Thursday, April 14, 2011

A Recipe For World Class Athletes

I wrote this column for the March 2011 issue of the USEA News, reprinted with their kind permission:

If you were one of the die-hard
event officiandos that were on
hand for one of this winter’s USEF
Eventing High Performance training
sessions you may very well have
seen a few more smiles on the faces
of the coach and his back-up team.
This is despite having to contend
with unseasonably cold weather in
the east, ten-hour teaching days,
and a little rain here and there.
What I believe really had Mark Phillips exhibiting a little bounce in his
step was the depth of talent, both equine and human, that he had to
work with in Aiken, Ocala, and Thousand Oaks. >>>
About a decade ago I remember sitting
around my kitchen table with Mark, Jim
Wolf, and several of the “senior” riders.
At the end of a long days’ teaching
during a training session at my farm
Mark had a troubled look on his face.
He confessed to us that he was a little
more than concerned about where the
next batch of future stars was going to
come from. He just wasn’t seeing the
genuine talent out there that would
sustain U.S. excellence on the world
stage well into the future.
As it naturally occurs, a couple of
riders popped up here and there that
would go on to represent our country
well in the 2000’s, but that still wasn’t
making anyone completely reassured
about the situation. So, with each
passing year Mark and the High Performance
Committee fine-tuned the
focus of the Developing Rider (DR)
program, making it truly a pipeline
from the two-star ranks through to
the four-star level.
What started out in the ‘90s as
little more than a “feel good” exercise
to reward one and two-star (mostly
young) riders, that more times than
not were transitioning between
horses and the “real world,” had now
become a very competitive program
indeed, one that saw a talented group
of future stars finish second in the
team competition at Boekelo this
past autumn. The DR program has been
assisted the last few years by the Talent
Spotting Program, which has had some
of the country’s top riders and trainers
keeping an eye out for raw riding ability
and funneling them into the system
as well. The program as a whole is still
a work in progress, but it’s starting to
produce results. If you look at the Developing
Rider list from this winter, most
of those folks have either won at the
two-star level or have shown legitimate
three-star success.
What this article is really more about,
though, is to recognize and celebrate
the fact that the United States, I believe,
now has coming through its ranks an
impressive number of very talented
“younger riders” (I would roughly define
this group as those 30ish and below) and
young horses that genuinely “look the
business.” I would venture to say this
is the best group we have had since the
days of Jack LeGoff, some thirty years
ago. Jack would have been just itching
to marshall some of the talent that’s
out there today to his star-producing
factory in South Hamilton, Massachusetts
and meld them into medal-winning
machines. For better or worse, things
don’t happen that way anymore, so these
riders have had to rely on other ways of
getting to the point of being on the verge
of team selection.
As chairman of the Eventing High
Performance Committee I’d like to think
it’s all because of the programs we
put in place, but I’m not na├»ve. I know
limited resources have much of the time
left the developing event rider on their
own to navigate a way to the top. So
when I look at this group (and believe
me I’d love to name names, but that is
fraught with danger to put it mildly!)
there are certain characteristics that
most of these athletes possess:

Talent: Obviously. Nature “divies” this
commodity out in varying amounts, but
there is no denying this is a very talented
group of riders. Riders with a bit of
talent are a dime a dozen, but what sets
this group apart is their…

Dedication/Desire: This is one “hungry”
group that has shown they are willing
to work, work, and work some more
to achieve their goals. You can be the
hardest working individual out there,
but to get to the top you have to have…

Horse Power- They all have at least
one “good” horse that looks talented
enough to get them on a team, but
what is just as exciting is to see that
all of these riders are also out there
competing many younger horses as well.
They are learning from the get-go that
to be a successful team rider over a long
span of time you can’t be a “one-horse
wonder.” You must be constantly developing
a string of future stars as well,
which leads to…

Owners- As anyone who has tried to
do this sport at the top level knows,
owners are the life-blood of the sport. I
feel pretty confident that this new group
of riders have observed those top riders
in the country today that enjoy the
support of several owners (i.e. Phillip,
Karen, Boyd, Buck) and see that developing
and nurturing great relationships
with owners has to be part of any successful
business model. Owners want to
be connected with great riders that can
produce results, but they also want to
feel part of the process and appreciated.
I can think of three or four up and comers
right off the top of my head who are
already benefiting from great relationships
with enthusiastic owners. What do
these riders have in common?....

