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Chelan Kozak

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Position Still Key at William Fox-Pitt’s British Columbia Clinic

Photo by Chelan Kozak.

Photo by Chelan Kozak.

For jumping, we switched gears from dressage. Dressage day was all about precision. Jumping, and specifically cross country, is more about adapting to any problems that come up. Jumping tests the horse’s reactions and the rider’s reactions to the situations which arise. It’s not always going to be right. William reminded us that we don’t learn as much if things are perfect the whole time while schooling.

Day two position was as key as day one. Cross country stirrups should be short enough. Lower leg when you are out of the saddle shouldn’t involve too much with your knee. Galloping with shorter stirrups helps keep the correct position in between cross country fences, then sit up just at the fences. We need to keep the body slow on take off. Getting ahead of the horse with our bodies on take off was a big no-no, as we have all heard endless times — bears repeating, as so many riders continue to give it a try!

As warm up for jumping, the focus was on the canter, as we jump courses out of the canter — forward and back, as well as transitions to trot and walk. He is a humble person considering his accolades and success. He shared stories about his experiences that were “hiccups and whoopsies.”

Once such anecdote involved warm up at Rolex on a normally strong horse who was soft and lovely in the warm up for some reason. As it turns out, he went out on course and it all went wrong, as the horse was charging around and not listening, resulting in him pulling up and retiring. It’s a reminder that even the best run into trouble by not following the plan.

Despite the focus on getting a good canter and obedient horse in the warm up, William starts jumping in trot. The horse must look for the jump, and we must encourage them to look at the jumps. He feels starting in trot helps achieve this.

He also doesn’t always school big fences with his horses or students; he prefers to make the exercises more difficult. Training horses and riders with smaller jumps initially promotes relaxation. Then when the fences do go up, the horses and riders don’t panic.

In addition to that, jumping jumps in trot makes horses stay in the air longer, so then the horses need to think more about where their legs are for a longer period of time. It often improves their technique. He commented that trotting fences often makes riders feel like they can’t ride. But never mind, he said, as it’s good for riders to do things that they feel a bit awkward with, rather than doing things that make us feel perfect and great the whole time.

We need to practice what to do when things aren’t exactly “right” when jumping so that during competition we can react quickly and stay in the game. He also had the riders jump a jump at the walk for the same reasons, but the effect is more accentuated. He used several skinny fences for accuracy. In fact, we started off jumping over a narrow box as our first jump! He wants the horses to have to stay on the line that we put them on as a result of getting them to look at the jumps.

Photo by Chelan Kozak.

Photo by Chelan Kozak.

If a horse stops at a fence, we must not let them turn away. Back up until you have room to come again. He is absolutely not concerned or focused on getting a perfect distance. He wants the horse to play a part in where it leaves the ground. It’s the rider’s job to produce a good canter and line, and then if it goes wrong, react accordingly. Event riders must learn to adapt to whatever happens.

Our job is to prepare the line and canter, then ride forward to the jump. Riding forward to the jump is NOT accelerating to the jump. There is a difference. When riders got to a longer or shorter distance than ideal, his emphasis was on the rider staying in the moment and conveying confidence to the horse.

After we had jumped a few jump turn patterns, the Intermediate/Advanced group rode the same pattern with one hand. During the lesson, we rode straight lines and bending lines. He liked that there were a variety of stride numbers for all of the riders between fences. He reminded us that so long as the rhythm is good and the pair is relaxed that the number of strides for each horse wasn’t the most important thing.

For each rider, as he had done the previous day in dressage, he made a relevant correction for each rider. He was again able to easily determine what “thing” would help the rider best for the next round, as well as for the next school and the coming weeks and months. We had the opportunity to ride both cross country jumps and show jumps in our courses.

Participants had come from near and far to observe William in action. We had riders from British Columbia, Alberta and from Washington. Riders drove through treacherous winter conditions in order to have the chance to ride. Riding with William was an incredible opportunity, particularly literally in my backyard. Here in British Columbia, we are thousands of miles from the North American epicenter of our sport.

