EN reader and Canadian correspondent Denya Massey was in attendance at the William Fox-Pitt Clinic on November 4, in Newmarket, Ontario. The clinic was sponsored by Albion Saddlemakers and Stringer Equestrian Co. Denya sent us an awesome clinic report last year from Clayton Fredericks, and she doesn’t disappoint with the WFP clinic either! We’ve heard so many good things from Wiliam’s clinic in Virginia, and it seems the Canadians were treated to the same wonderful opportunity. Thanks to Denya for writing, and thank you for reading.
On a crisp, clear day in southern Ontario, the eventing community was really psyched about seeing William Fox-Pitt in person.
His clinic was quickly sold out, and had to be expanded to accommodate the demand; it was sponsored by Stringer Equestrian Co. and Albion Saddlemakers, who also organized William’s appearance at the Royal Winter Fair Horseware Indoor Eventing classes. While William is gracious and unassuming in person, not seeing himself as “famous,” there’s no denying it or being cool about it — we were plain old excited! With a limit of 18 riders (6 per group, 2 sessions each), and a full house of spectators, the arena at Grass Stables in Newmarket was buzzing.
Once William was underway, he was all business, bringing a sense of calm to the ring, being direct but kindly, being clear and focused but not intense. The riders themselves were anxious, of course, but he has a way of spreading his energy quietly, so he draws the riders into his space, to listen to him, to absorb what he’s saying, to translate it back out to use it. Jessica Phoenix, gold medalist at the 2011 Pan Am Games, said what she really appreciated was his horsemanship, and his explanations about how to relate to your horse, to imagine how your horse sees and feels what’s happening, and how to overcome their instinct to flee rather than be submissive. Other clinics are often more about tools the rider could use for schooling, but this was more about the development of a successful positive partnership with an animal of flight.
Selena O’Hanlon, a team silver medalist with Jess at the WEG’s in 2010, commented that William managed his nerves when competing better than anyone else, and she enjoyed his quiet style in the clinic, but especially noted, “the horses loved him too!” Selena was the first to demonstrate how to jump with one arm behind her back, and later hanging loose by her side, to slow a rider’s shoulders in the air. And, one-handed on a young mare, she jumped a three fences all on an angle in one line smoothly!
There’s always something special that resonates after a clinic – that ah-ha moment, something clicks, a novel approach. After distilling so much in one day as the amateur chilly chinchilla who gets to hear all six sessions, scribbling madly with frozen fingers and taking photos, I reflect on what floats to the top. Several key statements/ideas stick with me.
- William said he was not there to train your horse, but to train you; sharing his theories.
- The walk is terribly underrated, yet it is about 1/3 of the marks.
- We need our eventing horses to think, which is why they are imperfect dressage horses – the most clever are often not the best in dressage, because the next day, they must think and think fast when on cross country, yet still listen to the rider.
- And speaking of cross country, ALWAYS have a neck strap. He does.
- For a “buzzy” horse (no explanation needed, we all get what a “buzzy” horse is like!), his credo is: “slow, low, go,” and give them the parameters that are acceptable, using two hands and two legs – all four parts.
- Finally, “when things go wrong, the leg stays on.”
William often addressed the audience, explaining why he’d made a particular comment, and sharing his insights, keeping it all simple. He started his least experienced riders with working on balance, noting he is too tall! But he uses balance to make his height work, stressing that no matter what your size or sport, the horse is not a conveyance. He promised to be “quite rude about this,” and furthermore wouldn’t tolerate putting your hip behind your heels. I have to add that I’ve heard rude, and he was never that – direct, honest, clear but never rude.
His warm up is long and low, stretch and bend, lots of walking, the only rising trot in warm up, and, for the first canter, sit up out of the saddle, the back is not warm yet. He reminded us that horses are creatures of habit, to use the same pattern whether schooling or competing, it reassures them the world is turning in the right order. William starts with half an hour of walk before trotting. Yup, you might think I misheard that, but he repeated it and “be brave in the walk” several times. The walk must be soft and relaxed, using bending lines, quarters left and right, shoulders in or out, but working towards soft and rhythmical, and cadence within the stretch.
Trotting is best done rising, using the same techniques as the walk, flexing softly, not demanding, but asking and expecting obedience, especially don’t let your horse gawk at things….insist on “listen to me.” Sitting tightens the back, and you should learn how to transition from a rising trot to a walk without sitting.
Contact should be definite, no flapping reins, a friendly feeling, so the horse knows where you are. He dropped his arm on the reins halfway between the bit and the rider’s hands to demonstrate. Taking your reins in your hands “upside down” is a good winter exercise, keeps the hands forward, horses will take the weight, and both rider and horse tend to be less fussy.