Personality- In today’s world, it’s not just
when you get to the Olympics that you
have to be smart about dealings with the
public and the media. Being media-savvy,
and using all of the different outlets to
get your name out there from the start
is key. The general public wants and
expects their eventing heroes to be accessible,
personable, human, smart, and
to both present themselves and speak
well. This new group of riders have never
known anything different, so they do it
all with…

Confidence- A few might even be borderline
cocky, but if they are out there
producing the results, we’ll take a little
cocky. No one should be apologetic
about their will to win, and there is no
doubt that this group is highly…

Competitive- Whether it’s outdoing one
another in the mandatory physical fitness
marker test (I’m confident after hearing
of some of the results that this is a “fit”
group of riders) that all listed riders had
to be subject to this winter, or good naturedly
wanting to leave their friends and
rivals in the dust at competitions, the
U.S. needs its riders to be more unabashedly
competitive like this group. It isn’t
good enough to make a team and show
up just to compete for the stall plaque,
you have to want to WIN. This group
realizes, however, that winning can’t
come at the expense of…

Horsemanship- Many old timers bemoan
the loss of the true horsemen in
today’s ranks, but I feel confident their
elders were saying the same thing about
them 50 years ago. Every generation
thinks they did it the best and that all
is going to hell in a hand basket. I think
the reality is that there will always be
good horsemen and bad horsemen,
and on balance these riders I’m talking
about know long-term viability in this
sport require them to be meticulous
caretakers of their equine partners.
Most of this information they didn’t
learn in books. Most of these riders
that I’m thinking about for this article
came from (and this might be the most
important point of all) an established
and successful…

Program- No one can do it all on their
own, so the smart rider will from early
on try to get involved with the best. We
are lucky in this country to have some
excellent horsemen that also happen to
be great competitors where those willing
to really work hard can watch, work,
ride and learn how to become the best.
There is, of course, more than one way
to skin a cat, but it’s also no accident
that many of the riders on the cusp of
greatness today got their start from,
and in many cases continue under the
guidance of, the most country’s successful
event riders and their “programs.”
These are not, in most cases, wealthy
kids who have had everything handed to
them. They are, however, the ones that
the top trainers recognize have the potential,
work ethic, and drive to become
the best, and will go out of their way to
give a leg-up to.
This new group will one day have
their own “programs” based in part on
what they learned coming through the
ranks, and they will in turn pass this
knowledge down to the next era of riders.
That is how horsemanship lives on
from generation to generation.

One might gather from what I’ve
written here that I’m quite bullish
about the future of American Eventing
on the world stage. You would be correct.
After the WEG last fall there was
so much negativity coming from all
sides in our sport, which was understandable
but not wholly productive.
We qualified a team for the Olympics and I
think it’s incumbent on each person
that loves this sport and wants to see
our athletes succeed to stay focused,
realistic, and yes, optimistic. I have no
doubt we will see a couple of these riders
that I’ve just written about on the
podium in London. They have what it
takes. We need to give them the support
they deserve.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Joint Statement From Costello and Dutton

Statement from Dutton and Costello:

After much discussion and thought, we have decided to withdraw our names from consideration for the USEF Chef d’Equipe/Technical Advisor position.

With a record of coaching multiple four star level riders and horses, years of international competitive experience, extensive organizational and committee experience and a comprehensive vision and plan for the future of our sport, we were disappointed that the Search Committee elected to not put our name forward to the Active Athletes Committee.

We appreciate whole heartedly the effort by the Active Athletes Committee to keep us in the process and for their encouragement.  However, we feel that by staying in the process this will create further division and controversy.  Therefore, for the good of our sport, we feel it is best to move on and for the new coach to be selected and to unite behind him.

