The End of an Era: William Fox-Pitt Retires from 5* Competition

William Fox-Pitt celebrates a stellar cross country day at Badminton with his family. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

It was a retirement we all knew was coming after multiple 5* winner and Olympian William Fox-Pitt hinted that this season would be his last at the top level of the sport. After competing at MARS Badminton Horse Trials this week with the 12-year-old Oldenburg mare Grafennacht, William confirmed it: this would be his swan song and a final farewell to the competitive life — though he’s not hanging his stirrups up all the way just yet, as he’s confirmed he’ll continue to ride and compete younger horses for now.

“I won’t be coming back to Badminton now. I think that’s a shame to finish on a bit of a downer, but I’m cool with that,” William reflected yesterday after what would have been a disappointing show jumping round that eliminated his chance at a podium or even one last 5* victory on Sunday. “She’s a great horse so I shall look forward to see what happens next. I’ll do young ones, I’m going to carry on a bit, but this is my last Badminton.”

William Fox-Pitt and Grafennacht. Photo by Sally Spickard.

Where to begin when attempting to recap a career that could fill multiple books?

Both William’s parents, William Oliver Lane Fox-Pitt and Marietta Speed, were top flight eventers in their own right, each notching completions at prestigious events like Badminton and Burghley in England. So it was fortuitous that William carried on in their footsteps, quickly showing his own natural abilities in the saddle. After tasting early success as a young rider in the 80s, William won his first Burghley at the age of 25 in 1994. It would be the first of an astounding 14 CCI5* titles earned throughout his career. In the end, he would capture the title at five out of the seven global permanent 5* events, only missing out on Adelaide in Australian and the more recently-added Maryland 5 Star in the U.S. Those titles include Burghley (1994, 2002, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2011), Badminton (2004, 2015), Pau (2011, 2013), Kentucky (2010, 2012, 2014) and Luhmuhlen (2008). He also became the first rider to with Burghley six times, on six different horses.

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William also shored up the British squad for multiple championship titles, including six European Championships team gold medals, six medals at World Championships/World Equestrian Games, and three team medals at the Olympic Games (2004, 2008, 2012).

He’s also become world-renowned for his teaching prowess, sought after each season for spanning the globe and garnering wide respect for his quiet horsemanship and teaching philosophies.

Taylor McFall participates in a clinic with British Olympian William Fox-Pitt. Photo by Jennifer McFall.

In October of 2015, William suffered his worst career injury, falling from a younger horse at Le Lion d’Angers in France and subsequently spending two weeks in a medically-induced coma. Despite struggling initially with temporary blindness and double vision resulting from his traumatic brain injury, William defied the odds and returned to competition the following April.

He’d go on to defy the odds once more with a selection to the British eventing team heading to the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro that summer.

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“I always thought I would come to Rio, but I don’t think anyone else did!” William said then. “It has been quite a journey of uncertainties, but I’ve always had Chilli [his Rio horse Chilli Morning] and there has always been Rio, and having that goal really helped me. I have been so lucky with my type of head injury. Mine has recovered in good time, and my family have been so supportive, really helping put me back to the way I am. I didn’t ride for six months — it was on the back burner. I have no recollection of the accident at all, so I have no fear. But I have had to sharpen myself up, and a lot of people have helped me do that. When you have had a head injury, you lose all sense of adrenaline. I have always had adrenaline, but I just had nothing. It felt like I was schooling a horse at home, so I’ve had to understand that that is normal.”

William would go on to finish 12th individually and fifth with the team at Rio, an ending no one would have predicted the previous year.

Despite the 5* success and the innumerable victories, both professional and personal, across levels he’s had, William thrives even more on the process of training a horse. “I love seeing horses evolve, not necessarily winning events, but the horses going well and enjoying that journey,” William told Horse Network earlier this year. This will be the focus as he moves into this next chapter of a life with horses that’s far from reaching its conclusion.

Absolutely gutted that the fairy tail end didn’t come off but Saturday of @bhorsetrials 2024 will live long in the…

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A life not spent chasing 5*s will allow more time for William to spend with his loving family, including wife Alice and four kids, Oliver, Thomas, Chloe, and Emily.

William Fox-Pitt and wife Alice celebrate a super day in the office. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

But first: one last high. Coming off cross country at Badminton, which proved to be tough and influential, William’s elation was palpable. He’d delivered a clear, fast round with Grafennacht, and, as he put it, for once he wouldn’t leave Saturday filling his head with “what ifs”. “How lucky am I to have her in my swan song era? Sometimes, you know, she really makes me feel like I can ride. I’m very proud that she did the job. Suddenly Badmintons aren’t ‘if onlys’ or ‘I wish I had’ or ‘I could have’ or ‘I should have.’ I’m just so chuffed. She nailed it today and I’m happy.”

William Fox-Pitt and Grafennacht during the Cross Country phase, Badminton Horse Trials, Gloucestershire UK 11 May 2024

“Lillie” has certainly shown her potential as a competitive 5* horse, and as of now the plan is for the mare to go to a different rider following this weekend. “It won’t be her last [Badminton]. She’ll be back – she might jump better last year, with a new, better, younger rider it will be good. I don’t even know, I’m not even having that discussion with the owner yet. She’s very aware that I’m 55 and who knows what’s going to happen but we’ll have a conversation and make a plan, but she’s a lovely horse and she was amazing yesterday.”

[Editor’s Note] Corrected Grafennacht’s barn name.

“It’s been a great week, I have to say, I’ve really loved it,” William went on to say. “I have been so lucky to have had so many supporters here, family here: it’s been a great send off. It wasn’t the little dream time today but the chances of that were always going to be fairly slim. It was just great yesterday, we enjoyed the moment. No kind of tears. I’m very, very matter of fact about it, I think it is the right thing.”

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