Learning to Stay in the Backseat

Justine Dutton and Jollybo (GBR). Photo by Jenni Autry. Justine Dutton and Jollybo (GBR). Photo by Jenni Autry.

It’s pretty incredible to come to Ocala and essentially have your pick of who you’d like to train with. It’s a golden opportunity and one that I am doing my best to take full advantage of, as my finances will allow.

I was able to take a cross country lesson with Justine Dutton — the “other” Dutton — this week along with my coach and our barn owner who had come down for the week. In all, we took a total of five horses for a great day of cross country schooling at Rocking Horse.

Right away, Justine put us all at ease (we were all riding fairly inexperienced horses, with the exception of one), warming us up over small jumps so that she could gauge our horses and how game they looked to be.

Justine spends a lot of time training with Buck Davidson, and his style is also evident in her own teaching style: positive yet challenging, firm yet encouraging.

I was riding my new horse who had only been cross country schooling once before, and this was his first time with me. So I was a bit nervous with that in mind and the additional rust of it being the first school of the season. I have a terrible habit of getting a bit forward and ahead when I’m feeling nervous, a habit that Justine was quick to notice and help correct by reminding me to just sit in the backseat more.

The “backseat” is a term often used by eventers, and it’s definitely a useful one. That said, especially at the lower levels, I feel there is a difference between sitting with a soft, driving seat and giving hands and a hard, forceful seat that is using more coercion than coaxing. Yes, there is a need for many different positions on any given horse, but the backseat position that Justine encouraged was a soft one with a driving and supporting leg.

This position really helped my horse gain confidence as we went. After the first few fences, he was boldly moving up when I asked and cantering gamely away afterward without pulling on me. Justine built our group up slowly, throwing in some Novice questions towards the end when we were all feeling much more confident than when we’d started.

My coach (incidentally, also another Dutton) first rode her nervous OTTB who had only schooled once before and found it to be a bit overwhelming. Justine patiently gave my coach some other tools to try, often citing position as a means of communicating calmness and confidence to your horse — again with the soft but firm backseat position.

While all three of us riders have varying levels of experience with our respective horses, Justine was adaptable and able to structure the lesson so that we were all equally challenged without being overfaced. As someone who needs to build up to being confident, I appreciate a challenge without feeling shaky on the approach from nerves that this will be too big of a question.

Another point Justine brought up is, in her words, “you’re in charge of the GPS” — meaning you are the one who is directing your horse on where you’re going. If you look down, if you give mixed signals with your hand versus your leg or if you don’t insist on straightness, you are confusing your horse — especially a greener one such as the majority of what we brought to school — and therefore sacrificing quality of canter and the subsequent jump.

It was a great and successful day, a perfect way to kick off our season and knock the rust off our boots. Justine was an excellent teacher who utilized her experience and was relatable while giving her instructions. If you have the opportunity to take a lesson or clinic from her, I definitely encourage it — there is a lot to be learned!