William Fox-Pitt Focuses on Basics in British Columbia

William Fox-Pitt landed in Vancouver this weekend to teach 37 horse and rider combinations and about 300 auditors. The clinic, a joint effort by Scott Hayes and Chelan Kozak, has been a rousing success thus far, as William imparts his knowledge to riders of all levels. Chelan Kozak has the day one report.

Photo by Chelan Kozak. Photo by Chelan Kozak.

Like most riders who excel at what they do, William Fox-Pitt focused on the basics, both for rider position and the horses’ way of going. Relationship and communication with the horse is key for him. Choose a cheerful horse, ideally; William feels you have got to like your horse to have the best performance.

Eventing dressage is about riding an accurate test with no mistakes first, keeping a steady outline and consistent rhythm. Do that first and then “flash” comes afterwards. The quality of the basics is essential no matter what level the horse is at.

Obviously, William has ridden and seen literally thousands of horses, so he was able to instantly peg each horse’s individual personalities and characteristics. He found the ‘one thing’ that each rider needed to ‘fix’ before moving to the next thing. Because of his vast experience, he was able to quickly figure out each individual element that needed attention for the combinations.

His manner with the horses and riders was calm and relaxed, and he has a sharp wit and uses it to make his points clear and concise.

Although kind and sympathetic to the horses, he is uncompromising in his expectation of them. If the horse is asked to do something, he must do it. He was clear in the idea, though, that the horse is allowed to and encouraged to have a personality, and we must not strive to produce robotic event horses.

Although the horses have to do as we ask, the ask must be appropriate to the level. If the horse struggles too much, make the exercise easier, as building confidence is key. When you ask the horse to do something, and he does it, you must give.

William spoke about how he starts his horses long and low, as many riders do. He also spoke about keeping the pattern and the exercises similar and familiar to the horses on a daily basis at home, the idea being that, in a potentially spooky or tense competition setting, the horses can gain relaxation and confidence through familiar exercises and warm up. Horses who spook can’t be allowed to speed up. In that instance, if the horse resists the connection, the correction is to have them go deeper in the frame. The reward is to soften and allow.

Photo by Chelan Kozak.

Photo by Chelan Kozak.

He stressed repetition of quality work, and repetition of clear expectation of the horse. The horse must not be surprised, as it is the rider’s job to make the exercises familiar to the horse.

William is also a stickler for the position. Here are some highlights:

Square shoulders no matter what movement you are doing.

Short reins. Generally riders will get an extra mark on rider position if you can keep your reins short through the entire test. Short reins are not tight reins.

William used the term “use the hands simply.” He emphasized that the hands must give at the right moment — when the horse does as we ask, not in the middle of a discussion. William used a one handed exercise with a few riders. If he felt that the inside rein was causing the horse to curl, the riders went one handed with the outside hand. Every poll came up. I guess the good news and the bad news is: it’s not the horse!

He also said to put yourself in the right position, and then you must stay in your position no matter what the horse is doing, for example during resistance, etc.

William mentioned the leg in pure dressage riders is different than event riders. As event riders, we ‘hug’ the horse’s side with our legs, where pure dressage riders have the leg generally more ‘off’ then ‘on’. However, our leg must not be static.

A stronger leg means something, and the leg becomes softer as the horse responds. He also spoke about, with a tense horse, how the leg ‘breathing’ softer and stronger can produce relaxation. He took several pairs of spurs off of riders through the day. He didn’t want the leg (or any aid) to be a surprise to the horse.

William had the horses work through some basic movements appropriate to their individual levels. We started with training level groups and moved through the day to the Advanced combinations.

Virtually everyone needs to do more walk, according to William. The walk is the easiest gait to make better. Starting on a loose rein, creating a ‘brave’ walk, then pick up the reins, without destroying the quality of the gait.

He worked very specifically on keeping the quality of every moment the absolute best it can be. William is a competitor. He spoke often of how our work and preparation at home has the express purpose of making our competition marks better.

He also spoke about how to maximize the marks for where each horse was at currently in its training. For example, there were a few lovely big moving horses who he felt needed to ‘keep a lid on’ the big movement for now, since they could not keep a steady outline and rhythm for the whole test yet. He reminded the riders that it’s no use sitting on a great mover if you aren’t able to get the marks for consistency yet.

As another example, horses with certain weaknesses in their gaits often need to go in a lower frame to get stronger and steadier before they can go into a more elevated frame. He stressed that every stride needs to be the same with regard to the shape of the horse. That is the building block to more later.

Enjoying a cup of tea. Photo by Chelan Kozak.

Enjoying a cup of tea. Photo by Chelan Kozak.

There were also plenty of “Fox Pitt-Isms”, best imagined with a British accent, of course, with a cup full of tea in hand:

  • “Your mare seemed surprised that you prepared her for that corner. Do your homework, and through repetition that preparation will become normal.”
  • “Every time you talk to your horse there is a bit of a discussion going on. He needs to zip it.”
  • “Little things make a massive difference.”
  • “Horses need to learn to be straight and also to have their bodies on a curve. They need to do both things, and to be able to go easily from one to the other.”
  • “Give him a friendly kick. That’s just not quite good enough.”
  • “When you give an inch in the reins, you gain an inch in the back end.”
  • “It’s important not go go on so long with your work sessions that the horse is demoralized.”
  • “That horse doesn’t get to have quite so many opinions of his own.”
  • “Sometimes changing your posting trot diagonal during the lateral work helps create a softer trot in the horses back.”
  • “Your horse looks a bit like a car coasting around in neutral.”
  • “I’m a big believer in giving the reins, but don’t give the reins when he’s running away. Give the reins when you know you’ve got him.”
  • “If he was really good at what he was doing you could just let him just go around how he likes. But he’s not. So you have to be brave. Ask him, or he’s not going to do it. I sometimes have to use my imagination to decide if you are asking him anything or not.”