Life lessons: Top eventer William Fox-Pitt *H&H Plus*

The British event rider on making sure you have enough time, dealing with nerves, taking his mother’s advice and how patience pays off...

  • William has won 20 Olympic, world and European senior championships medals, including six European team golds and five individual medals. He triumphed at all the world’s five northern hemisphere five-stars with 14 wins at the level in total – more than any other rider – including two at Badminton and a record six at Burghley. A serious fall in 2015 left him in a coma for two weeks, but he came back to make the British team for Rio 2016.

    We had Ballincoola as an eight-year-old and he was a real jumping machine. He was such a performer and a horse of a lifetime. I never got to grips with his flatwork, so his dressage was never team-worthy, but I know much more now and if I had him in my old age I know it could have been better.

    He won Burghley in 2005 and was third at Badminton in 2008. He was absolutely made for the fast and furious modern version of the sport as it is now; the skinnies and arrowheads would have suited him down to the ground.

    I’m a person that generally runs late and always thinks of something else that needs to be done at the last minute. On competition day, I try never to be in a hurry. Allow for delays, expect the unexpected and remember when you’re going to an event everything takes that little bit longer.

    Every rider has those amazing days, those bad days and those days when they ride like a rabbit; even Michael Jung makes mistakes. You can be prepared, do all your homework, but you’re never guaranteed a result; you have to hope for the best, but be prepared for the worst. There have been plenty of times throughout my career when it’s not come off, but there will be days when the wind is in your sail.

    My riding icon is Lucinda Green. During her time, she was top of the game and no one could match her. She’s always been, and still is, so generous in sharing her knowledge and expertise with people who don’t have that wealth of experience. She’s never stopped being a real horsewoman and the sport is in danger of losing that because it’s become more about victories and world rankings.

    Oh to have known

    A strong lesson I learnt early on was that showjumping fences didn’t need the same speed as cross-country jumps. I didn’t really think about it at the time as I just liked jumping jumps. I didn’t take into account the different variations of jumping and how to attack them.

    My mother Marietta competed at top level and she always made it clear that as human beings we have the ability to control our nerves. When I was younger I used to ride from school, so I was picked up to go to an event and it became quite a big thing. I was aware that a lot of effort had gone into it and I had this terrifying fear of letting everyone down. In the end I realised that everyone is feeling the same and you just have to get on and deal with it.

    I feed my horses little and often. Most people feed their horses too much. Horses are designed to live on grass and you need to be brave enough not to over feed, and let them be the grazers they’re meant to be. I like my horses to be out all the time when they’re not being ridden as they’re made to roam.

    I do lots of long, low and soft work in the warm-up. Too many riders are in a hurry, get on and expect their horse to be ready to go. I also try to be patient.

    When I was young I wanted to achieve big things fast. I was energised and I just wanted to jump fences and win – now I realise you can’t take it all too quickly and when the day is right it will all fall into place.

    Another one of my mother’s mottos was, “If you’re feeling cross, get off.” Keep the bigger picture in mind, don’t ask for too much too soon and your patience will pay off.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 28 May 2020

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