Making 3-Star Horses on the 3-Year Plan

Three-star event competition by age seven? Olympic gold medalist Phillip Dutton explains the program that makes this possible for the right horse--and the signs that tell him whether a horse is ready to move up, or needs more time at its current level.
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Three-star event competition by age seven? Olympic gold medalist Phillip Dutton explains the program that makes this possible for the right horse--and the signs that tell him whether a horse is ready to move up, or needs more time at its current level.
Phillip Dutton | © Mandy Lorraine

Phillip Dutton | © Mandy Lorraine

When I came within one show-jumping rail of winning the tough 2001 Fair Hill International Advanced three-day event on Annie Jones's Thoroughbred Cayman Went, his spectacular performance was even more impressive because he was only seven. But he's not the only early achiever in my barn. When House Doctor partnered me to a team gold medal in the Sydney Olympics, his first four-star event, he was eight (the minimum age for horses in an Olympic three-day). In spring of 2002, I rode seven-year-old I'm So Brite at the Foxhall (Georgia) Advanced three-day-which Cayman, seven, also completed in 2001.

All three horses are examples of how my program, though it doesn't push them faster than they're able to develop, provides talented youngsters the opportunity to move up quickly. A horse who's physically fit, mentally suited to the job, has been trained up correctly from the beginning, and gets the experience he needs at each level can start competing at Novice and Training as a four-year-old, go Prelim at five, do an Intermediate three-day as a six-year-old, run his first Advanced three-day at age seven, and (if he's good enough) his first four-star at eight. I start each youngster with the idea that he may get from Training to Advanced in three years-but I don't just assume he will; I'm alert at every step to signals that he needs more time and training.

Assessing the Basic Material
When I look at young horses, it's always in the context of how eventing is evolving and the type of horse I think will excel at it now as opposed to a few years ago: The days are over when you could come last in dressage, have a great cross-country run, then drop a couple of stadium rails-and still do well. (For instance, True Blue Girdwood, the wonderful Australian Thoroughbred who shared in my team gold at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, probably wouldn't be competitive today because he was spooky on the flat and always had a rail or two in show-jumping.) The mental side of our sport plays a much bigger part now, and that's going to continue: The great horses of the future may have cross-country penalties here and there, but they'll consistently have good dressage and will be very careful in show-jumping on the third day.

Many of the Thoroughbred eventing prospects that I get as three-year-olds have already spent some time at the track. If they've been in good hands, this early training can be an advantage because the horses get a lasting base of fitness. Cayman Went, who came to me off the track at age three, handled the long, hilly Fair Hill course easily while many more experienced entries found it difficult. (House Doctor, on the other hand, was kept off the track by a hoof injury, and I'm always working on his fitness. At the 2000 Olympics, he tired well before the end of the thirteen-minute cross country course.)

The downside of an early track career is the wear and tear on youngsters' bodies and, equally important, their minds. Some talented horses come off the track so affected by the experience that they need more time and training for rehabilitation than it's feasible to put into them. To get a picture of what a horse is like mentally, I begin by sounding out his trainer or groom-is this horse really quiet, or a bit crazy? Then I try to arrange a trial at my farm. Even if he's nervous in the new situation, I want to see if a horse improves and learns from day to day--a sign that, with time and consistent training, he can develop the confidence that he'll need at the top level.

When I try a young prospect over fences (and I do this in the ring, not on cross-country), the first thing I look for is a quality I find hardest to train into them if it's missing--carefulness. I won't bypass a horse with less-than-perfect form, but I do steer clear of those that hit a jump, then approach it the same way next time without trying to avoid another hit. Even a stop on the second try is a response to what happened before!

Novice/Training by Four, Prelim by Five
From the first time I get on a horse, I make sure that every time he's ridden, he's ridden correctly, and I monitor his responses carefully. I start a number of unbroken two-year-olds each year for breeder Nina Gardner and their earliest training-a few weeks of riding them all over the farm on their own, not following another horse--encourages them to move forward and to have confidence in their rider. We ride them for a few more weeks at the end of their two-year-old year, then again when they're three. This is when we start jumping them--about twice a week for two months, then a long break, then another few weeks near the end of that year.

From the outset of this simple work, I concentrate on riding from my leg rather than my hand. That's what I mean by correct. Flatwork is basic stuff like trot-canter transitions with a focus on my horse going forward and coming back, going straight, and being engaged from my leg. When we start jumping, it's just cross rails-again, getting the horses thinking forward so they're trotting to the fence and cantering away on landing. When they jump again at the end of the year, they're cantering to the fences and jumping courses.

