What the Fox Says

William Fox-Pitt very charmingly tells us that all of our breastplates are too tight.

By now you’ve seen tons of pictures and heard numerous accounts of the excellent William Fox-Pitt clinic, kindly hosted by Morningside Training Farm; but some of us still haven’t had enough, and by “some of us,” I mean me. I have been a fan of William Fox-Pitt (henceforth called WFP) for as long as I can remember liking tall men that ride horses.

I have a collection of stalker pictures taken of him each year at Rolex, and my most prized possession is one of him and I, taken outside the Rolex vendor village the year he won. I finally got the nerve to ask him for a picture; well, I got my friend to ask him for a picture because I am rendered speechless in his presence. I am smiling so big in the photo that I have at least seven chins, and I probably frightened him with my inability to utter a simple “thank you.” Instead, just stared at him in awe like a weirdo.

When I heard WFP was coming to Virginia to teach a clinic, the level of rejoicing in my house was perhaps audible for miles. After searching for and finding the application and rider requirements, I was quite disappointed that I couldn’t ride, since I have only competed Novice level this year, even though Tartan has plenty on his resume. (Although, after watching the clinic, we would have been FINE!) And since there wasn’t a price listed, that was a pretty clear indication that I couldn’t afford it. So auditing it was, and there was nothing in the world that would keep me from it.

I offered to groom for a friend who rode in the clinic, and we set off to Morningside at 6 a.m. Tuesday morning. We arrived just as the sun was rising over the amazing facility, chatted with the other riders and got ready for the day. Then … he appeared. I may be exaggerating my obsession with WFP just a little, but I have tremendous respect for him, his riding and, most of all, his horsemanship. I call him Eventing Jesus.

Admittedly, I am someone who does what I do because I JUST. LOVE. HORSES, so I am often disillusioned and perturbed when I find out that riders at the top of our sport are poor horsemen or are generally unscrupulous, and, sadly, those people do exist. However, WFP’s horses seem to always be happy in their work, fit and sound, which speaks volumes about the way he runs his yard and riding program. Judging by his record, whatever he does works — hence the obsession with learning more.

He gave a short introduction, asked the riders about their horse (the Advanced level riders went first) and then set out teaching them on the flat. Immediately, I was impressed. Sometimes, I think that extremely talented riders have a very hard time communicating with others about what works for them and their horses because they don’t get why it’s hard for us. WFP, however, is not one of these people. He was extremely intuitive about each pair and took what they said about their horses to heart, while also not letting them make excuses. He had a method for EVERYTHING.

My favorite example of this was dealing with a spooky horse. He explained that you should never punish a spooky horse who is genuinely afraid because it makes them worse. You should also not force them straight up to said spooky object/area right away to “get over it.” I’m guilty of this! He said he had a horse that wouldn’t go near the rail every single day. So every day they worked five meters to the inside, then four, then three, then two, then one — talk about patience and teaching the horse to trust you. His method for object spookiness is “slow low go,” meaning slowly walk the horse near the object while keeping its head low, and go forward gently and positively.

I learned a tremendous amount from auditing the clinic and have lots of homework for winter. But most of all, my obsession with WFP was further cemented because it’s always about the horsemanship and the horse. His goals for training young/green horses are to first and foremost allow the horse the be “who it is” and get it to want to do its job. Particularly in the jumping, the horse needs to learn to look for the next set of flags or standards. It was so refreshing to hear him tell us about difficult young horses and his methods for dealing with green moments.

It was also very nice to know that one of the most successful riders in the world doesn’t go around jumping his Advanced horses to height over courses all the time. As a groom, I’ve seen a lot of lessons and a lot of jump schools with a lot of upper level riders, and I fully believe we (as Americans) sometimes tend to “fry” our horses a bit when preparing for a competition by train-train-training them into the ground. You can accomplish just as much sharpening of the skills over fences by using smaller jumps, skinnies, lots of turns and making sure your horse is adjustable in related distances.

He was not at all “obsessed with getting/seeing the exact distance,” as we so often are; he was obsessed instead with establishing a quality canter, rhythm and being able to ride the stride you have — allowing the horse to learn to choose for itself a bit.  It was also very nice to see him ask the riders to give their horses a break by walking on the buckle — and not just in the clinic, but at home as well.

He was quite specific about the warm-up technique that works for him, and it was beyond refreshing to see riders up off their horses backs for their first canter. Having been ringside in as many warm-ups as I have at events, I could count on one hand how many riders do this.

He had tremendous advice on bit choices, saddle sizes for short-backed horses, using gags or not, and our American obsession with too-tight breastplates. I HATE too tight breastplates, and it’s an epidemic. Stop the madness! Let your horse move its shoulders so that it can jump for you! He even said, “I see all these horses with their front ends hanging; now I know it’s because their breastplates are too tight.” He said it in a charmingly English way, but it’s the truth!

If you can’t fit a fist under any given contact point on the breastplate, then it’s too tight. Breastplates were created to keep a saddle from slipping back when jumping, not as a pretty accessory to be the exclamation point to your very expensive tack ensemble. If you have to have it that tight, then the saddle is the problem. S’il vous plait, call your saddle fitter! Please, don’t get me started on my personal hatred of breastplates in dressage. I wonder what he would’ve said about that silly trend had he seen the riders in dressage tack.

Sadly, the clinic was only two days long, but the knowledge imparted was much longer lasting. We need to do what’s best for our horses and remember that horsemanship is paramount. He didn’t say that everyone has to ride every horse in a snaffle with a plain noseband, but he did tailor his advice and his choices based on the needs of each horse, NOT based on what was trendy, or what the trainers all use or what gets the job done the quickest/harshest way possible.

As eventers, we sometimes rib the hunters for being to trendy in riding style and tack choices, but we are just as guilty in different ways. There just isn’t anything better than riding a happy, engaged horse and feeling your own soft connection and encouraging leg. My goal for winter is to get back to basics and be the best rider and horseman I can be instead of “riding for the show.” I hope you’ll join me in channeling WFP and strengthening American eventing from the ground up.

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