Rebecca Rickly
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Rebecca Rickly

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About Rebecca Rickly

A midwest farmer's daughter who's wanted to event since she was 9...but waited until she was 45 to actually try it. More fun than a grown up should be allowed to have!

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William Fox-Pitt Visits Texas, Part Three: Back to Basics for Show Jumping

Every year for the past 17 years (with the exception of “the year of the COVID”), around the end of April, I go to visit my brother…because family is important. I also fence judge cross country at Land Rover, née Rolex. The situation works well: I see family, I drink bourbon, and I get to watch the most talented athletes in the world, both equine and human, navigate MY fence. Normally, I watch both days of dressage and the stadium jumping, too; it’s like my own personal clinic.

So you know that I was over the moon when I found that immediately after LRK3DE William Fox-Pitt was coming to the incredible RockGate Equestrian Center in Texas to offer a three-day clinic: a day of semi-private dressage lessons, a day of cross country schooling, and a day of stadium jumping. I opted to audit all three days, and what follows are my notes put into consumable form. This is the third of three parts in this series – to read part one, click here and to read part two, click here.

William teaches at RockGate Equestrian in Texas. Photo courtesy of Rhonda Sexton.

Day 3 – Stadium Jumping: Rhythm, Straightness, and Connection

The final day of the William Fox-Pitt clinic at RockGate Equestrian Center in Texas focused on stadium jumping. The stadium jumps were moved into the magnificent arena due to the impending weather, so riders had the challenging task of navigating a lot of jumps in an enclosed area. William maintained that the height of the jumps was irrelevant (though I do think he challenged each group with the size of the fences); most horses can jump 1.30 meters easily. But we need to ride it. What the riders needed to work on was rhythm, straightness, and connection. He wouldn’t let any of the riders walk the course, because he didn’t want the training to be about strides. Yes, getting strides will be Plan A — but you have to be able to ride Plan B and Plan C, too.

As the riders in each group warmed up, he asked them to show him some different trots/canters, and said that he should be able to see a difference as they made transitions within a gait. Too often we simply walk-trot-canter without practicing the transitions within the gait.

They all started by trotting an X (cross bar), and it was clear that many of the horses were keen. Some wanted to take off after, and many riders wanted to cut corners rather than ride straight. It was eye-opening for the observers. If the simplest of fences caused issues, what would a complicated series do? William: “You have to make yourself ride the lines.”

Like cross country, once they’d all trotted (and some cantered) the cross bar, he set up a series of courses for them to tackle, each one with a lot of bending lines.

Some of the riders who were easy and confident cross country seemed to have issues in the contained space. “You need to control the shoulder,” William admonished. “Bend then go straight.”

When riders cut corners, he put down dressage letters, poles, and even stood himself at times so that riders would have to make a balanced circle/turn. He’s brave, given what happened to Boyd Martin when he tried that in Texas!

A few of the riders were lacking in confidence, and, as in cross country, he pushed them to ride through their issues. “YOU have balance and control. You need to trust yourself. Your horse has to feel like YOU ARE ON IT. If you’re iffy, he will be, too. You are the rider. Figure out what your horse needs. And do that.”

Photo courtesy of Rhonda Sexton.

More wisdom from WFP:

“The rail was your fault because you tried to go long. The good news is that he got to remember he has four legs.”

“Get your body moving! I want to see all the parts wobble!”

“Stop looking down at the horse all the time.”

“Soft arm! I don’t want to see biceps. I want jelly.”

“It wasn’t pretty, but you made it happen. You weren’t a passenger.”

“Breathing helps.”

And finally:

“Grab the neck strap and get on with it.”


Good advice for us all.

William Fox-Pitt Visits Texas, Part Two: Teaching Horses to Think for Themselves on Cross Country

When I found that immediately after LRK3DE William Fox-Pitt was coming to the incredible RockGate Equestrian Center in Texas to offer a three-day clinic: a day of semi-private dressage lessons, a day of cross country schooling, and a day of stadium jumping. I opted to audit all three days, and what follows are my notes put into consumable form. This is the second of three parts in this series — to read part one, click here.

