byNina Fedrizzi| May 3, 2018
Last week, news broke that one of Great Britain’s most decorated equestrian athletes, William Fox-Pitt, is officially off the wait list and clear to compete at the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials this weekend (May 2-6). The five-time Olympian and three-time world #1 previously won Badminton in 2015 aboard Chilli Morning before suffering a traumatic brain injury that same year which left him sidelined for six months.
This is Fox-Pitt’s first time competing at Badminton and first CCI4* since his injury, this time riding Catherine Witt and Carole Gee’s 14-year-old Irish-bred AES gelding, Fernhill Pimms. And though there’s no one on earth that would call Badminton’s cross country track a cake walk, if anyone could feel at home here, it has to be Fox-Pitt, who has been a mainstay at the event since his first run in 1989.
As a lifelong competitor, coach, and author, Fox-Pitt has educated countless aspiring horsemen and women in his highly successful training and management program. One of them is 23-year-old British eventer, Alicia Wilkinson, who worked for Fox-Pitt Eventing during her gap year prior to attending Oxford Brooks University.
Here, Alicia shares 10 key lessons she learned during her time as a working student for William Fox-Pitt.
1. Look at the bigger picture.
William had a great approach to the education of young horses. He always focuses on working on their technique and understanding of the various questions on a cross-country course. He looks at the future of the horses and what they can achieve, rather than going for glory at a small event. This often allows them to have a long and successful career in eventing as trust takes years to build and seconds to break.
2. Neck straps aren’t just for pony clubbers.
From a young age, William always rode with a neck strap and he learned that it was a good tool for staying on naughty ponies. Every horse at William’s was ridden in a neck strap, regardless of who was on it—you never know when you may need it! Even in the dressage warm-up, you will see William with a neck strap on.
3. Ice those legs!
After galloping, cross-country schooling, and cross country, the horses’ legs are iced to help their circulation. Just as professional athletes use ice baths, we use ice packs. It is so important to help the horses reduce pain and soreness after intensive training and competition.
4. A clean saddle pad a day…
Every horse goes in a clean saddle pad (or numnah) no matter what they are doing. The washing machine was on constantly!
5. Don’t short-change your walk.
Every day, the horses would go on a hack around the village before schooling, jumping, or galloping, which took about 20 minutes and helped to stretch and warm up their muscles. It also helped to take the edge off any horses that were spooky or fresh.
6. Use a slope to your advantage while backing.
William has a very gradual slope running down into his yard, and on the advanced horses, he used to stop them at the bottom and rein them back or dismount and back them up the slope. This helped to engage their hind legs and improved their rein backs, because they had to lift their legs up and back.
7. What will be will be.
This is the title of William’s autobiography and I think it sums up eventing to a tee. When you are at a competition, there is nothing that can be changed, so in essence, ‘what will be will be’. In training, however, you can make changes and help yourself to prepare the best you can for any situation you might be faced with on course. So, in essence, you could also call it, ‘fail to prepare, prepare to fail’.
8. Travel smarter.
William always liked to have all the windows open in the back of the lorry regardless of the weather, as the horses need ventilation; we would rug them for the trip depending on the weather and how they felt. Once we were at our destination (an event or at home), we would then take all the horses off the lorry and take them on a long walk to help improve the circulation in their bodies—the longer the journey, the longer the walk.
9. Practice for the three-day.
To see how the horses would fair at a three-day event, we often jumped them the day after galloping to simulate how they would perform on the third day of a show. We also would trot them up the morning after a one-day event to see how they looked.
10. Keep a routine.
At an event, do everything the same as you would do if you were working at home, because it helps to create a positive atmosphere for the horse. For example, warm up at competitions as if you are at home; at a three-day, just ride your horse once a day, because that is what they are used to. Changing things unnecessarily can upset your horse’s routine, and by extension, his performance.