I learned a great deal from this eventing superstar, both while riding and while auditing. Apart from being incredibly knowledgeable, William was gracious and patient with the seemingly endless photo and autograph seekers. The clinic was a huge success. Thank you again to Scott Hayes for his tireless work turning this clinic from a little idea over wine into a magical reality!

WFPisms while jumping

  • “We must give the horse freedom without throwing our body forward.”
  • “The distance does not matter. What matters is that you don’t fall forward over their necks or backwards off their a#[email protected]# when you get there.”
  • “Well done, give him a pat. You are all being a bit stingy with the patting of your horses, aren’t you?”
  • “I wouldn’t recommend repeating that last striding you did there. Might give me nightmares. Sometimes we get lucky once, but we rarely get lucky twice. Prepare a little more.”
  • “We don’t have to dominate the event horse every second.”
  • “Event horses need to learn to jump facing into crowds and other spooky things. At home, I have my horses jumping into banners on the fence line and other things to get them used to that idea.”
  • Before a slightly wild red mare’s round … “Good luck.”
  • “Riding forward to the jump is NOT accelerating to the jump. There is a difference.”
  • “Whether it’s dressage or jumping, we want it to be easy on the eyes.”
  • “Horses fresh in the beginning when jumping isn’t a big deal. Let them be horses to a certain extent. It’s to be expected this time of year.”
  • “He doesn’t quite draw you to the fence like we’d like him to.”
  • “Most horses are slightly lazy or crazy. We hope to find one that is somewhere in the middle.”
  • “Shorten the reins!”
  • “That time you had a good balance and a good rhythm. I wasn’t scared watching, so that was nice for me.”
  • “When you end up getting to a long distance, that’s fine, but when you consistently ask for a long one, eventually you’re going to be in trouble.”

William Fox-Pitt Focuses on Basics in British Columbia

William Fox-Pitt landed in Vancouver this weekend to teach 37 horse and rider combinations and about 300 auditors. The clinic, a joint effort by Scott Hayes and Chelan Kozak, has been a rousing success thus far, as William imparts his knowledge to riders of all levels. Chelan Kozak has the day one report.

Photo by Chelan Kozak. Photo by Chelan Kozak.

Like most riders who excel at what they do, William Fox-Pitt focused on the basics, both for rider position and the horses’ way of going. Relationship and communication with the horse is key for him. Choose a cheerful horse, ideally; William feels you have got to like your horse to have the best performance.

Eventing dressage is about riding an accurate test with no mistakes first, keeping a steady outline and consistent rhythm. Do that first and then “flash” comes afterwards. The quality of the basics is essential no matter what level the horse is at.

Obviously, William has ridden and seen literally thousands of horses, so he was able to instantly peg each horse’s individual personalities and characteristics. He found the ‘one thing’ that each rider needed to ‘fix’ before moving to the next thing. Because of his vast experience, he was able to quickly figure out each individual element that needed attention for the combinations.

His manner with the horses and riders was calm and relaxed, and he has a sharp wit and uses it to make his points clear and concise.

Although kind and sympathetic to the horses, he is uncompromising in his expectation of them. If the horse is asked to do something, he must do it. He was clear in the idea, though, that the horse is allowed to and encouraged to have a personality, and we must not strive to produce robotic event horses.

Although the horses have to do as we ask, the ask must be appropriate to the level. If the horse struggles too much, make the exercise easier, as building confidence is key. When you ask the horse to do something, and he does it, you must give.

William spoke about how he starts his horses long and low, as many riders do. He also spoke about keeping the pattern and the exercises similar and familiar to the horses on a daily basis at home, the idea being that, in a potentially spooky or tense competition setting, the horses can gain relaxation and confidence through familiar exercises and warm up. Horses who spook can’t be allowed to speed up. In that instance, if the horse resists the connection, the correction is to have them go deeper in the frame. The reward is to soften and allow.

