Lee Lee Jones last competed Fernhill Pickpocket at the Virginia Horse Trials in October 2016. Photo credit: Jenni Autry
Life changed in an instant for Rio Olympic bronze medalist Phillip Dutton when his stepdaughter, Lee Lee Jones, suffered a traumatic brain injury in a riding accident just before Christmas.
Lee Lee, a 22-year-old graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, was cantering around the exercise track at the Duttons’ True Prospect Farm in West Grove, PA on an unseasonably warm day when the horse she was riding bucked, slipped and fell. Thankfully, she was wearing a helmet.
The horse landed on Lee Lee, and she was airlifted to Christiana Care Hospital in Newark, Delaware. After spending more than a month in the Intensive Care Unit, she has now begun the long road to recovery at Bryn Mawr Rehab Hospital in Malvern.
Phillip’s wife, Evie, has been by Lee Lee’s side every day, overseeing her busy schedule of physical, occupational and speech therapy. Their twin daughters, Olivia and Mary, visit with Phillip around their school schedules and riding. It’s a routine that has become the new normal for the family.
“Lee Lee is progressing well at Bryn Mawr, which is an incredible rehab facility and the next step in her recovery,” Phillip said. “She has friends and family visit with her each day. She is making constant progress and positive steps forward in her recovery.”
It’s been a quiet winter for Phillip, who was named 2016 USEF Equestrian of the Year following his bronze-medal performance at the Olympics with HND Group’s Mighty Nice, who was also named 2016 USEF International Horse of the Year.
Instead of heading south earlier in the winter to train and compete in more favorable weather, Phillip instead sent the core members of his team and his young horses to their Red Oak Farm in Aiken, South Carolina. Phillip stayed behind in Pennsylvania with his top mounts to be with Lee Lee and family.
“It’s been what you could call a life-changing moment for Lee Lee and our family,” he said, and it certainly puts things into perspective about what is important in life.”
The quiet winter days spent in Pennsylvania, when the rest of the local eventing community has long since migrated south, brought Phillip to a deeper level of understanding with his top horses.
“On a personal level, it’s brought me back to basics with my horses,” he said. “Having what you might call the ‘A team’ here with me in Pennsylvania and having to do all the long jog sets and canter sets and jumping on them myself, I’ve really enjoyed it. I would like to work toward being able to keep going like this in the future.”
With that goal in mind, Phillip has decided to scale back his operation, from the number of in-house students and working students to the size of his staff and the string of horses he competes.
“I wanted to place a concentrated effort on the careers of my top horses,” he said. “I’m still going to teach, but my first priority will be these horses and not spreading myself quite so thin.”
With Lee Lee making consistent progress in her recovery, Phillip shipped his top horses down to Aiken at the end of February. Despite getting a late start on the season, Phillip settled right back into the competitive form that makes him one of the top event riders in the world.
At Red Hills International Horse Trials in Tallahassee, Florida, at the beginning of March — his first major competition back — he finished sixth with Fernhill Revelation in the CIC3* and finished another four horses in the top 20 of a competitive CIC2* division.
He continues to travel back and forth between South Carolina and Pennsylvania regularly to visit with Lee Lee, and she continues to take positive steps forward in her recovery every day.
“We all feel comfortable now that Lee Lee is on a proper road to recovery,” Phillip said. “It’s obviously still going to be a long way before she’s able to come home, but we’re excited about this next stage for her.”
Looking ahead to the rest of the season, Phillip will compete Tom Tierney and Annie Jones’ Fernhill Fugitive and John and Kristine Norton’s I’m Sew Ready at the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event in April.
Mighty Nice, better known as “Happy,” enjoyed an extended vacation after winning individual bronze in Rio, and he is now back in full work. Phillip will have him out competing later in the year, with an eye on aiming for a big competition in the fall with the 2018 World Equestrian Games in Tryon in mind.
“With Happy we’ll try to work back from the World Championships and come up with a good competition plan for him that builds up to that,” Phillip said. “The first thing will be to get qualified, and then we’ll see where we aim for.”
As he reflects on Lee Lee’s accident, Phillip said he is grateful for the support of the eventing community. #TeamLeeLee and #LeeLeeStrong photos continue to pepper social media. Bracelets, hats and shirts bearing the same hashtags and messages of support for her recovery are now impossible to miss wherever event riders can be found.
“The outpouring of love and support and best wishes has really been humbling,” he said. “It is a real testament to what a great person she is, and I think it will be really rewarding for everyone when she is able to be a part of the eventing world again.”
He also added that he is indebted to all of the members of his team, who stepped up to keep his operation running as smoothly as possible following the accident.
“When I visit the farm in Aiken, it looks beautiful and the horses are really going well. I couldn’t be more proud of my team. They’ve conducted themselves in such a professional manner in a difficult situation for all of us,” Phillip said.
“All of my sponsors and owners have been great as well and have all said to ‘take as much time as you need. The horses will always be there and ready when you get through this.’ I can’t thank them enough for standing by us during this time.”
On May 7, 2017 World Class Grooming will host a benefit clinic at Kate Hicks’ Cedar Springs Farm in Cochranville, PA. One-hundred percent of the profits will directly assist with Lee Lee’s medical costs, rehabilitation and care. The one day clinic will cover a variety of topics ranging from barn management to body clipping and show turnout. The clinic runs from 9 am to 4:30 pm, includes a copy of the book World Class Grooming, and costs $90 if pre-registered or $110 for week-of registration. To sign up or for more information, click here.
In addition to the clinic, a silent auction featuring everything from braiding services to lessons with Olympians will go live on April 22. Please visit the World Class Grooming Facebook page for links and details.