William Fox-Pitt is one of the most successful event riders in history, with a record six Burghley titles to his name and 14 CCI5* wins. He has represented Britain at 19 senior championships, collecting multiple medals including seven European team golds. He has been British number one 11 times.
It’s a bright but blustery morning at Wood Lane Stables in Dorset, but the training intensity is hotting up. William Fox-Pitt’s top horses, Little Fire and Oratorio II, are both in the running for the Olympics and being geared up for early-season CCI5*s. For this session, William is riding Little Fire, with his assistant head groom Adam Short on Oratorio. Both horses step out from their stables in smart, navy exercise sheets, which they’ll keep on for the first 10 minutes.
Although these horses are at the pinnacle of the sport, William follows the same basic routine with all his horses at the start of any flatwork session.
“As a general rule, a rough guide would be that I break it up into three sections of 10 minutes: the warm-up, then suppling, followed by discipline and movements,” says William, adding that this is only a target time. “I’ll do this at home and at shows. I feel if they can’t do a test after that, they’re probably in the wrong job. Of course, at a big event, I might ride them earlier in the day as well, but the actual work before a test will be half an hour.
“Horses are creatures of habit — we humans like variety, but horses don’t like surprises,” he adds. “So I do the same routine every day and they know what to expect.”
Both horses are walking purposefully around the arena on a long rein, taking in their surroundings.
“I always give them freedom in this stage, let them look around and absorb their environment,” William says. “Of course, if the horse is feeling very fresh, you won’t ride round on the buckle, but I won’t pin them down on the bit. Little Fire’s feeling chilled today, so I can have a long rein. As he relaxes, he’ll stretch down naturally but without me forcing his head down. I’m not thinking about using my hand at all.”
After several minutes in walk and trot, both riders ask for canter, and do five minutes in canter out of the saddle. The reins are now shorter, but the horses are still not on the bit. As it’s cold, William has slightly extended the warm-up period.
“Subconsciously, you might spend slightly longer in this stage if it’s freezing,” he says. “Always remember how much muscle a horse has to warm up.”
Before starting the next phase, the horses are walked again, on slightly more of a contact.
“Walk is a good pace for checking the horse is listening and off my leg,” William says. “I’m not expecting him to be perfect, just ready for what we’re doing next.”
Both horses follow a similar plan over the next 10 minutes, which is focused on suppling and obedience.
“They’ve had their look-around so now I’ll start to increase the contact and expect them to concentrate on me, but I still want the poll below the wither so they’re stretching, especially Little Fire, because he is naturally up in front,” William says. “Oratorio finds everything easy, but he can be tight in the neck so Adam needs to make him work, stretching from the base of his neck right through to the mouth.
“We’re working on getting a connection with the horses, so we are riding the horse right from our leg to the rein, and there are no ‘vacant areas’ they can fill with ad-libbing.”
The pair work in both trot and canter on transitions and plenty of leg-yielding.
“I really like leg-yielding as it’s relaxing and suppling,” he says. “I do it on all my horses and in different gears within the trot. I make sure it’s not flat or fast, and that the horse is not escaping through the shoulders.”
William adds more complicated lateral work, such as shoulder-in on a circle, and counter bend working towards renvers — all within the same long, low outline.
“This develops strength in the trot, but I’ll only do it for a quarter to half a circle,” he says. “This gets the horse nicely into the outside contact. These exercises tell me what the horse is finding easy, and what I need to work on.”
All the while, William is doing almost imperceptible half-halts, to check the horse is listening.
“I’m probably doing one every 30 seconds or so,” he says. “It’s not pulling the reins, but as if you’re thinking of making a transition and then changing your mind.”
He also often drops the inside hand off the rein to check the horse is secure and connected by staying consistent in his outline.
“If your horse is properly schooled, you should be able to ride the whole five-star test one-handed,” he says.
The horses finish this stage with a few minutes’ walk on a loose rein.
“It’s easy to niggle in the walk, but you need really clear signals to say to the horse he can switch off now so he isn’t kept guessing,” William says.