Photo by Chelan Kozak.

Photo by Chelan Kozak.

He stressed repetition of quality work, and repetition of clear expectation of the horse. The horse must not be surprised, as it is the rider’s job to make the exercises familiar to the horse.

William is also a stickler for the position. Here are some highlights:

Square shoulders no matter what movement you are doing.

Short reins. Generally riders will get an extra mark on rider position if you can keep your reins short through the entire test. Short reins are not tight reins.

William used the term “use the hands simply.” He emphasized that the hands must give at the right moment — when the horse does as we ask, not in the middle of a discussion. William used a one handed exercise with a few riders. If he felt that the inside rein was causing the horse to curl, the riders went one handed with the outside hand. Every poll came up. I guess the good news and the bad news is: it’s not the horse!

He also said to put yourself in the right position, and then you must stay in your position no matter what the horse is doing, for example during resistance, etc.

William mentioned the leg in pure dressage riders is different than event riders. As event riders, we ‘hug’ the horse’s side with our legs, where pure dressage riders have the leg generally more ‘off’ then ‘on’. However, our leg must not be static.

A stronger leg means something, and the leg becomes softer as the horse responds. He also spoke about, with a tense horse, how the leg ‘breathing’ softer and stronger can produce relaxation. He took several pairs of spurs off of riders through the day. He didn’t want the leg (or any aid) to be a surprise to the horse.

William had the horses work through some basic movements appropriate to their individual levels. We started with training level groups and moved through the day to the Advanced combinations.

Virtually everyone needs to do more walk, according to William. The walk is the easiest gait to make better. Starting on a loose rein, creating a ‘brave’ walk, then pick up the reins, without destroying the quality of the gait.

He worked very specifically on keeping the quality of every moment the absolute best it can be. William is a competitor. He spoke often of how our work and preparation at home has the express purpose of making our competition marks better.

He also spoke about how to maximize the marks for where each horse was at currently in its training. For example, there were a few lovely big moving horses who he felt needed to ‘keep a lid on’ the big movement for now, since they could not keep a steady outline and rhythm for the whole test yet. He reminded the riders that it’s no use sitting on a great mover if you aren’t able to get the marks for consistency yet.

As another example, horses with certain weaknesses in their gaits often need to go in a lower frame to get stronger and steadier before they can go into a more elevated frame. He stressed that every stride needs to be the same with regard to the shape of the horse. That is the building block to more later.

Enjoying a cup of tea. Photo by Chelan Kozak.

Enjoying a cup of tea. Photo by Chelan Kozak.

There were also plenty of “Fox Pitt-Isms”, best imagined with a British accent, of course, with a cup full of tea in hand:

  • “Your mare seemed surprised that you prepared her for that corner. Do your homework, and through repetition that preparation will become normal.”
  • “Every time you talk to your horse there is a bit of a discussion going on. He needs to zip it.”
  • “Little things make a massive difference.”
  • “Horses need to learn to be straight and also to have their bodies on a curve. They need to do both things, and to be able to go easily from one to the other.”
  • “Give him a friendly kick. That’s just not quite good enough.”
  • “When you give an inch in the reins, you gain an inch in the back end.”
  • “It’s important not go go on so long with your work sessions that the horse is demoralized.”
  • “That horse doesn’t get to have quite so many opinions of his own.”
  • “Sometimes changing your posting trot diagonal during the lateral work helps create a softer trot in the horses back.”
  • “Your horse looks a bit like a car coasting around in neutral.”
  • “I’m a big believer in giving the reins, but don’t give the reins when he’s running away. Give the reins when you know you’ve got him.”
  • “If he was really good at what he was doing you could just let him just go around how he likes. But he’s not. So you have to be brave. Ask him, or he’s not going to do it. I sometimes have to use my imagination to decide if you are asking him anything or not.”