William Fox-Pitt Clinic Takeaway: Be Affirmative!

William Fox-Pitt came stateside recently and taught a series of clinics, leaving a number of American riders and auditors more educated in his wake! Lynne Kaye sent us this account of a lightbulb moment she experienced while auditing a clinic in Virginia.

William Fox-Pitt teaching a clinic at Great Meadow. Photo by Jenni Autry.

I audited one of the William Fox-Pitt clinics over the weekend, and I want to say “thank you” to a rider who had stops at several fences for being willing to learn in a public setting. I have problems with my horse stopping at fences, too. I learned a tremendous amount by watching you! Most importantly, I learned that sending an affirmative message to our horses is critical to jumping success, and that the message “please don’t stop” gets very different results than the message “please go.”

William repeatedly stated that American riders are too “nicey, nicey” with our horses. He believes we would benefit from telling our horses to “just get on with it” and go forward. He thinks we work too hard at being perfect. In fact, as he believes cross-country riding is about being messy and still getting the job done.

At the clinic, he put his thoughts into action, by asking riders to take their horses through a twisty course of low fences so that the horses had to think on their feet, could make mistakes and would have a chance to start developing “a fifth leg.” William believes it is important to give horses the experience of making mistakes and bailing themselves out when they are young and the fences are low, so they will be able to bail us out when we need them to when the going gets messy on upper level cross-country courses.

So what on earth does saying “please don’t stop” to our horses have to do with have to do with being too “nicey, nicey” and teaching them to develop a fifth leg?

As many people in many different forums have told me, the human brain has trouble processing the word “don’t.” In other words, if someone says to you “walk into that room and have a seat. Oh, and by the way, there is a gleaming white unicorn sitting in the middle of the room. Please don’t look at the unicorn.” What is the first thing you are going to do? Sneak a peek at that unicorn, of course! The human brain latches onto “look” and “unicorn.”

The clinic was a perfect illustration of how affirmative statements relate to jumping a fence. Telling a horse “please don’t stop at the fence”, sends the message “stop” and “fence” to the rider’s body which, in turn says “stop” and “fence” to the horse. The next thing you know, the horse stops. The “please don’t stop” approach is, in Williams words, too “nicey, nicey” because the horse receives the message that it does not need to jump.

Throughout the clinic, William kept urging the riders to send their horses forward, giving them an affirmative message “go forward, go forward and jump, it’s OK to make a mistake.” Telling the horse “please go,” sends the message “go” to the rider’s body, and in turn, to the horse. The affirmative message eliminates “nicey, nicey” and reduces stopping at fences because the rider knows they sent a positive message to the horse and knows that if the horse stops, the horse, not the rider, should be corrected. The riders did a wonderful job negotiating a twisty, turny course under William’s tutelage.

Thank you to everyone involved with bringing William to the States and hosting him while he was here, to the riders in the clinic for allowing the auditors to learn from your successes and, especially from the areas you worked to improve, and, last but not least, to William for taking time out of your busy schedule to share your knowledge with us!

On an affirmative note: Go Eventing!