and collecting set the horses up for what was to come. To warm up over fences, Phillip sent the riders over a low oxer, and had them ride away from the fence while asking the horse to yield away from the lead they had landed on. Keeping the canter, they rolled back and jumped the fence back in the other direction.
“Do it so that it’s just a habit: leg to hand, forward and back,” Phillip said. “Use that leg yield to come back to the jump to square up. Look at your jump and create your distance early. If you haven’t got a distance, hold him together and squeeze him.”
Kelsey Sullivan is a jumper rider, but she took the opportunity to ride her horse Coco Chanel with Phillip in the Training section of the clinic because, “I feel like there’s something to learn from everybody,” she said. “I didn’t think I’d be asking my horse these questions, but it was fantastic.
“I loved the flatwork that we started with — it wasn’t a long warmup,” Sullivan said. “When I go to a jumper show, the warmup is to warm the horse up, it’s not to school. So I really liked that today it was quick; it was each direction, leg yield, shoulder-in, lengthening, shortening. We didn’t drill it, but it was all the buttons we needed to successfully complete what was asked today.”
From that straightforward starting point, the questions took on a new angle — literally. Phillip incorporated corner fences built with poles and short combinations jumped on an angle into every subsequent exercise.
Different approaches heightened the difficulty, and not everyone was successful on their first go-round.
“It’s important to teach the horses to stay on the line you ride so they learn to trust you,” Phillip said. “There will be a time to come on course where there will be reason to stay on the inside line.”
Whenever a horse glanced off a corner, Phillip backed the exercise down in either pace or height to give horse and rider the confidence to successfully complete it. Then the fence went back up, the horse went back to canter, and everyone moved on with a positive experience under their belt.
“There’s some aggression required, but it’s not all aggression,” Phillip said to rider Autumn Rae when her mare Luna overshot a corner in the morning session. “Show your horse the line she needs to be on. Think about what it felt like to get her back underneath you. Give her time to see where she’s got to go.”
A separate line of corners was used to practice different strides using the leg for control. In six, five or four strides, each rider worked on angling their line and changing their horse’s step. “The more you can have the ability to ride it however you want, from leg to hand, the better off you will be,” Phillip said.
No matter their level, each rider met the questions with confidence and rode forward on a rolling pace. Riders ran the gamut, from professional Jan Byyny, who rode a different horse in three sections of the day, to junior Nicholas Beshear, whom Phillip applauded as a rare, up-and-coming male rider in a sea of female eventers.
Everything that Phillip covered circled back to good habits: having them, and keeping them. “I am just trying to make sure that everyone gets into the right habits of riding correctly, getting themselves and their horses prepared before they compete,” he explained.
“Horses are creatures of habit, and if we get them in the right habits of how to go and being obedient, it should be like two carpenters working together or two people working side-by-side — it shouldn’t be a battle. That comes from constantly working together so that your horse is understanding what you’re asking because you’re being very clear and consistent with it.”