Clinic Report: ‘Pitt-Proverbs’ from the Legend Himself in Aiken | Eventing Nation

Photo courtesy of Michael Willham.

I had the amazing opportunity to audit and take a lesson from the man who holds the most 5* wins in the record books, William Fox-Pitt, while he was in Aiken for the Grand Prix Eventing Showcase at Bruce’s Field!

I spent all day Saturday auditing the show jumping lessons, while I audited a couple lessons and rode in a cross country lesson on Sunday.

I was ring/jump crew on Saturday, and most of the Sunday theories were after-the-fact after my ride, so I may be paraphrasing slightly, but I wanted to pass along information and insights that William talked about for everyone who couldn’t make it! The more detailed explanations after each item are my understanding and interpretation of what he was saying.

Overall, I got the impression that William’s focus was almost entirely on affecting and changing how the horse went; he didn’t make too many comments or adjustments on the riders themselves. 

I will say, many of the things he said I’m sure all of us would go, “Oh yeah, absolutely, that makes sense almost to a point where it isn’t really new information to me.” But on a deeper level, I think most of us don’t follow through. And that follow through is what is most important and is perhaps one of the biggest reasons why William is the eventing legend that he is. It reminds me of a saying I saw a while ago that went something like this: “Experts work on the fundamentals; beginners work on the advanced.”

  • “1st half to control/organize, 2nd half to ride” (in a related distance).

This was emphasized both days. William wanted riders to make all of their balancing/organizing/changes in the first half of a related distance (say the first 3 strides in a six stride line) and then use the 2nd half to maintain what you created. Oftentimes we try to keep changing the horse too close to the jump, which actually makes the entire jump worse than if we just rode to whatever not-perfect distance we were seeing, but in the same canter without changing on the last few strides.

I probably heard this a thousand times between the two days. William highlighted keeping the horse’s shoulders under control to maintain straightness and power in the gait and in the jump. 

William emphasized lots of trot jumps to work on footwork. Each lesson on both days started with jumping from the trot. He said that he knows riders hate doing this, but it is good for the horse to figure out their feet and their bodies. He said there are many times when his “jump day” is purely walk/trot/jump transitions, no cantering jumps. It helps sharpen the horse up.

I had the pleasure of being a rider whose 5* horse refused at a Beginner Novice jump. This horse had literally only stopped one other time in all of the years I’ve had him, but he picked jumping a BN rolltop from a trot in front of William Fox-Pitt as the perfect time to have our second refusal. (Insert face-palm here). So yeah, it happens. Hopefully that goes to show you to not be too hard on yourself.

  • “Hope is a really bad word when riding a horse. We don’t like hope. We need to react to what is happening” (in terms of riding a distance).

William said this when a rider wasn’t reacting to what was underneath them. Sometimes things don’t go according to plan, and we have to adapt and switch our plan to be successful. Not just sit there and hope it all works out. But I also thought it was quite hilarious because usually “hope” is a positive word, not a negative one! But in riding, hope is definitely negative. Hope means inaction. William wants positive action when we are riding.

  • “Leg can say go, body says ‘but you can add’. You don’t go with the body when you say go with the leg”

This was said in relation to a rider putting their leg on to move a horse up to a jump and take away some of the gap they were seeing. But the rider leaned forward with their body too and the horse ended up still chipping a stride, so the rider got flung onto the neck a bit. William explained the importance of influencing the horse underneath you, but the rider staying in a dynamic/adaptable position that can go with the horse if they end up taking off, but also stay/wait with the horse if it ends up chipping. This was both for quality of the ride as well as the safety of not falling off.

  • “Change the jumps up at home, keep them interested and paying attention”

William said he likes always setting out different things, turns, lines, distances, angles, etc. Approach jumps different ways, come on shorter turns, come on longer turns. A big emphasis was keeping the horse sharp. A sharp horse is good with their feet. A sharp horse doesn’t hang a leg. A sharp horse doesn’t drop a rail. But you have to keep everything interesting in order to keep a horse sharp. You can’t just do boring lines over and over again and expect the horse to be fully interested and on their game.

  • “Do less in the last few strides. Make your changes earlier”

This is pretty much the same as the “1st half to organize, 2nd half to ride.” But I’m repeating it again (in a slightly different way) because this was a big item William kept going to. Too often he’d see a rider try to make changes in the horse’s canter in the last couple strides before a fence, and it almost always resulted in a worse jump than if they had just left the horse alone those last few strides, even to a poor distance. At one point, William walked over to a jump and showed everyone all the possible places a horse could take off. He stood about 2′ away from a vertical, and then he walked further and stood 10′ away from the vertical. He explained that if the horse’s canter quality is good, and the consistency is there, they can take off from just about anywhere. The problems come about when we try to change them too close to the jump and interrupt the rhythm and consistency. This will also go with a later point, but another benefit is that he wants horses to take some responsibility, and not-perfect distances will help make them sharper. The canter quality is more important than the distance, don’t sacrifice the quality to get a better distance.

