Imagine that when interviewing for a new job, you’re handed the reins of a four-star event horse and told simply, “Don’t fall off.”
That was Kelly Prather’s experience when applying to work for famed British eventer William Fox-Pitt. “I had to ride Seacookie [2012 Blenheim CCI*** winner and second in the 2011 Burghley CCI****], who was coming back into work. He was hot and fresh; that was slightly nerve-wracking,” she said.
Adding to the nerves was Fox-Pitt’s silent assessment of her over the day-long interview at his yard in Dorset, England. “He doesn’t say a lot. You just have to be confident to ride around and know you’re doing the right thing. Having him watch me, I was just more honored than anything. He offered me the job when we were out hacking on the road,” Prather said.
What would inspire a young eventer to leave behind an established business and travel across the Atlantic? A year and a half ago, Prather was at a crossroads in her eventing career. She’d just retired her top upper level horse, Ballinakill Glory, who’d taken her around her first four-star completion at the 2011 Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event and to the FEI Eventing World Cup Final (Poland), and was looking for the next step in her career as a young professional.
After discussing it with occasional trainer Eric Smiley, she decided it was now or never to go to England and gain experience working for a top rider. Smiley had mentioned that William Fox-Pitt was looking for a head rider. “[Fox-Pitt is] amazing and I’ve always looked up to him and I’ve always wanted to ride for an upper level rider,” said Prather.
Prather, 28, sent in her resume and was called to come for an in-person interview in December 2011. As part of her interview, she stayed in a house with Fox-Pitt’s other riders and helped them with barn chores. She rode a few horses, including one of Fox-Pitt’s four-star mounts. Fox-Pitt liked what he saw enough to offer her the job.
Because of visa difficulties, Prather didn’t travel to England until mid-February. Fox-Pitt made extra effort to help with the paperwork nightmare. “William was kind enough to become a registered sponsor and sponsor me on a sports person visa,” she said. “It’s not an easy process. He had to go through a lot. I felt very honored that he was doing it for me.”
While Prather was excited to start a new journey, she was sad to leave her business and clients behind. She’d worked for Andrea Pfieffer at Chocolate Horse Farm in Petaluma, Calif. for nine years. Pfieffer had also been her coach since she was a child. “Leaving her was hard because she’s done a lot for me, but she was very supportive and very happy for me,” she said. “Leaving horses and clients was a hard decision because of the great relationships and support they provided coming up the levels.”
A Learning Experience
When Prather arrived in England, she was already familiar with their eventing system. In 2001, she spent four months there and earned her British Horse Society stage 1 and 2 degrees before landing a job at Sportsfield Event Horses in Ireland. After a year, Prather left Sportsfield with one of its owners, Carol Gee, and helped her start Fernhill Sporthorses, staying for two years before she was offered the job at Chocolate Horse Farm.
Prather’s days at Wood Lane Stables started at 7 a.m., with mucking and other barn chores. The staff would then take a short break for breakfast and tea before riding. Prather was head rider, so on days when Fox-Pitt wasn’t there, she’d often ride 10 horses. Many days were spent hacking and schooling with other riders, but Prather got plenty of face time with Fox-Pitt, and she was able to compete a few young horses. “I was lucky enough to be able to help gallop his horses with him, so a lot of the time, he’d be on one and I’d be on one, and he’d give me pointers about my position and how he wanted his horses to feel,” she said.
Every day was a learning experience for Prather. Whether she was riding or not, she observed Fox-Pitt’s methods. “I was fortunate enough that I was there a few times when horses came to the yard that he was looking at for sale. [I heard] his input on what he likes to buy and what he looks for in an upper level horse. That knowledge of what he sees is something I’ll definitely apply to myself,” she said.
And while Prather felt like her riding was on the right track, there was always something to take away. “His thing is to teach the horse to think. He’s extremely picky on position and being in the right place and never, ever being in the horse’s way,” she said. “I think my overall position got better and my overall feel of the horse got better. I think I was all right before I went over, but he just polished it. I feel like in every aspect of my riding, he helped and he put the next level on.”
Being in England during an Olympic year was an especially rewarding experience for Prather. “Everyone really welcomed [me] in. Yogi [Breisner, England’s eventing chef d’equipe] was so nice. He would have me and some of the other students come out in the arena and listen to what they were doing, completely had us join in and made us feel like we were part of the team. To be able to see how the team thinks and how they train because they’ve done it so much is great. I took away the mental mindset, being able to see those veterans work,” she said.
While it takes a team to run the yard, Fox-Pitt and his wife, Alice, bought tickets to the Olympics so that everyone could attend at least one day. Prather was lucky enough to go on Fox-Pitt’s dressage day. She was able to walk the cross-country course with him too. “Being in London and having the Olympics in London; the whole country was just buzzing. They were so supportive of their athletes and everyone was so supportive. It was amazing to be there and be a part of Team Great Britain,” she said.
Prather returned to the U.S. in mid-November after attending the Pau CCI**** (France) with Fox-Pitt. She’s taken away a lifetime of experience in just under a year, and plans to apply that to her business. “[William] has more paid sponsorship so he doesn’t have to do a lot of teaching and can concentrate on his horses and his riding. At this stage of his life, he’s focused on his horses. When he retires from riding, [he wants to] take up more teaching,” she said. “To be able to concentrate on your riding and your horses and have the time, I think we can learn a lot from it.
“He has a great groom that’s been with him 20 years. She runs the barn and he trusts her so much with his horses. He’s not worried about having to run things in the barn, although he’s very hands-on. He makes decisions with her about every little thing. He knows exactly what’s going on with every horse all the time,” she continued.
Prather will set up Kelly Prather Eventing out of Bruce Davidson’s Chesterland Farm in Unionville, Pa. and Ocala, Fla. in January. She first met Davidson in 2007 as she was prepping for her first three-star at Fair Hill (Md.) with Ballinakill Glory. “I liked him a lot and worked very well with him. He’s what William is going to be in some years’ time. His knowledge is endless,” she said.
She reconnected with him at the Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials (England) this year where he was coaching. After telling him she was unsure about her future plans, Davidson gave her some advice on rebuilding back in the states. Once she was home, Davidson contacted her about working out of Chesterland.
Prather has two of Davidson’s homebreds that are now 5 and 6, so she’s excited to get them out competing and start working with new clients. “It’s an absolutely incredible facility and it’s going to give me every opportunity to train and produce horses in two great locations,” she said.