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Riders Phillip Dutton and Jennie Brannigan Aim for the Olympics

Photos by Jim Graham

Riders Phillip Dutton and Jennie Brannigan seek spots on the U.S. Olympic Eventing Team.

It’s still early fall in West Grove. The sycamores are dropping their browning leaves, and the maple trees are showing splotches of brilliant red. But in the horse barns along Hood Road, thoughts are already wandering ahead to next summer—to Paris and the 2024 Summer Olympics.

Phillip Dutton returns to the stables at his True Prospect Farm from a morning cross-country ride. A few yards away, Jennie Brannigan prepares to leave her adjoining barn for a gallop on one of her horses. Both are candidates for the U.S. Eventing Team, and they’ve participated for over a year in regularly scheduled riding events around the world. The combined ranking in those competitions, and ones taking place well into 2024, will determine who makes the national team.

If Dutton is chosen, it will be the 60-year-old’s eighth Olympics appearance. In 1996, he represented his native Australia, later joining the American teams when he became a citizen. Almost a quarter century younger than her mentor and colleague, 36-year-old Brannigan hopes to make the cut for her first Olympic Games.

Veteran rider Phillip Dutton at Fair Hill International in Maryland aims to be one of the Olympic riders.

Veteran rider Phillip Dutton at Fair Hill International in Maryland.

By the time you read this article, Dutton and Brannigan will still be waiting to find out if they’ll be packing their bags for Paris. In most other Olympic sports, the national team is chosen early, then goes into training to prepare. “The selection process is over a two-year period,” says Dutton.

Eventing is often described as the triathlon of riding. It consists of three equestrian events: dressage, cross-country and show jumping. Its genesis stems from the cavalry training of years past, when men on horseback were a vital part of any land-based battle plan. Eventing is also unusual among Olympic sports because it’s the one event where men and women compete as equals for medals in all three categories. Their combined results decide which three countries win the team medals.

At the time of this writing, Dutton was ranked second among U.S. riders behind his younger Chester County neighbor and fellow Australian by birth Boyd Martin, who is trying to make his fourth Olympics. Brannigan, the sixth-ranked American, is more of a long shot to make the team. As with any sporting event, a bad showing, an injury or an accident can jumble rankings at any time.


“I’m not training for the Olympics. I think people who set goals too far in advance can mess up their horses trying to keep on schedule.”
—Jennie Brannigan

Quietly handsome in a classic Hollywood sense, Phillip Dutton has mostly lost his Australian accent. Having grown up on a sheep and wheat farm in New South Wales, he’s ridden horses almost since infancy. “I probably spend between six and eight hours riding each day,” he estimates.

Dutton came to the United States in 1991 at the age of 27. “It was a great area to be in,” he says of Chester County. “Bruce Davidson helped get me started. Boyd came over later.”

Famous in local and international racing circles, Davidson competed in four Olympics. His last, 1996, happened to be Dutton’s first. He competed as part of Australia’s team in three Olympics—1996, 2000 and 2004. The Aussie team won a gold medal in Atlanta’s 1996 games, one of three Olympic medals Dutton has earned. He became an American citizen in 2006 and has since represented the U.S. on three continents: Beijing 2008, London 2012, Rio de Janeiro 2016 and, most recently, Tokyo.

horse eventing

Today, Dutton lives in West Grove with his wife, Evie, their twin daughters, Mary and Olivia, and his stepdaughter, Lee Lee. In addition to the Chester County farm, the couple also own Buck Ridge Farm in Loxahatchee, Florida.

Dutton knows his chances are good for making a ninth Olympics—but he cautions, “Just because you’ve been selected, doesn’t necessarily mean you will go. Something can still happen to you or your horse. Things aren’t looking too bad. Americans in general are doing well in eventing competition so far.”

Of course, much depends on the horses. They carry their own international ratings, just as riders do. The top ones are ranked from three to five stars. “Horses are generally considered in their prime at around 12 to 15 years,” Dutton says. “A horse usually progresses one star per year.”

