Some horses stand higher than others, but few know heights like those ridden by U.S. Olympians Boyd Martin and Phillip Dutton. Recently, the duo offered a two-hour “masterclass” on three-day eventing and equestrian ambitions at the Portofino Equestrian Center.
Dutton has been on a horse in the last six Olympics, either for his native Australia or more recently the United States. In that span of two decades, he’s won two gold medals and picked up an individual bronze this summer in Rio. Martin, also a native Australian, has ridden in the last two Olympics.
Dutton and Martin are currently ranked second and fifth in the world in three-day eventing, an equestrian competition combining dressage, cross-country riding and show jumping.
With a couple of hundred in attendance, the riders worked from the basics on up to more-advanced techniques, aiming the show to young riders who might be interested in turning a passion or curiosity into a pursuit. Major equestrian competitions are held around the world every year, but Martin said it doesn’t get any bigger than the Olympic stage.
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“I do think it’s the pinnacle of our sport,” he said. “It’s the one time in four years that our sport’s on the world stage and everyone is watching and interested. Only four people every four years become an Olympian in three-day eventing, and that’s a very small percentage of people involved in the sport, so I think it is the Everest.”
There’s a common saying about adversity and getting back on the proverbial horse. Martin said there’s truth in that kind of perseverance and that his biggest piece of advice for young riders, especially motivated ones, is that there are good days and bad.
“In competitive sport, it’s not meant to be easy,” Martin said. “Faced with disappointment and setbacks, true champions bounce back and keep soldiering on. I think that’s life in general. Everyone in their own way faces challenges, and if you keep grinding away, you usually end up on the other side.”
Netting such high-profile riders for a small evening show in Clayton is owed to Portofino trainer Holly Hudspeth’s friendship with Martin and Dutton, under whom she once trained. Dutton is something of a worldwide legend in the sport and a model of longevity and endurance. At Rio, he was the oldest U.S. Olympian at age 53.
Hudspeth herself has reached some of the biggest heights in the sport and was short-listed for the U.S. team for the Athens Olympics. Like Martin, she mentioned the trials of the sport.
“The biggest thing I would tell people is there are going to be more downs than ups,” Hudspeth said. “You’re dealing with an animal that is unpredictable and dealing with an unpredictable animal in show situations that can be high stress. Basically, it teaches you a lot of perseverance. It is a daily, weekly, yearly training and care.”
The event had been scheduled as a benefit for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Johnston County before Hurricane Matthew, but took on new meaning as flooding from the storm ruined the group’s clubhouse in Selma. Club president Tammy Mitchell said the building is a complete loss and that the flood also took out at least 10 years of documents.
“Right now, we’ve been told we’re not able to go back into our building,” Mitchell said. “It’s not structurally sound. We are temporarily in trailers at Selma Elementary School. We opened back up a couple weeks ago, and things are going great. The next phase is to raise money, purchase some land and build a new building. That’s our goal because we can’t go back in that one.”
A product of the Boys and Girls Club, James Daniels of Selma talked to the crowd about what the organization offered him. Daniels said his parents pushed him toward the club as a way to avoid the pitfalls that sometimes find bored and inactive adolescents. He now volunteers himself and will graduate from Johnston County’s Early College Academy next year and hopes to attend N.C. State.
“I grew up in the Boys and Girls Club,” Daniels said. “I didn’t really want to at first, but once I got acclimated, I found plenty of programs for kids just like me to, you know, expend all this energy we have.”
Daniels said he intends to pursue educational leadership as a career after college.
Tickets for the benefit ranged from $45 to $125, but event organizers were unsure on the night of the show how much would go to the Boys and Girls Club.