Welcome to Texas, William! Photo courtesy of Rhonda Sexton.

Cross Country: Teaching Horses to Think for Themselves

The second day of the William Fox-Pitt clinic at the incredible RockGate Equestrian Center in Texas dawned grey and windy, so the organizers flipped cross country and stadium days since some really nasty weather was heading our way for day three. The rain held off, and the cross country riders enjoyed a cool, breezy, cloudy day. Here’s what I learned:

It’s important to teach our horses to think for themselves on cross country. After all, as William says, they may have to save our bacon one day. He also is a huge believer in a good neck strap, and by the end of the day, most riders had procured one. He says he uses it in all phases — it helps him not grab the reins, it helps him keep his hands still (he said he tied his hands to one when schooling dressage!), and, of course, it helps him stay on.

William believes in a “no second go” sport. Horses are NOT allowed to stop. They can jump from a standstill, or back up a few steps and jump, but stopping is not an option. He noted that other famous riders, like Lucinda Green, don’t mind stopping as much, because they like to find out what horses can’t do and then address it, so he realizes his mantra of “no stopping” isn’t necessarily for everyone.

The focus of day two built on day one: rhythm, connection, straightness. After each group of riders had warmed up, he asked them to jump a few things they felt comfortable popping over at either a trot or canter. He encouraged them to start out at a trot, too, since jumping from a trot often highlighted issues that the riders could identify and then address. He doesn’t like to warm up for cross country with a lot of jumps, but just enough to get the horse thinking about going forward.

Someone asked him what the difference was between how U.S. riders and British riders approached eventing, and William said that U.S. riders “overcomplicate things”. We like to learn (he was amazed that some U.S. riders ride in clinics, but don’t compete), but we think too much; Brits go out and DO it. This attitude foregrounded the cross country session: he asked the riders to do a series of fences from the start, rather than focusing on one or two fences at a time. He used the great topography and put together a series of jumps that included up/down banks, roll tops, tables, related distances, a few corners, brushes, water, and some accuracy fences/lines.

He noted that he likes a full-cheek snaffle (a fulmar) for jumping, because it gives the rider more control when turning. A D-ring or eggbutt is good, too.

William believes that we have to start schooling water correctly early on. Many of the riders let their horses get long/strung out in the water, and he made them go again with a shorter, choppier canter stride in the water. If a horse is going to jump out, he needs to have access to his back legs.

He encouraged riders to “get it done” before fences — and that means using LEG, even if it means a good old-fashioned pony club kick. No hand without leg!

If a rider had difficulty with a fence or a line, it usually came back to his original mantra: rhythm, connection, and straightness. A few of the riders were having confidence issues, and he simply directed them to go out and get over it….literally! It was fantastic to see riders focus and ride through their fear, ecstatic at conquering their demons. The mighty auditing crowd (and the other riders) all served as an enthusiastic cheering section.

Photo courtesy of Rhonda Sexton.

At the end of the first day, we held a reception for William, indoctrinating him – making him an honorary Texas, complete with cowboy hat. After cross country, we had a dinner in the barn aisle, and William gave us a talk about a typical day for him, and he answered questions (which were often punctuated by the horses snorting or sighing). It was a fantastic two days.

Best line of the day:

“The best event riders are probably a bit thick — they don’t overthink things. They have a plan, and they stick to it. Then, when things go wrong, they deal with it.”

Come back tomorrow for the final piece in this series!

William Fox-Pitt Visits Texas, Part One: Dressage Consists of Routine and Connection

Every year for the past 17 years (with the exception of “the year of the COVID”), around the end of April, I go to visit my brother…because family is important. I also fence judge cross country at Land Rover, née Rolex. The situation works well: I see family, I drink bourbon, and I get to watch the most talented athletes in the world, both equine and human, navigate MY fence. Normally, I watch both days of dressage and the stadium jumping, too; it’s like my own personal clinic.