  • “When you need to go, allow it to be bigger. Don’t go oh s**t and gallop”

This was said when a rider saw a long spot and broke out the wing flapping, spurring, and chasing their horse to a closer distance. The horse got flatter in its stride and had a flat, low quality jump. He said when we move up to a fence, we need to keep the bounce and balance of the canter, so it is more of an “allowing” move up, versus a chasing move up. Allowing the horse to elongate their stride (which should be in our toolkit to use, if we’ve done our homework in terms of adjustability as well as in terms of that exact moment setting them up correctly beforehand) without getting flat is our goal.

  • “Don’t sit like a lemon”

This may be one of my new favorite sayings. This was said with respect to a rider sitting and doing nothing on the approach to a jump. While as I said, he doesn’t necessarily want us to be changing the last few strides, that doesn’t mean we aren’t doing anything. We need to be actively maintaining the canter and bounce.

  • “With a young horse, trot is easier to keep straight than canter. When in doubt, trot. Trot first to let them know where they’re going, then you can canter.”

This was said when there was a young/green horse in the novice group. It is easier to control and keep the trot straight, so if you are still putting some miles and confidence on a young horse, and especially when it’s something they are a little nervous about, approach in a trot first. 

  • “If they never learn to run out, then you don’t have a problem. I like wings and things for younger horses. Don’t let them know that a runout is an option.”

This was said somewhat related to the point above, in terms of how we need to train the young horses. You have a better chance of not letting them get wiggly and runout at the trot. William said that some people like testing the runouts so they can know what the horse will usually do in that situation. But he said he prefers never to let them know they can runout or refuse. Then you never will have a problem with it. He said he likes putting wings/barriers to help guide and keep young horses centered. He frequently put poles on the ground and/or against jumps to help funnel a horse who was having some skepticism about the jump.

  • “Ride and react to what you’ve got. Not what you normally have or what you should have.”

This was also reiterated both days. The best riders adapt to the situation and horse underneath them. Sometimes the horse may be a little bit more quiet than normal. Sometimes they may be more amped. Sometimes they may be a little more wiggly. This is how William can catch ride a horse around an Advanced course (a cross country course more akin to a 4*, in my opinion) at the Showcase: He rides the horse that is underneath him.

  • “Don’t ride young horses in back boots so they feel the jump if they hit it. There isn’t much risk in slicing a hind.”

He’d rather they develop a sharper back end. He says there is more risk in having a horse not develop a sharp hind end and desire to avoid leaving legs than there is in a horse hurting their leg due to lack of boots. This advice was more for younger horses, obviously he says he puts boots on for competitions, and for the more experienced horses.

  • “I like doing halts on a downhill slope. It gets them working properly and frequently makes them halt square.”
  • “Speaking of slopes, I also usually introduce medium trots on a downhill, since the slope allows for the extension already.”

William said that he likes using slopes to get horses using themselves more, and he has even used the grassy hill outside of the Land Rover Kentucky 5* dressage warmup as he warmed up for dressage in years past.

  • William frequently stressed that: “Not everything has to be foot perfect. Things will go wrong. We need to train the horse to figure it out when it goes wrong. Not protect them.” 

He typically didn’t care if the riders got the wrong distance to a jump. In fact, he sometimes encouraged it in an effort to make the horse sharper and make the horse take more responsibility. They can’t be robots following our orders and nothing else; they need to have some ambition of their own.

  • William also talked many times about riding off of your eye and the feel. Not sticking to the number you walked just because. Greener horses it is usually better to add a stride in a related distance. More experienced horses can take that stride out. But sometimes some horses are just the way they are, and you need to know that and ride what you have. 

Don’t ride the number, ride the feel and ride the horse. Sometimes we get too caught up in trying to get a specific number of strides in a combination and we end up riding much worse than if we didn’t even know what the number was and we just rode off of the feel. While knowing the distance is important, what he was trying to say was to not let that mentally freeze you into sticking to “Plan A”. You need to be able to jump in and go “change to Plan B” immediately because of what you are feeling. There were several related lines that he didn’t even walk because he wanted us to just ride off of the feel we were getting from the horse.

Outtake of Michael’s “Jack” trying to drink William’s water. Photo courtesy of Michael Willham.

I’m sure I missed some “Pitt-Proverbs” or “Pitt-wits,” but these were all of the things I wrote down in between running around being a jump crew and making sure I wasn’t run over! Overall, I would say I was shocked by his down-to-earthiness for being such an accomplished rider, but if my exposure to upper level eventing has taught me anything, it’s that almost everyone is shockingly humble and casual. I love our sport for that; there aren’t many other Olympic sports where you can so easily access training by an Olympian, let alone have them be so “normal.” Go ahead and try to get a basketball lesson from Lebron James, or a swimming lesson from Michael Phelps. I’ll wait. 

Thank you William for coming across the pond to teach us!

I’ll just end by wishing everyone a successful and safe eventing season!