Movements and discipline
For the final stage, the riders incorporate some sitting trot and a few movements in a “competitive outline”.
Oratorio needs to develop his core strength, stability and contact, so Adam works on changes within the pace, encouraging rhythm and regularity.
“Try to imagine the contact as the weight of your arm in his mouth,” says William. “Open your arm to find the contact; don’t rely on your rein, but use your body to keep the softness.”
Adam repeats a figure-of-eight exercise, to practise counter canter and stop Oratorio either anticipating a flying change or falling out through his shoulder.
“He can crab, putting his quarters in, and this helps align him,” says William. “This exercise is useful because it trains both corners and being straight across the diagonal. You work on lots of different aspects naturally without forcing any one issue too hard.”
Adam adds several different movements within the same pattern. Across the diagonal, Oratorio is asked either for medium trot or a halt over X. Adam also gives and take the reins to ensure the horse is in self-carriage.
Little Fire is now lifting up and stepping powerfully and rhythmically through several movements, such as shoulder-in, half-pass and halts, often using the three-quarter line.
“We’re doing a lot of work on the three-quarter line as it’s in the Olympic test, but also because it’s important to be able to stay on a straight line without relying on the boards,” William explains. “It also allows you to approach the straight line from a different point than always down the centre.
“If you’ve done your first two phases properly, this stage should be natural to the horse,” William says. “I try to be really aware of how I’m riding, as if my trainer, Tracie Robinson, is watching me. Am I sitting up? Are my hands still?”
The riders wind up the session in rising trot on a long rein.
“I keep it simple,” William sums up. “Eventing dressage is not about being as fancy as Valegro. It’s about riding a good, safe test for a baseline of seven. If you get a few nines for the horse’s highlights, you’re automatically in a very competitive position.”
A pre-season jumping exercise
William has produced Ted since he was a seven-year-old, and is aiming for Bramham and possibly a first tilt at five-star at Pau.
“He’s a cross-country machine, very confident and wants to do things his way,” says William. “He’s never tricky, but he is independent in his opinions.”
After 20 minutes’ warm-up in all three paces, William starts jumping over an angled cross-pole out of canter, and then a small upright, to be greeted by a playful buck.
“At this stage of the year most of my horses haven’t jumped much for a while, so a particularly good exercise is four fences on a circle, to teach them a bit of discipline and make them wait,” says William. “It’s especially useful if they’re a bit excitable, like Ted today.”
Four 2ft fences are set up on a 20-metre circle. William starts in canter, jumping just two of the four, and gradually includes all four, fitting in four strides between each one.
“I love this exercise because it teaches them rhythm, finding their stride pattern and the discipline of jumping on a circle to the centre of each fence,” he says.
“It’s quite hard for horses to stay on the same canter lead — naturally they tend to land on the opposite lead to the one on which they took off.”
William switches the uprights to cross-poles, at about 2ft 6in the centre.
“I never use big fences for this exercise, but you can make the cross-poles quite steep,” he says. “This helps the rider be disciplined in jumping from centre to centre and develops the horse’s coordination and elasticity.”
William uses six or seven raised poles in a line for all his horses to develop their core strength and walk pace.
They are spaced specifically according to each horse, but roughly a yard (about 90cm) apart, so the horse can step down once between each pole.
“I put them in blocks and use wooden poles so you don’t have to keep jumping off when they knock them,” he says.
“I sometimes do them on a long rein, sometimes on the bit — it’s not particularly to stop them being clumsy, although heavy poles help this, but to develop their strength,” he says.
“I’ll start with three or four reps, building up to 10 in a session. It’s harder than it looks — you can tell with the young horses, as they’ll veer one way to make it easier for themselves.”
William and his wife Alice have just launched the Fox-Pitt Eventing YouTube channel, revealing the team behind the scenes at Wood Lane Stables, and the dedicated care given to top-class competition horses. In its first fortnight, it has had 11,000 hours of watch time and 4,000 subscribers.
Ref Horse & Hound; 27 February 2020