So you know that I was over the moon when I found that immediately after LRK3DE William Fox-Pitt was coming to the incredible RockGate Equestrian Center in Texas to offer a three-day clinic: a day of semi-private dressage lessons, a day of cross country schooling, and a day of stadium jumping. I opted to audit all three days, and what follows are my notes put into consumable form. This is the first of three parts in this series.

William teaches at RockGate Equestrian in Texas. Photo courtesy of Rhonda Sexton.

Day 1 – Dressage: Routine and Connection
“The horse world revolves around connection, no matter what discipline.”

Horses like routines. William likes to work his horses in three stages, each one lasting about 10 minutes:

  • Getting the body/muscles warmed up. Getting the veins up. Allowing them to “have a look around” without consequences. Making them to go forward without having to be in a frame.
  • Suppling and listening. He spends time bending the horses, taking the contact, leg yielding, “playing around,” creating a connection without shutting them down.
  • Spit and polish. Now he’s working on specific things, and he’s aiming for perfection. It can be whatever the horse needs—bend, accuracy, lateral work, etc.

With each group, from Starter to Preliminary, he asked them to follow this procedure. He reminded the riders to think about their position in all stages. YOU have to be centered for your horse to be. At events, especially, riders tend to get their horses connected too quickly because they want to look good. He encouraged riders to start out cantering in a light/half seat. It’s good for the horse’s back, and it gets the rider’s weight into the heels, and gets the rider straight and relaxed. Most horses move better after a canter, too.

As horses entered into stage two – the suppling and listening stage – he encouraged them to start out in walk. He made a comment like this one to several riders: “He’s no longer freewheeling. You are in charge. Do you want to go forward? Come back? YOU determine what the horse is doing at this stage.”

Several riders had to be reminded not to focus too much on “hand and head” — their hands and the horse’s head. “That’s not where riding starts.” He put the emphasis on seat and leg, with hands there to control shoulders.

Photo courtesy of Rhonda Sexton.

Three…two…one…Contact! William noted that contact is different for every horse, but ultimately, you need an elastic contact. He often stopped riders to illustrate what he meant by this term, asking them to hold the reins while he pulled on them. The riders who didn’t move elastically from their shoulder had to do it again and again until they did, because inconsistent contact was caused by stiff arms. He wanted them to have an elastic feel from their shoulder to the horse’s mouth (“like a good handshake — not a knuckle-crusher or a wet one”). The horse is carrying the weight of your arms in his mouth. “Connection is a corner we cut. We want them to look pretty. But he’s carrying your arm for you.”

When you’re in stage two, you can overbend, but the contact HAS to stay the same. Contact comes before the “outline”. It helps to have hands in front of the withers, because the lower you get, the more you’re likely to be stiff and/or pull. He told one rider to “imagine every time your hands come back to the top of your fluffy pad you get a shock!”

Transitions helped many riders achieve more “through-ness,” but they had to be GOOD transitions; William told one rider to do more, because her horse is “not allowed to go like a camel”. While in connection, the rider can’t be constantly fiddling with the reins. “Don’t complicate your hands — use your legs!” But your hands can’t be “silent” either; horses like a dialog, but don’t shout. You only have to use your fingers to talk with him.

Welcome to Texas, William! Photo courtesy of Rhonda Sexton.

Accuracy is Always the Rider’s Fault. As riders entered into the third stage – the “Spit and Polish” stage – he encouraged them to “look like you want to be judged”. Here he got picky with the riders. For instance, several riders rode “casual corners”. He chided them not to miss the corners because “you don’t want to be bothered” because it teaches the horses a bad habit — horses are, after all, creatures of habit, and if they get used to going into/using their corners, they’ll do it more effectively in a test.

“If I’m sitting at C, I ought to be able to tell whether you’re doing a 20-meter circle or going into a corner,” William said. “When you’re coming around from C, your horse should be straight when his head gets to H when walking, when your stirrups get to H when trotting, and when his tail gets to H when cantering.”