Overall, Dutton has about 20 horses progressing through their stages. If he makes it to Paris, he’ll most likely be riding his 15-year-old gelding bay, Z—the same one he ran in Tokyo. He’s well-versed in how to prepare. “Once chosen, the [U.S. Equestrian] Federation pays for you and your horse to go,” says Dutton. “The Olympics have had to cut back on eventing, so now there are only three riders on a team from each country.”


Horses will be flown to Paris 10 days in advance to be exercised nearby. It’s a three-day competition, one each for dressage, cross-country and show jumping. The lowest score wins, and the three individual scores combine for the team score. Each member performs for less than a half-hour. “If your horse is injured, you’re out,” Dutton notes. “You can’t substitute another horse.”

There are others interested in Dutton’s Olympic prospects. “Each horse is owned by a small syndicate in partnership, with everyone getting full accreditation,” he says. “Z is owned by five people. I had to travel to Portugal to get him, although he was Dutch-bred and a six-year-old in England when we purchased him.”

As horse and rider prepare for what would be Z’s second Olympics, the former seems to have the easier role. “Horses jump twice a week, but not always the most-extreme jumps,” Dutton says. “Each horse usually participates in only two major events per year, like a marathoner.”


“Just because you’ve been selected, doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll go. Something can still happen to you or your horse.”
—Phillip Dutton

By all rights, Jennie Brannigan should’ve never become a world-class rider. But her mother wanted to get away from Chicago, introducing her daughter to the Illinois countryside—and horses. Years later, when Brannigan alerted friends and acquaintances to a new cell phone number, one of them quickly called back and offered her a job. That eventually led to the horse barns of Pennsylvania. “I’m not training for the Olympics,” Brannigan insists, though she admits it’s a possibility. “People who set goals too far in advance can mess up their horses trying to keep on schedule. I’ve never made long-term goals, but I take enough time to prepare when I’ve committed to doing something.”

horse event
Eventing is often described as the triathlon of riding, consisting of three equestrian events: dressage, cross-country and show jumping. It’s the one event where men and women compete as equals for medals in all three categories.

Watching Brannigan conduct a jumping lesson with a student is a study in concentration. As the horse and rider approach a jump, she breaks down the movements. Then she mentally reconstructs what was done well and what wasn’t, before adjusting the jump height to go on to the next stage. Brannigan’s eyes well up with tears when she speaks of her wealthy grandfather who, once he saw her commitment to becoming a serious rider, bought her her first horse, Cooper. “He was the one family member who believed in me,” she says. “He only got to see me ride once, in Galway.”

Fortunately, she won that event.

Before coming to Pennsylvania, Brannigan did some show jumping and long-range endurance riding. Then, with Cooper, she entered the USDF/USEF Young Rider Graduate Program in 2008 and won her first top-level competition in 2015 at the Kentucky Three-Day Event. Eventing is an expensive sport, and those who participate must either be independently wealthy or have affluent backers. They often supplement their income by training other riders, boarding and selling horses, and courting commercial sponsors. Brannigan’s horse trailer and tack room are plastered with the logos of sponsors who’ve signed on to Team Brannigan. “I’m really not good about asking for things,” she admits.

horse event

What she is good at is selecting horses. A young horse at about five years of age costs $50,000-$75,000, but Brannigan prefers to breed her own. Her current main mount is FE Lifestyle, a 13-year-old chestnut gelding. “I have a business partner in Europe who recommends horses to buy and me to sell. I look at the videos and turn most of them down,” she says.

These days, Brannigan normally gets to work at 8:30 a.m. and leaves at 4 p.m. “I’m on a horse most of the time,” she says. “I can’t remember the last time I took a day off,”

Phillip Dutton at Fair Hill’s MARS Maryland 5 Star this past fall.

Phillip Dutton at Fair Hill’s MARS Maryland 5 Star this past fall.

Recently, Brannigan married Fair Hill thoroughbred trainer Niall Saville. But she quickly corrects any attempt to address her by a new name. “My name is Jennie Brannigan,” she makes clear—which means she won’t have to repaint her racing van.

But there’s one thing that has changed. “I’m not as competitive as I used to be,” she says. “I think that’s made me a better horseman.”

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