When one of the horses really bucked, William yelled ‘Yahoo!’ (got a big laugh) and then went on to say “carry on regardless.” I thought that was only on pillows and WWII posters, but then a bucking horse seems pretty hostile when in progress! It was here we heard “when things go wrong, the leg stays on.” He worked with several horses that were acting up, and pushed the riders to keep their legs on, ignore the nonsense, keep going forward. It’s an act of defiance, and the rider has to insist on going forward.
His instinct for what a horse is about was evident when one horse was being naughty and acting a bit spoiled, and the rider commented she was a home-bred, to which William said “if you hadn’t told me she was a home-bred, I would have said she is a home-bred.” For the buzzy horse, he used slow, low, go, and wanted her to “deflate” using everything but a straight line. Make her think, train the instinct to run out of her, keep her busy.
He explained too that horses get nervous with dressage because they don’t like scrutiny, feel victimized, and reflect your nerves. He noted the Germans don’t make mental errors, including be disciplined about controlling their nerves so the horses don’t sense it. You must develop the art to give no vibes that you are nervous. Tension is normal, so as he goes into the ring, he breathes out a big breath (deflate like the buzzy mare!). He said to use that technique too as the horse is taking off when jumping, helps make the upper body more flexible.
His own way of dealing with tension before a test is to be a bit late, harassed, where’s my top hat, etc., so he doesn’t focus too hard on the up-coming test. Then once he’s on, he continues with his disciplined warm-up: methodical, planning his time, uses nice contact, doesn’t drill off right from the start. And lots of walk. I have to say I admire his calm demeanor but if I was late, couldn’t find my helmet, and was feeling harassed, I’d be demented and freaky…so I get the idea, but perhaps I might substitute something less stressful, like reading or chatting to a friend. And that’s his point – he encourages you to find your own key that works for you and your horse.
Speaking of tension, William was teasing one of the elite riders that she was tense in her back, that he could see because her jersey was tight! As a demonstration of his rapport with the riders and horses, the rider in question laughed out loud too, and confessed later she worked hard to get the correct position, but now has to learn how to release the tension for a nicer shape.
He demonstrated how to check the tension in your horse, by standing in front and taking the head and gently moving it side to side, increasing the flexion as they begin to understand the exercise. The tense horse will shift his back legs.
This was fun for all of us: William had the riders do a two-movement test, of leg yielding then shoulder in or out, their choice, and he scored them with comments. A few 5’s, no 8’s! He said he used to watch Ingrid Klimke do her show test from start to finish in warm-up although we were all taught not to do that as the horse will learn to anticipate. Yet she said if she stopped each time something wasn’t perfect, she’d never know how all the parts connected, to see how the horse would flow from one section to the next. William suggests schooling different tests start to finish. Better yet, have someone judge you, then you judge them – another good winter exercise to learn to manage nerves when being judged, because you’ve done your homework. Sally Sainsbury, a well respected coach in Ontario, commented that the idea of riding movements for a score, a 7, gives real purpose to schooling.
At one point, the riders kept cantering while he spoke to one in the centre. He looked up and said ‘please stop cantering, I’m getting dizzy!’ Typical of the throwaway lines that kept the audience entertained. After a rather nasty run-out, he says quietly, ‘well, how do we like that???’ Got a good embarrassed chuckle since we’ve all been there. He stressed wide, wide hands to create a tunnel for the horse.
Jumping a course and not grids and canter poles allows horses and riders to think, in turn allowing William to see if the rider can go with the horse, and stay out of trouble. He set difficult lines, fences at angles, and all dissimilar fences: a roll top, a heavy wood chevron, a skinny V, a painted box wall, a castle, and a bright blue cloud fence, each with a pole on top. He added he was not there to teach equitation but how to get from A to Z effectively. (That certainly pleased the riders, and it was true – not a single “put your heel down!”) A few run outs and one pop-off….which seemed almost worth it to get a leg-up from William Fox-Pitt! Over the course of the clinic, riders really focused on making it through the course, by being effective as a rider and working as a partner with their horse. Again, Sally remarked that she really liked the idea of encouraging horses to think for themselves, and staying off the horse’s back during warm-up!
Which brings us to a plan…. for a jumping course, William stressed having a plan, and having options, because plans always go wrong. Use long strides, then short, at the same combination of fences, so your horse is responsive – should he jump huge into a line, you must know the better option, and your horse must compress or lengthen as you ask. Furthermore, your horse should be willing to jump a bucket, never looking for a way out, but drawing you to the skinny – “oh, there it is, I’ll go.” You can have a loose rein cross country to steer, letting the horse find its way, letting him think how to get the job done.
Thanks to Albion Saddle makers bringing William to Ontario. At the end of the day, we were left with a feeling of the most basic principles being possible – understanding your horse’s point of view, respecting what the horse can do, set parameters of behavior, creating and maintaining a plan to give the horse structure, and lots of walk, the forgotten gait! What sticks with me particularly is not what he said or didn’t say, it was his attitude of calm, patience, and his expectation of and compassion for the horse that I’d like to emulate.
Go William! Go Eventing!