What It Takes: A Partial Ode to William Fox-Pitt

William Fox-Pitt and Bay My Hero. Photo by Alec Thayer. William Fox-Pitt and Bay My Hero. Photo by Alec Thayer.

Now that the Rolex frenzy is over, I think I’m not the only one who needs a few quiet hours to recover and think more in depth about the happenings of the weekend. During the event, everything is so fast and impressive that I know I miss a lot of smaller, important details. With William Fox-Pitt’s third Rolex win, he cements himself in history alongside Kim Severson as the only person to win it that many times. It seems that he is a little invincible, as every time he comes over to the U.S., he more or less shows us how it’s done. What sort of magic does this guy posses?

Last fall, I was lucky enough to be part of his clinic at Morningside Training Farm and had the opportunity to ride with him on the flat and over jumps. While I was there, I learned one thing: The secret to WFP’s success is not magic; it’s just common sense and a heck of a good feel of the horse beneath you. I’m not suggesting that he knows the only way to win four-stars, but I think at this point it’s irrefutable that his program works better than anything else, as proven by the records of his four-star horse collection.

As an example, Parklane Hawk — entered next week at Badminton — has been to five CCI4* competitions, including the big three — Kentucky, Badminton and Burghley. He has never placed outside the top five, and has won two at Burghley and Kentucky. Can you imagine what we would do if we had a U.S. team horse with that kind of record?

When it came to the dressage, the tests that were rewarded were both accurate and relaxed, a combination that proved difficult in that arena. We had a few American rides that really delivered, but what really impressed me about William’s performance on both horses is that he sits like a dressage rider, not an event rider who’s been accidentally strapped tightly to the saddle.

It’s like he grew up with an iron rod sewn into the back of his jacket, while some of our Americans only know how to flop around with the sitting trot. Of course that’s not true of all the American riders, but the point is that William takes care of all the accuracy questions, not just the shape of his circles. An effortless ride does not just mean what your horse’s legs look like or what his neck looks like but the whole picture to create the good score. It takes the extra step to squeeze the points out of the dressage test.

Cross country at this level is something that seems unattainable to most of the riders in our sport, but while it is more fast-paced and thrilling, it’s built on a relationship of understanding and trust, just like the other phases. The horses are trained to respond to different obstacles and questions and understand that they are expected to react to cues from their riders in certain ways.

These pairs have practiced at home, assessed their weaknesses, and addressed them accordingly. The top riders know exactly how much fitness each horse needs, how to attain it and how to get there while keeping their horses sound. Fitness at this level not only means the ability to get around safely and make the time, but also to have a horse that is able to rebound on Sunday, pass the jogs and jump double clear in show jumping.

Cross country is a many-headed monster that can make you or break you, and for riders like William and Buck who turned in two horses at the end of the weekend that finished on their dressage scores, you know they’ve got a system. It’s not just luck or pure riding ability; it’s a training program that has been proven to work on a variety of horses. To me, a fantastic rider is impressive, but a rider who also has the smarts to create a comprehensive program that produces results across the board is one that I admire beyond anything else.

I would be amiss if I did not mention here that the care of the horse and its health and soundness is of paramount importance for this level. While it’s great to be able to put together three wonderful, competitive phases, it’s worth absolutely nothing if you cannot figure out a way to keep your horse sound and happy at the end of the weekend. There were many riders here this weekend who have discovered the system to keeping a top level athlete sound, and I take my hat off to them. To complete multiple four-star competitions and continuously look after the welfare of the horse versus the temporary needs of the human is an accomplishment indeed and integral to the continued success of the partnership.

Show jumping to me is the most terrible of mental games, and you can really see clearly who is able to pull off a performance under pressure. First and foremost, you have to have a horse that has energy left over from the cross-country efforts of yesterday Secondly, you must have one who is trained to understand the game and knows how to shape its body over the fences to leave the poles up in their cups. Show jumping is just dressage with obstacles in between, as all of your aids must work to the fullest extent when you’re playing this game of accuracy and inches. Only Buck Davidson and William himself were able to pull two double clears out of the bag on Sunday, and they were handsomely rewarded for their efforts.

William is an incredible rider, an incredible horseman and a very deserving winner of this year’s Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event. I’m definitely not alone in my yearning to bottle his knowledge and keep it all for myself sell it, but the ability to consistently win four-star competitions isn’t something that is easily condensed into a container. Unless, of course, you can follow these simple instructions:

1. Have a lovely moving horse that is very obedient and impervious to atmosphere. Sit perfectly on the horse without seeming to do any work at all. Score in the low 40s at least, and make sure you are in the top five after dressage.

2. Train your horse to love skinnies, corners and extreme angles. Ride a horse that is brave into water, over ditches and through crowds of screaming onlookers. Have the perfect amount of fitness for the desired length of the cross country course, and make sure that your horse is a good galloper. Have an innate sense of balance that helps you when things go awry, and be sure to have great reaction times. Go double clean.

3. Spend all your efforts icing, walking, rubbing, soothing and massaging. Repeat. Pass the jogs the next morning and have a horse that feels like doing a course of fences well over four feet high with flat cups.

4. Don’t choke when it comes down to the line and you have no rails to spare. Ride with accuracy and gusto, but be impervious to the crowd and the pressure. Teach your horse to respect all of your half halts and to shape his body perfectly over each fence so that no pole gets rubbed.

Go Eventing.

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