Again, we would like to thank everyone who has supported us during the last few months and wish the remaining candidates the best of luck.


Phillip Dutton
Robert Costello

Sunday, March 6, 2011

PRO Derby Cross-Wellington Style

Just got back from Wellington, FL where I competed last night in the inaugural PRO Derby Cross at the Palm Beach  Equestrian Center. It was quite the coup for PRO as we were the lead-in competition for the Puissance class later that evening, and also were fortunate to have our competition on the Nations Cup weekend. This was huge in terms of visibility for our sport. Eventers have gone to Wellington for years to hone their show jumping skills early in the season, but to have a competition of our own was a great feat indeed, thanks to the many people responsible for making it happen lead by our fearless leader Samantha Lendl.

Five teams of five riders (three eventers, one show jumper and one polo player) were introduced by the colorful commentating duo of Leslie Law and Boyd Martin. Each team competed against the clock (basically a speed class format) with each discipline riding a different course. For us eventers, the track included an several show jumps and many cross country fences including an angled brush combination, a corner combo and a bank, drop to a skinny brush. The questions I'd say were strong Preliminary to soft Intermediate, but in that atmosphere and at that speed David O'Connor's course was plenty testing.

I rode my advanced horse Dustin, substituting last minute for the injured Jennie Brannigan. Riding on the Hay Gain sponsored team of myself, captain Phillip Dutton, Sinead Halpin, Katie Prudent and polo player Dominic (sorry I forget Dominic's last name!!) I was the first to go for our team. I was told to go FAST and if I had a rail so be it. I definitely did go really quickly but at the expense of two rails--one definitely being my fault. I galloped so fast to the brick wall that would be used later in the evening for the puissance that the ol' boy just flattened out a bit and nipped the top of it with his hind feet. I'm not known as being a speed demon, but I get fiercely competitive in team situations so I must admit I was a little peeved at myself but  I had a blast nonetheless.

                                        (Dustin flying the Hermes Wall)

The rest of our team performed very respectably, but couldn't match the excellent performance put in by the Cavalor/Farm Vet sponsored team of Will Faudree, Buck and Bruce Davidson, Aaron Vale and Kris Kempson. Will was the star of the evening posting the fasted round (not a big surprise to those of you who know Will) on Jay Pyne's Errigal Lion. This good jumping cross country machine has found his niche in life I think! I heard Jay was watching the coverage on the computer in Maine,  jumping up and down with excitement as his wife Sandy and daughter Sara watched in person.

There was a lovely after dinner and party at the ringside tent populated by at least a couple hundred PRO owners, supporters and fans. It was great to meet the whole Hay Gain crew, as well as all of the other folks who came out for a fun night of sport. The evening was capped off by the Puissance which saw the winner jumping over 7". Un-REAL.

So let me finish by saying it was a great competition, good publicity for PRO and for the the sport of Eventing.  We don't get to play to this crowd very often (and there was definitely a BIG crowd). PRO has gotten some pretty unfortunate press lately, but I know we will refine our mission to truly make the broader sport of Eventing unapologetically a sport we pros can make a living at but at the same time--and this is not just lip service--promote a healthier sport that is enjoyed by all of it's participants.  We may not always get it right, but we sure are out there trying. The sport of Eventing is way more fun and productive than the sport of cutting people and things down. I'll be concentrating on the former.

There might be more pictures later so watch this space!

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Dalliance 1990-2011

I got some sad news from Canada that my old four-star horse Dalliance passed away yesterday at the age of 21. He had been living up north since I sold him to Vanessa Fenwick in 2005.

We bought "Dally" in September of 2001 while I was in England competing Chevalier at Burghley. I had actually looked at him a year earlier but decided at the time it was better to buy a few young horses than to put all my eggs in one basket. Long story short, the timing was right the next year and he was purchased for me to ride by my long time business partner Leila Clay.

