If you attended the first day of the William Fox-Pitt clinic put on by Kelly Gage of Team EnGaged on Nov. 5 at Morningside Training Farm in The Plains, Va., expecting to learn something new and revolutionary, you were probably disappointed. But if you wanted a refresher on what honest-to-goodness horsemanship looks like? Then you got exactly what you hoped for.
Fox-Pitt was humble, soft-spoken and occasionally demonstrated a wicked sense of humor. When asked what was the most important factor in his nearly unparalleled eventing career, he laughed and chalked it up to luck.
But when you watched him teach, it was clear he’s got a lot more than luck behind his achievements.
Fox-Pitt started the day off by explaining his horses’ daily routine. They get a good long walk in the morning, followed by a half hour hack before he rides. He spends about 45 minutes training, and then the horses go out for the night.
He stressed that when he’s riding or watching others ride, it’s important that what you’re trying to accomplish is clear. “If I look out my office window, I need to know what stage of the work the rider is in,” he said. “There needs to be a plan, and you need to work to that plan every day. Are you stretching, warming up, working, doing the exercises or warming down?”
He then detailed his warm-up routine, which involves getting off the horse’s back and letting him stretch long and low if he will.
“If they don’t stretch down, then I ride them onto the bridle the way they want to go at first,” he said. “You have to adapt your warm-up to suit your horse.”
He also likes to have a canter fairly early on. “We trot around for ages. Nearly every horse is better after a canter,” he said.
And during that warm-up? “Do some stuff!” Fox-Pitt said only half joking. “It’s not just cantering around. Be more definite. You’re working or you’re stretching. Don’t go from nothing to working. Start the conversation with the horse. Get them down the rein and through the body.”
Whether Fox-Pitt was coaching Allison Springer on her veteran four-star partner Arthur, or amateur rider Lisbeth Storandt on her tense off-the-track Thoroughbred Open Rebellion, he asked riders to push to the edge of what made them comfortable.
For Springer, this meant getting out of the tack and opening up the notoriously spooky Arthur right from the beginning.
“It’s easy to leave the horse in his comfort zone and let him putter around,” Fox-Pitt said. “Don’t settle for a comfortable feeling.”
But that didn’t mean go forward, forward, forward. “I think slow trot is as useful as forward trot,” he said. “I want to see the transitions within the gait.”
He encouraged riders to ride their horse in a variety of frames and speeds. “She’s in danger of developing [only] one trot,” he warned four-star eventer Sharon White about her ride Under Suspection.
“Slow her, put her back in the box, then let her go for a stride,” he advised.
Same story for the canter. “Be brave in the canter. Don’t stay in any one canter for too long,” he said. “We tend to stay on one rein for too long, and you get fatigue. Do it one way and then do it the other way.”
He chastised riders for being stingy with the reins. “When you give them a long rein, give them a long rein on the buckle,” he said. “Event riders are bad at giving their horses a break. Dressage riders work hard, but for short periods of time. Event riders might work without giving the horse the reins for 45 minutes.”
He particularly worked on the walk, encouraging riders to ask for a marching walk on a loose rein.
“We don’t do enough exercises in the walk,” he said. “Be brave in the walk. Feel a little bit of a hurry, so they’re really overtracking and going somewhere. I don’t want you grinding away with your spur, and nothing is happening. Once you’ve got the walk, then you can add contact. Horses tend to drop behind as soon as you add contact.”
Two Exercises For Every Rider
One of the ways Fox-Pitt encouraged riders to test themselves was by placing both reins in the outside hand.
“It’s very useful to realize how much we rely on the inside hand,” he said. “We all need to do it less. It’s showing us how much we interfere with the horses. A horse is never overbent on his own.”
Some riders just rode at the walk one-handed, while others performed one-handed shoulder-in and medium trot.
“If the horse raises his head every time you let go of the inside rein, you know you’re relying on it too much,” Fox-Pitt said. “You’re pulling on the inside rein to block the nose. He’s got to support himself.”
Another exercise he went back to repeatedly was alternating legs on and off every stride at the canter. When Kate Samuels’ Nyls du Terroir got “choppy” in his canter, Fox-Pitt said, “Put your leg on for a stride and take it off for a stride to create and relax. It’s like letting the air out of a balloon. It stops the horse’s body from being snatchy. It’s a tool to keep the softness through his back.”
He made numerous riders speak out loud, saying “On, off” as they cantered along.
“With leg on/leg off, the whole leg should relax, but the only part visibly coming away is the lower leg,” Fox-Pitt clarified.
Position, Position, Position
At 6'5", Fox-Pitt is one of the tallest event riders around, and that’s made focusing on position especially important to him.
