The sense of giddy anticipation among a group of nine girlfriends on Friday night made the barn aisle feel more like backstage at a Justin Bieber concert. But the celebrity they were preparing to meet was so much more exciting than a pop star: It was Olympic gold medalist Phillip Dutton.
The occasion was Practical Horseman’s “Training with the Stars: Win a Day with Phillip Dutton” clinic, sponsored in partnership with Cosequin and held Dec. 14 at Lellie Ward’s Paradise Farm in Aiken, South Carolina. The contest winner, Shannon Brown, 27, of Guyton, Georgia, brought a group of eight friends who lovingly 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.
“Many of the more than 450 initial essays we received and all of the videos submitted by the top-10 finalists showed that eventers are incredibly passionate about their sport and hungry for knowledge,” Practical Horseman Editor Sandra Oliynyk said. “This was particularly evident in both the essay and video that winner Shannon Brown submitted. She also conveyed a strong sense of camaraderie among the riders at her barn. There aren’t a lot of training opportunities in her area, so she and her friends work to be each other’s ‘eyes on the ground.’ This made us think that Phillip’s teaching would have a far-reaching impact. For these reasons, we, along with Phillip, felt that Shannon was the best recipient for a day of his training.”
That camaraderie was on display at the clinic in the pride they took in presenting themselves and their horses immaculately as a group and the close attention they paid not only to their own instruction but to their friends’. Despite rainstorms throughout the day, no one hung back in the dry barn: Everyone watched each others’ lessons, alternately snapping keepsake pictures and listening to Phillip’s words to a friend, to be shared again back home.
Many participants were new to eventing—the most experienced horses were going Novice, while other horses and riders jumped their first cross-country fences Saturday under Phillip’s experienced direction—so the clinic focused on fundamental skills: getting the horse in front of the leg so that he can go forward or collect within a gait and connecting him from inside leg to outside rein.
Each rider rode in a morning session of flatwork and jumping in the arena and an afternoon cross-country school.
Morning sessions began with a speech from Phillip about the importance of having clear goals for every ride and developing good habits through repetition.
“Don’t pick and choose when you are going to ride well. Training is all the time,” he said. “Every time you ride your horse, you should be creating good habits.”
To demonstrate this, the riders’ first task was to create a forward walk, and every step counted—even as they left the center of the arena to find a spot on the rail, those who ambled away were admonished to get their horses marching immediately.
At each gait, they were asked to lengthen then shorten the stride; for the green horses and riders, this translated to “big trot” and “trot on the spot.” Once riders had established that leg on meant go forward, Phillip asked them to create a connection from inside leg to outside rein, using leg-yields from the centerline to the rail and changes of bend on the centerline as tools to do so.
Those who cut corners in the arena or allowed their horses to overshoot or veer off the 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 runout or bad jump.
Over fences, Phillip used two basic exercises to reinforce the lessons of forward and connected learned on the flat: A bending “S” line of three verticals that required riders to be disciplined about their line and a vertical-to-oxer line that could be ridden in five to seven strides, depending on the canter the rider created.
In the cross-country sessions, Phillip took advantage of the rolling hills and variety of fences to introduce riders and horses to cantering and jumping across varied terrain and reinforce the day’s main lesson about keeping the horse in front of the leg.
By the end of clinic, the clinician and the members of Team Misfits all were drenched but smiling, with Phillip pleased by their “refreshing attitude” and riders eager to take home all they’d learned to help each other.
“I’m still a little star-struck,” Shannon said afterward. “I’ve got a lot of good stuff to work on. Phillip was awesome: He’s very precise and to-the-point. He doesn’t flood you with information. He let’s you work through it, he lets you think and then he tells you to get on with it.”
The clinic was the first Practical Horseman’s “Training with the Stars” clinic series. The next contest, to win a clinic with show jumping legend Anne Kursinski, is open through February 17, 2014. Go to the entry page for more information.
More in-depth coverage of the “Win a Day with Phillip Dutton” clinic will be in the upcoming March 2014 issue of Practical Horseman magazine. A special "thank you" to Paradise Farm for hosting the clinic and to Buckleigh Farms for offering the use of their covered arena in case of heavy rains.