If I want to add strides on the approach to a fence, I don't take back on the reins; I make my upper body tall and squeeze my horse up into the bridle with my leg. (I credit Olympic dressage veteran Donnan Sharp with inspiring my "light-bulb moment" about this legs-not-hands concept in my first dressage lesson with her: After watching me fighting with my hands trying to get my horse round and in the bridle, she had me hold the breast-collar strap in front of the pommel of my saddle with both hands, and in five minutes my horse was soft and round because I was pushing him to my hand instead of pulling back.)

Our horses come back into training as four-year-olds and enter two or three local Novice horse trials, then a Training horse trial or two at the end of the year. With that preparation, many are ready to go Prelim as five-year-olds. Although we include them in Dr. Kevin Keane's regular Monday jog-up in the barn driveway, and we ice them and apply UpTight® poultice after hard gallops, I don't use aggressive preventive health maintenance (such as joint injections) on these youngest horses. Any who can't handle lower-level work on their own probably aren't suited to bring along to the upper levels.

A less experienced rider than myself may need a longer time than I've just described to bring a green horse along to Prelim, because both rider and horse need to be very confident at the level where they're competing before moving up. If you run into trouble, it's harder to go back and re-establish your horse's confidence (or your own) than it is to take the extra time up front. My horses have learned their jumping and flatwork basics at home (except for the various fences they'll encounter on cross-country) and the main point of their four-year-old competitions is to give them experience in dealing with crowds and new environments.

Associate With the BEST People

Two Olympic team gold medals and numerous CCI*** wins (including two at Fair Hill International) put Pennsylvania-based Phillip Dutton firmly in the ranks of the world's leading event riders. He's on the Equestrian Federation of Australia's Elite List with his Sydney Olympics partner House Doctor and with Simply Red (who came second with Phillip at last year's Rolex Kentucky CCI****); two other Advanced horses from his barn, Cayman Went and Irish-bred former Abigail Lufkin mount Hannigan (with whom Phillip completed Burghley last year) are on the EFA's 'A' list. His success in the sport has attracted the support of sponsors Cosequin®, Devoucoux Saddles, and Penfield Feeds.

According to Phillip, much credit for what he's achieved extends to the team that helps keep his considerable string-sixteen horses competing in three-day events this year-going; he includes veterinarian Kevin Keane, who manages the barn's comprehensive soundness program. And when he says, "I've tried to associate myself with the best people," he's also referring to horsemen such as Olympic dressage riders Donnan (Plumb) Sharp and Jessica Ransehousen, USET show-jumping chef (and Olympic veteran) George Morris, and hunter trainer Joey Darby, all of whom have taught him on occasion.

The important people in Phillip's world increased by two last fall, when his wife, Evie, delivered twin girls--Olivia and Mary--just eight hours before his cross-country ride at Fair Hill. As the early-spring eventing season commenced this spring, Phillip was commuting between his family in Pennsylvania and almost 30 horses in Aiken, S.C.

I want my four-year-olds to do more than just get around the course, though; I want the correctness with which I've been riding at home to carry through at the event. On cross-country, I want my horse to see the jump, respect it, and think about what he's going to do. I want him to listen to my leg just as he does at home, without sticking his head in the air or taking off. If my young horse grabs the bit and rushes at the jump, I don't interpret it as bravery; to me it says he's panicking because he lacks confidence and just wants to get it over with.

A really aggressive rusher may need to stay at his present level, even go back a level, until he gets more confident. (An exception to this rule was I'm So Brite, going Advanced this year, whose racing career had left him with a cocky attitude. When we got up to a certain speed on course he'd simply try to take over, including the approach to the jumps, but everything about him-even the set of his ears-was too confident, if anything. He would come back to me and he always jumped well, so I decided it wasn't an issue.)

Another sign that a horse lacks confidence at his present level is stalling on takeoff: He gets to a nice distance, hesitates, then jumps. If I move him up before he gets confident, the hesitation can become dangerous as the jumps get wider.

Finally, before a horse moves up, I want him to be competitive in all three phases. If he's good in dressage and cross-country but always has rails down in show-jumping, for instance, there's no point in going on until his jumping improves.

Prelim to Intermediate
This step is not as big, in my opinion, as the move from Intermediate to Advanced that I'll talk about in a minute--but it's a definite increase in difficulty. (Prelim three-day level and above is also the point where Dr. Keane and I begin to monitor the horses more closely for signs of joint stress--our cue to start preventive action with hyaluronic acid injections and/or Cosequin® joint-health supplement.) The dressage test for Intermediate introduces shoulder-in and counter-canter, so I want my horses to be schooling those movements comfortably at home before the step up.