“I’m slightly annoying about your position, but it will make your life easier,” he joked.
His corrections were subtle, although always in the direction of classical good riding. “You should have a straight line from your ear to your hip to your heel,” he lectured. “Elbows hang, hands forward!”
Hands to the front was a common refrain throughout the day. “Michael Jung rides very well with his hands [in his lap], but he’s a freak. Normal people can’t do that,” admonished Fox-Pitt.
He insisted riders sit up straight, despite doing flatwork in their jump tack.
“Americans have very good lower legs. They’re known for it,” he said. “But if you jam your lower leg forward, your upper body has to tip forward to balance. Bring your lower leg back. You should be able to stand up if you were plucked off the horse and placed on the ground.”
He recommended coming up with a mental checklist to tick off in your head if you can’t feel when something isn’t right in your position.
“Am I sitting up? Are my heels down?”
The Tense And Spooky Horse
It was no surprise that in a high-pressure clinic situation, some horses reacted to the atmosphere by becoming tense or spooky. Fox-Pitt was quick to remind riders it was their job to be the leader.
“The edgier the horse, the more you have to give him confidence,” he said. “The first thing we tend to do is take the leg off. Put the reins in one hand and bend both ways. Vary the outline in the warm-up. Test him.”
With one particularly tense horse, Fox-Pitt advised his rider to drop the reins. “I don’t care if he goes a bit too fast,” he said. “Let him trot around like he was loose on the longe. You create resistances by trying to contain him. Teach him to have a rhythm by your own riding. Give him the body language that you’re confident.
“I can see clearly that you’re not clear,” he continued. “Keep your hands still. You’re dying to fiddle. Be very strict with your position. Sit up and ride confidently.”
When it came to spooking, Fox-Pitt admitted it was a very annoying habit, but he told riders never to punish a spooking horse.
“They can’t help it,” he said. “Then they anticipate spooking and being punished. When you see something spooky, don’t go right up to it. Go gradually.”
He explained that with his Badminton and Burghley CCI**** (England) winner Tamarillo, he could never start out going around the arena on the rail. “I had to do one lap at five meters off the rail, and then one at four and then three, and then two and then one,” he said.
But he never lets a spooking horse run away from something that’s frightening him. “Slow them down, take away the speed,” he said. “When he spooks, whoa. It gives you a contact and then put your leg on to create a connection. Slow, low, go. Nothing aggressive. Quietly shut them down. It may take 20 strides or it may take two.”
Downtime Is Crucial
Fox-Pitt didn’t allow any riders to jump on the first day, although he encouraged them to ride in their jumping tack.
“I don’t want sitting trot and grinding away at this time of year,” he explained.
He did let a few riders canter over a series of four poles, set on a circle at 12 o’clock, 3, 6 and 9 with four or five strides in between each one.
“Cantering over poles is good for the rider as well as the horse,” he said. “You have to react, think about where you’re going, turn. Cantering poles on a circle is a good exercise for a buzzy horse. It’s hypnotic and puts the horse to sleep.”
But he emphasized that during these months of the year, his horses are turned out the in the field with their blankets on and their shoes off.
“It’s important that everyone has a break,” he said. “Me, my team at home, the horses. I like to get a break from the horses, and I like the horses to get a break from us. Some horses don’t let down very well. But there’s only so much mileage in a horse. Their muscles take six weeks to recover. He is carrying various little injuries throughout the season. Muscle has a memory. When you resume training, it does come back quickly.”
Tidbits And Takeaways
“Horses love routine, although sometimes you have to surprise the crazy ones,” was Fox-Pitt’s advice about having a plan at home and sticking to it at the show.
“You can be more generous with your pats. You’re a bit miserable with them,” he said to one nervous rider.
And even Fox-Pitt has his faults. “When I’m jumping, I have a tendency to go on the forward stride,” he admitted. “If in doubt, take one out. That’s not so good.”
Stay tuned for a full report from Day 2, when the jumps come out!
Participants on Day 1
Allison Springer and Arthur
Kate Samuels and Nyls du Terroir
Jan Byyny on Why Not
Sharon White on Under Suspection
Victoria Jessop on Desert Mystery
Kendyl Tracy on RF Cameron Velvet
Kate Brown on Dylano Q
Alexa Ehlers on Clear Approval
Malcolm Dilley on Kilpatrick Orlando
Nicole Kowalski on Ballinagore Knight
Lisbeth Storandt on Open Rebellion
Lainey Ashker on Calling All Comets
Chris Talley on Popeye
Kristin Carpenter on Khaleesi
Skyeler Voss on Cooley Caliber
Connor Husain on Cooley Knight