We’ve all had those moments when we run into someone out of context (an acquaintance from home at a coffee shop in another town, a co-worker at a concert) and are startled because it doesn’t immediately compute.
That’s what it was like to see eventer Boyd Martin competing in one of the national arenas at the same time the 5-star FEI show was going on at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival in Wellington, Florida.
As the likes of Laura Graves and Shelly Francis were battling it out during the Grand Prix in the main arena, Boyd was doing second- and third-level tests on a fleet of his eventing mounts. He and another big-name Australian-born rider, Phillip Dutton, usually are found during winter in such hot spots for their sport as Ocala, Florida and Aiken, South Carolina.
This month, however, they were spending two weeks in Wellington at the height of the Winter Equestrian Festival to hone their dressage and jumping skills at Global and the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center down the street.
“It was an idea our new U.S. team coach, Eric Duvander, came up with. Phillip and I kind of push each other along and usually team up with our ideas,” Boyd explained.
The two also share the same discipline-specific trainers.
“We have been working with Scott Hassler for dressage and Richard Picken for jumping,” Boyd told me after dismounting following his Second Level test on Contessa. Other eventers also made appearances in Wellington, including Will Coleman and Jan Byyny, who have other specialty trainers.
For these eventers, coming to Wellington isn’t about winning ribbons.
“Eric’s thought was for us to get away from normal life and take our most competitive five horses, our upper level horses, and dedicate ourselves to them for two weeks,” Boyd explained.
The idea, of course, is to prep for September’s World Equestrian Games in Tryon, North Carolina, where Boyd and Phillip are expected to be pillars of the U.S. team.
“We were not to teach any lessons or do clinics; just try and focus and improve. It’s been a humbling experience. Yesterday, we were jumping at WEF in the same ring as some of the best jumping riders in the world,” Boyd observed.
“Here at Global, we’re against the best dressage riders America has to offer. You feel a bit green compared to them. The idea is we’ve got to be among riders who are much better than us, where in eventing, sometimes you can ride mediocre and still win a class.
“It’s stepping up one more level, and it’s been worthwhile. I have the ability to go watch some of the other masters of their trade train and compete. Being in the thick of some of the best riders in the world, hopefully it rubs off on us.”
It’s also a chance for Boyd and Phillip to expose their mounts to big time show atmosphere.
“The horses are really starting to relax and get comfortable with it. We only get those high-energy competitions a couple of times a year, and with our very fit horses, it’s a nightmare,” Boyd maintained.
Phillip, who had some clear rounds in 1.30 meter jumping classes at WEF, noted, “The horses get used to the atmosphere after a few days and start to understand that’s part of life, so you’re not dealing with the tension of getting to a new show quite as much. It’s good to put time into your own career. When you’re home, you get carried away with everything else you have to do.”
Here, he pointed out, it’s possible “to get in the ring and try different things and experiment around a little bit. The whole point is to work on some things that you probably don’t put enough priority on in bigger events.”
Both men take advantage of the opportunities Wellington has to offer.
“We’re at these sensational venues to see if we can go up a notch. You can’t really expect to improve doing the same old thing. Often, we’re the big fish in a small pond, and now it’s the opposite. You feel a little like you don’t know what you’re doing.”
Scott pointed out that, “suppleness is really critical for the event horses.” So he offers gymnastic exercises and works with Boyd and Phillip on “helping them getting the horses where they’re most fluid and harmonious vs. mechanical.”
He also gives them exercises to deal with the tension that can come out in very fit horses.
Usually during Week Four of the WEF, more eventers are in evidence for a $100,000 competition of their own, but this year the efforts of WEF organizers were also on the FEI World Equestrian Games in Tryon, North Carolina, so sponsorship was flowing in that direction. That meant the eventing competition – which Boyd had won for all three years of its existence – wasn’t held.
“I miss that,” said Boyd. “It was a good payday for me.” At the same time, he noted, “It was hard to ask people to sponsor this when they’re trying to push everything toward WEG.”