Intermediate cross-country courses are longer, bigger, with a few more combinations than Prelim--so a five-year-old needs to be handling his Prelim cross-country well to be a candidate for Intermediate the following spring. That's not to say that an occasional run-out or other miss on course is a sign that a horse who otherwise jumps confidently isn't ready to move on--in fact, staying at the lower levels for longer than he needs to can be boring for a talented horse. And the bigger jumps at Intermediate sometimes improve his form: I can ride him down to them more strongly and he doesn't get flat.

I prepare my horses for the increasing technicality of cross-country as they move up the levels by schooling them twice a week in the ring at home over combinations that demand adjustability: A line that requires them to open their stride might be followed by a combination that needs a packaged ten-foot canter stride. I also teach them to canter off the turn right up to the jump in the pace from which we need to jump it-no last-minute adjustments--and to jump straight across the jump from wherever I point them.

Intermediate to Advanced: Getting the Whole Picture
Successful eventing horses have to like their job, they have to learn it as they go along--and I think the biggest piece of that learning takes place from Intermediate to Advanced. Up to this point, a horse who isn't what I call "filled with scope" can (although it's not correct) compensate somewhat on cross-country with speed. At Advanced, however, many jumping questions are designed so that they can't be taken at high speed; a horse needs scope to rock back and handle maximum-width fences or technical combinations. At my horse's first Intermediate three-day, I get my first sense of whether he may have what it takes to go Advanced and perhaps even do four-star events. If he's holding up well physically, he's more likely to be tough enough for the Advanced level; if he responds well to the physical and mental challenge of the longer, more difficult CCI** course, he may be a good candidate for CCI*** and CCI****.

When I evaluate how easily my horse is handling Intermediate courses in terms of moving up to Advanced, it's about making the time as well as jumping the jumps-face it, it's easier to jump around with 20 time faults, but he'll need the speed as well as the jump at Advanced. For instance, in my barn is a seven-year-old Australian Thoroughbred, Dusky Moon, who ended his Intermediate season last year with a respectable fifteenth-place finish at Radnor Hunt Intermediate three-day. But when I look at the whole picture, he's not quite ready for an Advanced three-day this spring; I was working a little harder than ideal to get him over the Intermediate jumps. He likes to do everything well and once he's sure he knows it, he does it very well, so we'll do another Intermediate three-day this spring, then maybe do some Advanced horse trials. He's a good jumper and very quiet-and hopefully he'll be ready for Fair Hill this fall.

If a horse is doing well on cross-country, I look at the whole package: Just as at the lower levels, I want him to be competitive in all three phases. That describes Dusky Moon's barn-mate I'm So Brite, who finished eighth at Radnor on his dressage score of 56.6 and thinks he already knows everything; I had no hesitation in pointing him to the Foxhall (Georgia) Advanced three-day this spring.

Once he's actually going Advanced, a horse gives me a better picture of whether he's on the same page with me and wants to do this for the rest of his life. Sometimes a talented horse for which I have great expectations surprises me by simply not "putting the runs on the board" that I expect at Advanced. Then there's the other kind of surprise like Sky's Prospect, one of the less talented horses I've trained. I wasn't alone in thinking the gray Thoroughbred had probably "maxed out" at Intermediate--but he always really tried, and he kept trying once he got to Advanced. He didn't pull at all on cross-country so I could get good times on him, and he rarely had a jumping fault in that phase. His show-jumping was an issue for a while but he kept trying, and toward the end of his career was jumping lots of clear rounds. We won Fair Hill International in 1996.

Managing Long Careers at the Top
While our sport has been evolving, so has our knowledge of how to maintain its athletes; we can not only produce horses for the top at a young age, we can keep them there, As a result, a horse that gets to the top of eventing when he's eight has the potential, with careful management, for almost a decade of performance at Advanced. I'd like to think that both Cayman and House Doctor will still be competitive at Advanced when they're fifteen or sixteen. Troubadour Gold, one of the first rides I got after coming to the US in 1991, is seventeen this year; he's going Advanced with my groom, Colby Farrington. Two of the horses on Australia's gold-medal team in Sydney were seventeen.

My goal is for my horses at every level to get better and better, and I can't believe that even the Advanced horses won't continue to improve as they get more training. But I think one thing we learned from British riders' experience during last year's outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease was that we may be asking our Advanced horses to gallop around more horse trials than they need, increasing the risk to their tendons and suspensories. Although travel restrictions at home curtailed the Brits' competitive preparation for the Rolex Kentucky CCI****, they ran well when they got here. So as I map out this year's schedule for my Advanced horses, it's with the thought that at horse trials where the ground is hard, I'll do dressage and show-jumping but pass on the cross-country.

This article first appeared in the May 2002 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.