Yesterday concluded day one of the William Fox-Pitt clinic in the United States, and despite the chill in the air, both riders and auditors left feeling a little more relaxed and a lot more enlightened than they entered the day. Hosted in the wonderful facility of Morningside Training Farm, the day proved to be a great learning experience. There was a fair share of nervous first-time-meeting-your-idol jitters, but William himself is very welcoming and quite laid back and was able to assuage even the most starstruck of riders with his quiet and easy going approach to horsemanship.
We began each lesson with an emphasis on the warm-up, which William believes is an oft forgotten art of how to get the best out of each and every horse that we ride. “All of my horses spend a half hour on the walker, and then hack for a while before I even pick up the reins every day,” William said, “So before I begin work with them, they’ve spent at least an hour stretching on the buckle and warming up.” Too many horses go directly from the barn to the arena and straight into work without treating them like the athletes that they are with slow mental and physical preparation.
All riders were asked to appear for the flat lesson in our jump tack in order to force us to be lighter in our aids and stay off our horse’s backs. The initial instructions were to warm up each horse with a long and low frame and a good forward motion that enabled them to loosen up without rushing. In the canter, riders were asked to begin in a galloping position to allow their horses to have a loose back instead of immediately beginning in a more deep seated dressage position.
The emphasis was on also using the outside rein to engage a steady connection with the horse and give up the use of our often beloved inside rein as a crutch. When riders (such as myself) found this to be a difficult exercise, we were given the one-rein order, where we had to steer, connect and properly execute different movements with only the use of one hand on the outside rein. This established a new brand of connection between horse and rider and forced both to use more self-carriage in all gaits.
While we all worked quite hard in our semi-private hour lessons, William was adamant that we allow small breaks in the work for both the mental and physical longevity of our horses. When he said break, he meant that we were to put our horses on the buckle, let go of the control, and ask them to step forward in the walk and track up well.
After a small break, we were all asked to pick up the contact within the same forward, brave walk, which was surprisingly difficult, especially with the fussier horses. While the walk movements in our dressage tests are often double coefficients and definitely affect our subsequent movements, we often neglect to care for it as much as the trot and the canter. Even the most experienced horses had trouble with this simple exercise, and it was one that all could use more often for improvement.
While there was definitely some variance to each lesson, all riders were brought into the actual dressage arena for the final stage of the lesson to practice some movements from dressage tests that were comparable to the level of the horse. Several riders were given specific movements to complete each direction, and William acted as the judge, giving us scores and telling us how and why we should change for a better score.
For the younger horses, he focused on quality and connection over the back rather than a specific frame or a particular movement. “When introducing a new movement to a horse, focus on the quality of the steps that you get of that movement, and then later, on the outline of the horse,” William said. “Quality first, then worry about the degree of whatever you’re asking.” As our groups ranged from four-star horses to 4-year-olds in their first year of competition, the movements were catered to each capability and designed to bring the best out of each pair for the conclusion of the hour.
While spending all day wrapped up in three jackets and a scarf watching eight hours of flat work in pairs is not everyone’s cup of tea, it proved to be more exciting to watch these horses and riders in a training environment than in their competition mode. It is intriguing to see how each pair struggles and works constantly on specific goals, based on weaknesses in strength, ability or experience, as well as how they choose to handle the challenges before them.
Not only was there a vast difference between the experience levels of the horses, but there were very tense Thoroughbred types; quite lazy warmbloods; quite lazy Thoroughbreds; tense, short-necked warmbloods; young and green horses who were inconsistent on the bit; and older horses more set in their ways.
Throughout all these differences, William was somehow able to achieve the same result in all the pairs: a relaxed pair of communicating partners who were invariably more attuned to one another after an hour in his presence. Self carriage, presentation and thoughtful preparation all lent to a more pleasing picture for each horse and rider at the end of the day.
Tomorrow we all get to jump, and I’ll be bringing you another report on the action. Until then, enjoy these pictures of the participants and their mounts.