What I Learned By Riding In A Phillip Dutton Clinic

Phillip’s mantra: The horse must be in front of your leg and on your aids whenever you put him to work. And he must be immediately there.
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Phillip’s mantra: The horse must be in front of your leg and on your aids whenever you put him to work. And he must be immediately there.

When I learned in April that Phillip Dutton, the top U.S. eventing rider for the past decade, was going to be conducting a clinic at the Fresno County Horse Park in June, I jumped at the chance to take my 7-year-old mare, Phoenix Amani, to ride with him. Why? Because I’ve known Phillip for more than 20 years, and from interviewing him and from reading his book (read the review here), I felt confident that he could help me with a vexing jumping issue.

I listened attentively (far right) as Phillip Dutton (far left) instructed us in riding cross-country.

I listened attentively (far right) as Phillip Dutton (far left) instructed us in riding cross-country.

I rode in Phillip’s clinic two weeks ago, with show jumping (really, gymnastic jumping) on Saturday and cross-country schooling on Sunday. Phillip not only helped me considerably with Amani, but my wife, Heather, and I also came home with several jumping exercises that have also worked beautifully with every horse in our program.

Phillip’s main training mantra is that the horse must be in front of your leg and on your aids, whenever you put him to work. And he must be immediately there—“No” is not an acceptable response, nor is, “I’ll be with you in a few minutes.”

Use your legs aids and spur to get his attention, and don’t be afraid to use the whip as a stronger form of communication and encouragement—or for discipline if it’s needed. No matter what’s going on around him, the horse must be obedient and respond correctly to your correctly given aids, immediately.

His secondary theme, which was especially evident when we jumped on the cross-country course, was to make the horse be responsible for the jump. Ride positively forward to the jump, make sure he’s straight and at the correct speed, but don’t try to jump the jump for him. That’s his job. I’ve always trained this way, and Phillip said that the horse will become much more certain and careful through training this way, and on course you’ll feel him gain confidence.

Phillip is a man of few words, and I’ve long known from talking with his students that in lessons he largely sets up exercises and says, “Now do it.” And if you don’t do it right, you’ll likely hear only, “More leg. Do it again.”

His clinic was rather like that: If you were expecting to hear lectures on theory or to be entertained by a string of humorous anecdotes, well, you were going to be sorely disappointed. But if you were there to improve, he had exercises for you to do. Another reason I made the five-hour trip to the clinic.

Interestingly, the horses at each level (from the preliminary group in which I rode to the beginner novice horses and riders) did the same exercises. The only difference was the height of the jumps. What we found particularly educational was his belief that you should start applying these relatively advanced concepts from the beginning, with lower-level horses, and riders too.

After a brief warm-up on the flat, doing transitions and lateral exercises to get the horses on our aids, we began to jump. The very first jump was two crossrails set on a bounce distance, approached at the canter. This exercise demonstrated what he means about the horse answering your aids—right away!

Amani found it disconcerting to start to jump this way, and she stopped at the first crossrail the first time. I didn’t expect her to stop, but I wasn’t surprised that she didn’t like having to pay attention and work right away. That, after all, is the heart of my problem with her. It’s why I’d brought her to this clinic. Her “in-a-minute” attitude is one reason why we call her “the princess.”

After three or four times through the bounce, Amani was jumping out of stride, but then we had to turn, in four or five strides, to jump a second crossrail bounce. She initially found that vexing too, especially when Phillip would tell us to make the turn in either the more forward four strides or in the more packaged five strides, not to just take whatever we got.

Next we moved on to a square oxer set on an angle to a skinny jump, with a forward-going one stride between. We began by jumping the skinny to the angled oxer, and Amani stopped at the oxer the first time because she didn’t come off my leg to get the one stride. Then we did the oxer to the skinny.

And then Phillip added turning right, in five or six strides, to jump a corner set at basically 90 degrees to the skinny. She did that reasonably well right away. Then we came back the other way— corner, turn left to do the skinny to the oxer.

Next he had an oxer and a vertical set on a line, a comfortable five strides apart. But the exercise was to jump the line (both ways) in five strides, then shorten to do six strides, then lengthen to do four strides. By now Amani was mentally in the game, and she’s done exercises like this since shortly after she started to jump, so she did well here.

Still, I was quite pleased with how well she answered my leg the first time to get the four strides. I felt that was a sign that the exercises were having the desired effect.

Fresno’s cross-country course has jumps from introductory to intermediate, and again Phillip emphasized response to the leg. He also encouraged us preliminary riders to avoid constantly adding strides to the jumps, especially the galloping jumps, because it catches up to you. If you keep second-guessing your distance and adding strides, in negatively affects the horse’s confidence, and then, when you need to ride forward to get the striding right in a combination, often the horse won’t do it.

Amani likes to sort of get in gear for cross-country, and although we started with a few novice-sized fences, she found jumping combinations (usually her strong suit) after standing around to be mentally challenging.

Phillip summed Amani up well after the cross-country school by describing her as “cautiously brave.” The problem I’ve had with her—related to her less-than-immediate response to my driving aids at times and to her innate carefulness over jumps—has been jumping the galloping fences at true galloping speed and out of stride. Her preferred method is to drift left and add one more short stride. That’s why she spent the winter in “dressage boot camp” with Heather and why we’ve worked hard to further develop the strength of her back.

Well, I felt that on this weekend something clicked in her brain, resulting from the exercises and the way I changed to ride her. And we ended the cross-country portion by galloping up to an intermediate question—two houses set at a parallel angle to each other—and instead of jumping them in the two strides the course designer intended, she jumped them beautifully in one stride. I was thrilled. I felt like she said, “Wow! Look what I can do.”

So when we got home, I built the crossrail bounces right away and had all our horses and students jumping them right off the bat.

Amani did them perfectly a few days later, acting like she understood we’d “jumped” to a new level. In fact, she feels like a new and improved horse.

Doing these exercises with Piper, our 5-year-old homebred who’s competing at beginner novice, was interesting and amusing. Piper is a warmblood, and his reaction to starting with bounces was so “slow-brained” warmblood. He stopped suddenly the first time, clearly shocked at the last stride to see a second crossrail right behind the first. Then he jumped them tentatively, not sure I wasn’t kidding that he had to pick up his feet that fast. (He had done numerous bounces before, so the concept was not new to him.)

After four or five repetitions, he was cantering through them smoothly, but then I added the turn to the second set. “What!? Another!? I can’t do that!” But with repetition, he figured it out, turning in both directions. And when I did the exercise again, three days later, he sailed smoothly through right away.

I had similar reactions from two students, who didn’t believe they and their horses could possibly do that right away. But they did, and I could see their confidence level grow.

Thanks, Phillip. And thanks to organizer Sue Funkey and to John Marshall at the Fresno County Horse Park for hosting the clinic.