Dally was started by Lucinda Fredericks who competed him very successfully through the 3 star level. I believe she won the Windsor CCI** before placing 2nd or 3rd at Blenheim before being bought for Chris Bartle to ride. I don't think Chris hit it off with him, so he was soon after paired with New Zealander Caroline Powell who at the time was riding for Ian Stark up in Scotland. Caroline did a great job with him, ultimately finishing 11th at Badminton in 2000. His owners soon after decided they wanted him closer to their home in the south, so he was being ridden by another NZ rider Dan Jocelyn when I got the ride.

                            Yowza! Dally jumping into the Lower Trout Hatchery Burghley '02

The plan was for Dally to be a back up for Charlie and was hopefully going to get me to my second Olympics in 2004. That didn't quite happen as planned, but I did get a whole lot of great mileage over some very big courses on him. We finished well at Fair Hill just a few weeks after he arrived on U.S. soil in '01. He had a freak injury in the spring of '02 which meant our first 4 star together would be Burghley in the fall of '02. That was the year that Wolfgang Feld built to this day one of the biggest and scariest 4 star tracks anywhere, and somehow we were the only one of eight U.S. combinations to jump around clear that day.... despite his saddle slipping back...way back...  about 1/3 the way around making for a pretty hairy trip to say the least.

I then had one of the best  xc rounds of my life at Rolex in the spring of '03. We were one of just a few clear and inside the time that year. He had pulled a muscle in his back that day, though, making the show jumping a DISASTER.... but luckily the selectors gave us the benefit of the doubt and named us to the short list for the 2003 Pan American Championships that fall. He showed good show jumping form in the lead up, so we ended up on the team that won the gold that year.

That fall of '03 I had retired Charlie, so Dally was my big hope for Athens in '04. We had a fantastic lead up to Rolex that spring, and I was feeling very bullish about my chances: The dressage was competitive, he was foot perfect everywhere xc that spring, and I was keeping the rails to zero or one.... BUT! Just as I was galloping around the course in the selection trial at Kentucky thinking to myself,  "everything just seems so EASY!".... boom! I forgot to kick coming out of the sunken road, and Dally rightfully stopped instead of flipping over the final  vertical element, and I slid down his neck like some kid on a Thelwell pony. Just like that! there went my chances for the Olympics that year, but I always said I had never had such a great time trying as I did that spring.

The next year Vanessa bought the handsome grey, and he showed her the ropes at the 2 star level. He continued to compete with Vanessa's students until recently. He had a great life, and everyone loved his kind, classy personality. Rest well, Dally.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Coincidental Clinic

On the whole I do not get enough lessons. It's kind of ridiculous because I actually LOVE having lessons, being challenged, even being yelled at a bit sometimes gets me pumped and makes me ride better.

I've had several dressage lessons with Sandy Phillips over the last year, and man when we would get done with my session I think I was more spent mentally than physically. To ride that correctly-- every step, every transition, every corner, every movement it takes your mind and your body working in complete sync. Add to that the communicating with another living animal, it's pretty awe inspiring what we all try to achieve with horses every day.

That's the dressage. Jumping has always come much more naturally for me, so it's even more important that I seek enough help so that I just don't go on auto pilot and forget to keep striving to get better. Just the knowledge that I gain from having a lesson or participating or just watching a clinic makes me a better teacher without a doubt.

Well before Phillip Dutton and I ever started discussing our new joint venture Will Faudree had organized to have him come to his Gavilan Farm in Hoffman, NC for a days' teaching. Our first attempt got snowed out right after Christmas, so this past Saturday was "make-up day". It was still pretty nasty weather-- dank, windy and cold with occasional flurries, but being on a horse was the best place for sure.

Photo: Allie Conrad
The best lessons/clinics I've had have been ones where the instructor wasn't trying to light your world on fire, or trying to be too showy or play to the audience. The best teachers will demand precision and perfection in very simple exercises emphasizing absolute straightness, genuine forwardness and complete rideability. Correct and an "economy of position" as I like to call it will also be taught.

