Confidence Is Key Over Fences For Fox-Pitt

Nov 6, 2013 - 3:24 PM

It was back to basics over fences for riders on Day 2 of the William Fox-Pitt clinic organized by Kelly Gage of Team EnGaged at Morningside Training Farm in The Plains, Va.

Fox-Pitt is a master of technique over fences, but his focus for the day was on teaching the horses to be independent and confident, whether they were jumping one foot or 3’6”.

“When you’re working with coaches, I think they often focus too much on getting the right canter, getting the right stride, getting them straight, doing everything right, and at the end of the day, helping the horse a lot,” he said. “I think that’s all well and good, and I think you need to be able to achieve that, but the horse needs to jump from a bad canter. He needs to jump crooked and off a stride a foot too deep or a foot too far away. We never go around the cross-country track and find the same stride at every fence. It’s just not realistic.”

Fox-Pitt said he wanted to see odd extra strides or early strides so he could see horses and riders reacting. “We have to create situations in our training where they might have to make the odd mistake,” he said. “The most important thing that I want to see today is horses looking where they’re going. I don’t want horses to be waiting, waiting, waiting for instruction. I want them to be looking forward, watching how their expressions change and how their ears lock onto the fences. If they don’t make a mistake, they don’t learn.”

Horses and riders ranged from four-star to training level, but they all started their sessions by warming up long and low, a lesson learned during the first day of the clinic.

Fox-Pitt stressed that it was important to warm up properly on the flat before the jumping phases at an event. “You can’t set off on a cross-country course unless the horse is accepting the bridle in some way,” he said.

“The important thing for jumping is listening to the rider and that they’re on the aids,” he continued. “A horse for jumping has got to be as connected between the hand and the leg as a horse for dressage. Get the horse down the rein and in front of the leg.”

The advanced and intermediate riders went first, and after they warmed up on the flat, Fox-Pitt had them walk a course of small skinnies, barrels and boxes, no more than 2 feet high.

Allison Springer’s Copycat Chloe got a little tense and wanted to jog towards the jumps, so Fox-Pitt reminded riders to make sure not to expect the jumps with their upper bodies, but wait and react.

Fox-Pitt noted that he doesn’t like to use placing poles or flags on skinny jumps when schooling because horses can start to rely on them.

“If I’m on a brave, very confident horse, I rarely use one,” he said of placing poles. “I think they’re slightly overrated. Placings poles on the landing side or down in combinations are useful.”

He likes to gradually explain things to horses so they learn to jump what’s in front of them and so they don’t realize there’s another option. After walking the course of small fences, he had riders start to trot and canter over larger jumps, explaining that it’s easier to correct a horse in trot.

For all levels, Fox-Pitt gradually built up more complicated courses of seven to eight jumps, and most fences were about 3 feet or less. He built a bending line of skinny barrels, three strides to a bounce over skinny walls, two strides to a chevron, and he also simulated cross-country questions by adding an angled two-stride of verticals, a corner and a skinny brush.

The questions made several horses a little quicker and sharper, including Kendyl Tracey’s RF Cameron Velvet, who Fox-Pitt thought was a little bit lazy, but only because he found the small fences so easy.

Smaller Fences, Same Idea

The afternoon session featured training level and future event horses, but Fox-Pitt’s concepts stayed the same. He had both groups start by walking over jumps, but because there were several green horses, the focus shifted to making sure riders had a steady leg contact and straightness as they approached.

“You must channel them down the rein; confident, straight and from the leg,” he said. “Even though they’re going nicely, be very sure they’re going straight. Every horse can tend to go one way or another. Just be very quick to correct him and put him on the straight line.”

He had riders channel their horses to the skinny jumps by widening their hands to create a funnel effect, but that required rein contact and legs on.

“That’s where the walk will help because you have to put the leg on,” he said. “The trot helps because you can feel what they’re doing. We rely on the canter to carry us to a fence, so it’s too easy to take the leg off, particularly on a young horse. I know it because I do it. We all go instinctively into neutral, and you want to keep them in a gear, even if it’s not with the accelerator down.”

When some young horses stopped or balked when asked to jump from walk, Fox-Pitt had their riders back them up until they could safely present at a trot.

When Connor Husain’s 5-year-old Cooley Knight cross-cantered around a turn, Fox-Pitt encouraged him to keep coming to the jump because he needed to learn to keep going forward even if he was disunited.

Fox-Pitt also encouraged riders to use their voices as an aid to help their youngsters.

Tidbits and Takeaways

- Fox-Pitt made adjustments to several riders’ stirrups throughout the day, saying they were too long. “When you get on, you should feel that your stirrups are a little bit short,” he said. “As you warm up, as you come out of the saddle and come forward and jump, you should feel that you’re coming into a more comfortable position. If when you get on, you’re comfortable in your stirrups, they’re invariably too long.”  

- Fox-Pitt suggested riders use neck straps, especially on the younger horses or those riding in stronger bits. He also noted that it was useful to get the rider’s hands forward and that some horses respond to it as a balancing aid. “A lot of my young horses will be taught to rein back with a neck strap so they learn to come rounder in the rein back,” he said.

“You won’t always grab the mane [when jumping,]” he continued. “You’ll try to, and I think it’s very important that you never come behind or catch him in the cheek, and that you never punish them for actually doing the right thing. I’ve never ridden without one, and if I was to go in the startbox without one, I’d nearly have to pull out! It would be like going without a bridle.”

- Fox-Pitt noted that many participants had their horse’s breastplates too tight. He was also surprised at the lack of running martingales. He said that growing up, he was only allowed to ride in a snaffle and a plain cavesson noseband, but that changed as he grew up, and now they’re ubiquitous in England.

“I had a horse called Chaka, and he used throw his head up in the air. One year at Badminton, he had two stops. Someone asked me why I didn’t use a running martingale on him, and I said it was because I’d never used one.”

From that day forward, Fox-Pitt used at least a long running martingale on most of his horses. “I see it now as a safety thing,” he said. “It’s just there in case I need it.”

- When discussing the workload of the young horses in the last group, Fox-Pitt encouraged jumping in moderation, especially over the winter.

“They all jumped really well, and you need to focus on you, focus on your straightness, focus on the canter, but the last thing you want to do is overjump these young horses,” he said. “I would be more than happy with where they are if I was riding them. I think we can get very carried away with poles and siderails. There’s time for that. You don’t need to introduce it for the sake of it. If a horse was going crooked, I might put a siderail up to keep him straight, but if you start trying to develop their jump and asking for too much, all you do is teach them a way around it.”

He encouraged riders to use exercises in moderation and to be imaginative in their training, focusing on quality over quantity.

“They’ve only got so many jumps in their lives,” he said. “What we’ve done today is a one-off. I would rarely jump my horses this much unless I was in a clinic. We’ve covered probably four things today. This could be four sessions.”


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