He also worked on 20-meter circles with several riders. “A circle has no straight lines. Too many people ride squares with rounded corners.” Most riders didn’t know where their horse would come to the rail or hit the center line when circling 20 meters at C. Even at the event formerly known as Rolex, he was amazed by how many riders weren’t accurate in their circles. “Make a plan, and think about what you are doing!”

In lengthening, he encouraged riders to “grow and grow and grow!”

He made all the riders trot down centerline. Several he made do walk/trot/walk/halt transition because they were having trouble with the halt. “If your horse steps back in the halt, the best score you can get is a 5. Don’t do that.”

Some quotes to remember from dressage day:

“Sit tall. Imagine you’re hung down from a string in the sky.”

“Don’t let your elbows flap in the wind. Use your core.”

“You are not in an armchair, you are RIDING. Core!”

(after a bad transition) “Do it again! That was hollow and useless!”

“Horses are simple creatures of habit—they are reassured by habit.”

“We all think about pulling the head in, but we have to RIDE the head in.”

“Slow…low….go….”

“Don’t flap your elbows like a chicken!”

“If you are rising trot and you sit before walk, you tense your horse’s back. Slow the trot, then walk or halt.”

“We don’t want the hand-break, we want gears. Horses like the hand-break because it’s easier.”

“Because you are kind to her, she fills up spaces with her own agenda.”

“Don’t pick up the reins before you kick.”

“You’re controlling him! He can’t ad lib it!”

“Sometimes a nice friendly kick will go a long way.”

“He’s just taking the Mickey. Give him a kick.”

“He’s not going to buck you off. He’s half dead.”

“Your legs aren’t decorations.”

“Why aren’t you kicking?! You sat there like a lemon!”

Stay tuned for Part Two tomorrow: cross country day!

Leslie Law Brings Heat to Area V Adult Rider Camp

Photo by Rebecca Rickly. Photo by Rebecca Rickly.

First, let me compliment Greenwood Farm (and Christie Tull and her crew):  the facilities are simply fantastic. The first day of the Area V Adult rider clinic was a perfect central Texas day. Though it was summer, the heat wasn’t too bad and a breeze blew most of the day, helping out horses, riders, and spectators alike.

In spite of participants ranging from Beginner Novice to Advanced, most of the lessons boiled down to the essence of dressage: making sure that the riders engaged the hind end first via half-halts (while still encouraging them not to “park”  with the inside leg), then using that impulsion to help the horse go forward in self-carriage, without leaning on the rider’s hands.

Seeing how much the horses changed their way of going once the riders used the half-halt and inside leg/outside rein effectively was pretty amazing.

Leslie quizzed us on the training scale for dressage — at the bottom is rhythm. The horse needs to be balanced to find a good rhythm, and this is partly our job, to help the horse find his balance.  Next comes relaxation — if the horse is tense, it can’t be balanced and swinging in its rhythm.

Leslie began each session watching the participants warm up, then calling out suggestions to help them with their seat and to put their horses in balance.  “Riding is about partnership — connection — with your horse. Make sure you’re aware of the connection!”

Photo by Rebecca Rickly.

Photo by Rebecca Rickly.

In explaining the “mechanics” of the cross country seat, Leslie noted that the best riders were extremely strong in their core and their back.  Yes, your leg needs to be strong, but if you don’t have an independent seat and you’re not able to help/stay in balance with your horse, you won’t have a strong partnership.  “If you have good core strength, you can have your horse in front of your leg and not be as intimidated,” Leslie said.

He began each session with some straightforward fences appropriate for the level, encouraging riders to find a good quality rhythm. Leslie mused, “As a kid in England, I worked for a steeplechase trainer. They all had steeplechase fences in a line up a hill. We would pick up a gallop and see how balanced you could stay.”

Because there was some room for error over steeplechase fences, you could practice until you could jump out of stride — and most Brits will have ridden with a steeplechase trainer at one time or another. Sounds like one good reason that British might be ahead of us!

He suggested we might try tire jumps up a hill because they have some “give.” As a visual learner, Leslie noted that he still watches steeplechasing to help him think about body position/mechanics.

