By Sarah Eakin
Aiken’s winter eventing crowd were in for a rare treat this week with the arrival of the world’s number one event rider, Britain’s William Fox-Pitt, who flew in for a two-day clinic at Stable Valley Farm. Some 120 auditors witnessed Fox-Pitt’s humorous, targeted and effective style as he coached 30 riders on flat work and arena jumping on day one, and cross country on day two.
Among those taking advantage of the opportunity was Boyd Martin, a member of the US Olympic Team. “Without question William Fox-Pitt is one of the best four-star riders of all time,” he said. “He’s a rider that I’ve always admired and it’s wonderful hearing how he trains horses, the exercises he uses and his teaching style.”
Martin rode Cortez, a 7-year old American-bred Sport Horse that he says “potentially could be one of my best horses.” Cortez is a local horse, bred by Denise Lahey and Pierre Collin. For Martin, the Fox-Pitt approach was a departure from his Australian eventing roots. “The culture I’ve come from is just getting the job done,” he said. “And I think the English culture is a bit more technical and has a lot more of a theory behind it. So it was good for my riding just because I wing it a lot of the time rather than really have a thorough thought process that goes behind it all.”
Elly Schobel, an Aiken-based Grand Prix dressage rider who events for fun, audited day one and rode in the clinic on day two after her friend Mollie Zobel fell sick. Sitting by the arena during the flat work, German-born Schobel found herself nodding in agreement as Fox-Pitt gave his critiques.
“I was impressed as all get out because I teach clinics myself and it’s very hard to say something to everybody,” she explained, “and he did it in such a classy and funny and smart way that nobody felt affronted, nobody felt left out and if there was nothing to say he just didn’t say anything. That was a compliment. And that’s very European. We have got so used to America that every step is commentated and there’s no need to. If you do it right, you do it right.”
For Fox-Pitt, 46, coming to Aiken provided a chance to reminisce about being on the British team at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. Now with victories in an unprecedented 13 CCI four stars, 50 CCI three-day events and 21 CCI one-days under his belt, his ticket to Atlanta in 1996 came on the back of his first win at Burghley in 1995.
“We stayed at Pine Top,” he recalled. “Pine Top was fantastic. We had a good time but ‘horsewise’ it was pretty much a test of endurance and durability. The Olympic Games being in Atlanta in the summer was obviously always going to be quite tough so I do remember that being quite a test of everybody. It was very, very hot and the British horses took a while to settle in and they all got various skin conditions, and rashes and sweat rashes. Three of our five horses were unable to wear a saddle for quite a few days with the problems they had. It was a challenge. You learn a lot. The Olympics itself was a fantastic experience but it was one of those events that I look back on and think it was a fairly crazy experience.”
Fox-Pitt had been to the South before and this wasn’t Fox-Pitt’s first time in Aiken though the reason why proved unexpected. “I came over here and worked in the primary elections as a volunteer for George Bush Sr. Back in the UK after school and before university you often go off and do something and my father was very keen that it was not horsey so he got me the job to come and do some volunteer work over here in the primary campaign. I was up in Massachusetts and then I came down here [to Aiken] but not for long it was quite a short-lived thing but good fun.”
The inspiration to bring Fox-Pitt to Aiken this time came from Barry Olliff who co-owns Stable View Farm, a state-of-the art equestrian facility set on 160 acres just north of I20 close to Highway 19.
“It was my first, you could say, useful equestrian idea,” Olliff, himself from Britain, said. “It seemed to me that it was something that could go down well in Aiken. It hadn’t been tried before and we felt that with so many people in Aiken at the moment we might get the necessary support to make it work. As it turns out it certainly has worked very well indeed and it seems as if everybody has thoroughly enjoyed themselves.”
Fox-Pitt’s understated commentary was peppered with comedy throughout the two days. “Ride him like you stole him,” he told a Training level rider to encourage her to be forceful with an obstinate horse. There were gems of information too.
“You must not hurry them through water. They have to be in good balance so they can judge the step,” and “If you have a horse that is nervous about a ditch or trakehner I would not be looking for a long [stride]. Think about adding one.” Schobel, who took her 6-year old Welsh cross TB pony to the novice cross country clinic, found Fox-Pitt’s advice succinct and effective. The pair had never jumped a bank before. Now they have. “He told me to ride it like a vertical. So I did,” she said. “The way he approached it was very clear. It was no force. It was no demeaning comment.”
Shortened reins were an ongoing suggestion throughout the clinic. Fox-Pitt presented it as a personal choice but argued his case with the comment that “If you’re Michael Jung you can win the Olympics with your hands in your lap, but not many people can. Short reins are option A.”
For Stephanie Heinsons, who came from Dunwoody, Georgia, to ride in the Intermediate Group on her 7-year old TB gelding Peek-a-Boo Street, the clinic was a success. “It is interesting just hearing him simplify everything because if you’ve ever watched him ride he makes everything look so easy and there’s a reason for that,” she said. “He doesn’t ‘nit pick’ and he tells us ‘quit nit picking’, which is what I do. William made it very simple and he said ride your proper flatwork in between the fences and trust yourself ‘cuz I have a tendency to be a little bit of a control freak. He has a way about him to make everything flow and have that balance and that rhythm. Rhythm I think was the key word this weekend – at least for me.”
Heinsons is not alone in taking away food for thought from Fox-Pitt’s clinic. Boyd Martin, too, will be experimenting with new ideas. “I’m riding at Paradise Farm this weekend,” he said. “And I’ll be trying a few things that William taught me on the younger horses to see how it goes in competition.”