The man, the myth, the legend William Fox Pitt is back in America and this past weekend took another swing at the Eventing Grand Prix at Bruce’s Field. While stateside, he’s also been imparting some of the wisdom that has helped him earn three Olympic medals. Before heading up to Aiken, William taught three clinics in Ocala, with participants ranging from Beginner Novice up to 5* level.
I was lucky enough to get to sit in on one of the cross country days which included everything from young, promising six year olds to solid Advanced horses. While the exercises may have varied depending on the horse, the rider, and their experience, a lot of the main fundamentals of what William was teaching stayed the same throughout.
After taking a quick look at everyone and their stirrup length –- William stressed that he thinks “a shorter leg is a stronger leg” –- he mostly left it up to each rider to choose what they felt most comfortable with. He was quick to point out that while he personally likes a short stirrup, there are riders like Piggy March who have found more success riding a bit longer than what might be considered average for cross country.
For each group he wanted to see loose, relaxed horses during the warm-up. Riders were tasked with making sure their horses were easily adjustable, and that “when you’re happy with how they’re feeling and listening, stop.” There’s no need to spend all your energy in warm-up, he advised.
Once the riders were ready to go, they started out by trotting logs –- even the Advanced group. If you’ve ever ridden or watched a clinic with the British Olympian, this will be a familiar concept to you — and perhaps one we all grit our teeth for a bit! William likes to trot a few jumps to make sure the horse is thinking and paying attention to its footwork, and that the rider is reacting to the horse underneath them. It can feel awkward and uncomfortable, but it’s excellent to practice at home.
Once everyone was sufficiently warmed up, they moved over the to bank questions, having the horses trot up and down them first before putting the banks in combination with other jumps. He stressed that for banks, the canter should stay short and bouncy, and that the rider should practice staying in balance down a bank without completely throwing the reins away –- prep for more complex questions where you might have a jump shortly after the bank.
After practicing the bank questions, the exercises varied by group. Some did complex corner and skinny questions, while others did more simple lines. No matter the level of horse or rider, though, there were some concepts that seemed to get repeated over and over again, particularly:
- Good cross country riding is about having quick reactions, and being able to change your plan according to how your horse is going or what happens on course.
- Balance and rhythm. If you have balance and you have rhythm, the horse is more able to easily adjust to a distance that might not be perfect.
- When in doubt, close your leg, put the horse down the rein, and “get on with it”
William was also big on making sure that the horses stayed crisp but not frantic in their reactions –- something that is brought forward from the flatwork.
When the Advanced group was tackling some of the skinner questions, William got to opine a bit, discussing his thoughts on a proposed rule change that would assess penalties for knocking down a flag (“Please god no”) and saying that top level courses are “all about mounds and lumps and bumps nowadays”.
He stressed that connection and intention was key –- your distance could vary and still work out okay as long as you kept the connection, kept the power, and rode with intention. What wouldn’t work, he said, was if you came in loose and floppy –- “don’t be a stride less and loose. Come in beefier, not faster”.
Throughout the day William was encouraging and succinct in his teaching, and made sure to keep the questions (and how they were presented) fair to the horses.
While chatting in between groups he also discussed some of his spring plans… hint, hint, if you haven’t already gotten your Land Rover Kentucky tickets, now would be the time!
Thank you to everyone involved with setting up these fantastic clinics, and if you missed out in Ocala, William is teaching in Aiken at The Vista Schooling Center, presented by CannaHorse and Aiken Saddlery, this week.