A lot of emphasis was put on keeping the horse in balance, but you can train horses to find a balance. While dressage can help, we don’t really gallop in dressage, so horses need to learn to gallop early. Let the horse try to find his own balance, but help him keep his forehand “up” with half-halts.  Practice, and the horses will eventually “get” the balance.

Photo by Rebecca Rickly.

Photo by Rebecca Rickly.

All the riders were encouraged to steady their bodies before a fence — preparation begins about eight strides out, and by two or three strides out, the rider should soften his or her hands.

He noticed that some riders took their leg off during the jump. “At Wellington, you can bet those riders have their leg on all through the water jump — otherwise, they’d get wet!”

He encouraged those riders to give more with their hands, “When you come off your hand, your leg comes on.” Leslie noted it can be harder for older riders to “get off their hands” because we have less nerve and more of a tendency towards self-preservation. “I don’t have the nerve I had when I was in my twenties, but now I have an education to fall back on,” Leslie quipped.

Riders practiced at the water jump, first by going through water to a jump, then by jumping and going through water.  Some riders jumped off the bank into water, and the horses who were wary were introduced slowly.  Groups moved to steps and ditches and coffins.

Riders had to judge how much impulsion they might lose in the water or because of terrain and adjust accordingly. “You always have to adjust your stride on cross country,” Leslie said.  “Think of it as a watch — if it loses time, I have to adjust it. If it gains time, I have to adjust it. If your horse comes off a jump strong, you adjust.  If he comes off slow, you adjust.”

“Remember,” Leslie said. “this is a partnership. You can’t control the horse, but you can work with him by being strong in your core and light in your hands.”

Photo by Rebecca Rickly.

Photo by Rebecca Rickly.

Rider Position
Leslie began the day by using one rider to illustrate proper leg, arm, and body position. “The lower leg secures your balance — it’s the most important thing.”  He likes the stirrup leather to be vertical to the ground, and the stirrup iron perpendicular to the girth.

He likes the leg on, and the toe “pointing to 5 till 1” rather than “a quarter to three” because then the horse gets more spur/less leg. The spur is a tool, and not one to be overused.

There is a “box” between most breast plates and the saddle, and the rider’s hands should be just above, “in the box,” with the little finger hovering above the withers.  A straight line from the rider’s elbow to the bit helps with balance.

Riders practiced two-point, sinking their heels down, legs on, then the “light seat” (Jimmy Wofford calls this a “three point” seat).  He believes that, with the increase of “blood” in most eventers, that we as a whole are moving to a lighter seat in eventing.

“The hotter the horse, the lighter my seat,” he said. The rider should be in two point between jumps, but five strides out, riders need to get into the “light seat” and stay there before, during, and after the jump.

“If I land in a light seat, I’ll be more organized for the next jump,” Leslie noted. “If I land on my seat, or leaning forward, I’ll have to re-organize.” Too many people lean forward, then are told to “sit back” where they have to slip the reins.  “The only things that should cause me slip the reins are the ‘oh, crap!’ jump or terrain.”

Photo by Rebecca Rickly.

Photo by Rebecca Rickly.

A couple of the riders rode with a bit of a “defensive seat,” and Leslie recognized that there are times when such a seat is vital — but if a rider is always riding defensively before certain jumps (say, a liverpool), then the horse will learn that when the rider sits or pulls, he will want to pull, and you’ve just taught the horse to pull.

It seems very counter-intuitive, but when a horse wants to rush, the rider needs to lighten his hands/seat, and be very still, trying to relax the horse.

Even the Preliminary riders needed to be reminded quiet their upper bodies.  “If you have a bag on your shoulder, you can still do most things.  Put some monkeys in that bag, and as they move around, you’ll find it much harder to get things done.”

One rider was asked to drop his stirrups so that he could feel how much his upper body influenced the horse.  He had the rider practice transitions using just his body. “Imagine you have someone riding on your shoulders,” Leslie asked.  “How much would their body influence your way of going?  Think slow, steady upper body to help your horse. When you transition, simply slow/stop your upper body.”

You can read more detail on Leslie’s clinic here.