All of the above were taught by Phillip the other day as I rode my Advanced horse, Dustin. Phillip stressed how especially at this time of year it is so important to set the tone for the year with your horse really listening to you. Every turn, every transition, every distance needs to be accounted for. There can be no cutting in through the turns, your horse MUST move away from your leg when asked, and he must be just as willing to wait. They must stay straight from approach, to take-off, to landing, and on the move away from the  jump. You have to train your eye to the forward and deep distance. It's the deep one that holds your horse to the jump and makes him think for himself. That is one reason why Phillip is so quick across country; not that he flies around like a maniac. He can gallop to the jumps because he has trained his horses to back themselves up. It was an excellent lesson: simple concepts were expected to be perfectly executed.  Sounds easy, but it was anything but. That's good teaching I think.

By the way, this is the view from my house today, as I'm sure it is in most of the southeast/mid-atlantic. I will not be riding today. It's been a CRAPOLA winter so far weather-wise!

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Cat's Outta the Bag

I'm excited to announce to you that haven't already heard that Phillip Dutton and I are joining forces and will be applying for the USEF Eventing Chef d'Equipe/Technical Advisor position being vacated by Capt. Mark Phillips after 2012.

You can read the entire press release on my website (click on the NEWS tab) and check out some other reporting on  We're nearing the completion of our performance plan to be presented to the USEF Search Committee by the end of January.

I'm looking forward to the challenges that lay ahead in the selection process. Thanks to all of my friends for your well wishes today. TIFN.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

ROC's attempt at Blogging 2.1

Ok. I've never pretended to be a wiz at this whole computer thing, but (one of) my New Year's Resolutions is to SERIOUSLY try and get a grip on this whole computer/website/blogging part of my life. I decided to erase all previous posts (the last one was-- a bit embarrassingly-- over a year ago....) and start anew. Honestly, the thing that kept me from posting in the past is that I could NOT figure out how to log onto my account. It seems I had about 3 different account log-ins and 3 different passwords and every time I'd try to log on I'd just give up and go on to something else.

That has all changed today my friends! I have finally cracked the code and written it down for safe keeping.

So! A brief re-cap of the last 6 months---and it will be brief as it's all old news anyway...

The summer got off to a bit of a sad and slow start with my dad dying at the end of June. Those that knew Dickie can attest he was the man with at least 9 lives, and he fought hard and lived each one to the fullest. He made it to 80 years old, which was a miracle---but really more a testament to this guy's spirit.

I promptly put  my mom in the passenger seat of the ol' Dodge and took her along with me to a couple of events in Area 1 in July and August. In between competitions we rented Janice a car, plugged in a new GPS and sent her off bopping all over New England and New York visiting family and friends. She met up with me again at Millbrook (a forgetful performance!) before we both made our way back to Southern  Pines in mid-August. Just a final note about the summer.... it was RIDICULOUSLY HOT AND HUMID. The weather man said that there were something crazy like 95 day above 90 degrees. I'm a northern boy and really don't like the heat. The fall was glorious. If I could pick a month to last all year it would be October. For sure.

I had a good go in the Advanced at the AEC's on Dustin (SJ pic above) before heading doing the CCI*** at Fair Hill in October to end the year (xc pic above). A bonehead move on my part on the cross-country resulted in a stupid 20 penalties, but I was very happy with his performance. And what a great win for Hannah-Sue Burnett. Is she one for the future or what? Actually, I think she's one more for the present!
Speaking of talent, I'm so excited to see the really large pool of very talented riders under 30 making a big splash on the scene. These are riders that seem to be in it for the long haul, have more than just one good horse, are in excellent programs and are most importantly good horsemen and women.  I can't recall a time in the last couple of decades when this has been the case. Look at the group we sent to Boekelo. Any country would be excited to have those 4 riders on their rosters.

So back here at the ranch things are returning to normal after the holiday break, in which we had a 6" snow storm! It was perfect timing. Everyone from the farm but me was away for the holidays, and I just had a lovely quiet time with the horses (Chevalier "Charlie" enjoying the snow a few days before his 22nd birthday) and family. Tomorrow it's back to work, and we're all looking forward to it.

That's it for Now (TIFN)