How William Fox-Pitt Changed the Way I View This Sport

How William Fox-Pitt Changed the Way I View This Sport

In 2016, I took a leap of faith that ultimately rewired my mind on horses, the sport of eventing, and life in general. When I traveled to England to train with the legendary William Fox-Pitt, I knew I’d learn a lot from him, but I had no idea how dramatically it would elevate the way I ride, teach, train, and generally relate to the horses and people around me today. 

Though training with a top rider in Europe had always been a goal of mine, it got real when I actually spoke with William on the phone and after 30 minutes, he told me to pack my bags and head over. No doubt, it was a big move, and I questioned my resolve plenty before diving in. I had some solid three- and four-star results here in the United States on a horse named Ziggy, owned by my good friend Rachel Jurgens, but he was getting older. I was in my late 20s at the time and not getting any younger myself.

I hadn’t planned on heading straight to William’s yard at the time. I initially started by reaching out to a few American riders already across the pond. Karen O'Connor eventually said to me, “If you're going over to England, you have to go to William’s.” Our personalities would mesh, she said. 

In 2015, William was recovering from a severe head injury he’d sustained at Le Lion d’Angers in France. So, I wasn’t expecting too much even after Karen so generously arranged an interview with him for me. After enjoying that good half-hour conversation with him, I packed my bags. I had to dissolve my business, help my clients relocate, sell my young horse, find a place for my dog, and get my visa sorted out. There were hundreds of reasons not to go, but the one reason to go outweighed them all. 

In order to elevate my riding, training, coaching, and lifestyle with horses and the people who love them, I needed a fresh perspective deeply rooted in managing the highest highs and lowest lows eventing can offer. I needed to get out of my comfort zone and pick up some new tools I could learn to use in any situation.

Andrew at Plantation Field Horse Trials on Ferrie’s Cello, owned by Jeanne Shigo. Amy K. Dragoo photo.

A Warm Welcome

I had been to England a decade prior but never spent any extended time there. At first, nothing seemed easy. Navigating various modes of transportation to get from the airport to William’s was, quite literally, a foreign affair to me. But when I finally made it, I felt right at home. William and his team welcomed me with open arms and helped me get settled into the small lodge at the yard. It made me realize how critical a welcoming environment is to any operation.

After about an hour of being there, they tossed me the keys to the yard car and said, “Pop down to the shop and pick up some bits and bobs and we’ll start tomorrow.” So, having never driven on the opposite side of the road, I took the keys and figured it out, which, I would later learn, was indicative of the difference between the training style at his yard versus and what I’d known in the U.S.

Andrew competing Annaliese, who was bred and owned by Finn Guinness. Photo courtesy of the author.

Watch and Learn

The open-ended method of training and coaching was different from what I was used to in the U.S., but I watched and learned, picked up novel tools, and figured out how to use them for the horses I had to ride. Lessons with William were more often informal. I soaked in plenty of advice, walked many courses with him at events, took tips in dressage, and talked theory about riding in general. It was less about what to do specifically, and more about learning to use those tools to produce a polished and accurate performance. 

He shared tips about how to get extra points in dressage, like where to execute a good half halt or how to ride specific movements a bit earlier than intuition might suggest. Then, out on hacks, we talked about how experiences with past horses have shaped how he communicates with current ones. No matter where we were, he made himself available to hear my questions and offer advice like that. Of all the countless tips, tools, philosophies, and experiences we talked about, perhaps that open-ended availability and constant trickle of knowledge has been one of the most important attitudes I’ve brought home to my own program. It’s how I now strive to impart everything he’s taught me to the horses and people with whom I work at home.

Andrew with Erik Duvander, U.S. Eventing Director of High Performance. Amy K. Dragoo Photo.

The Right Attitude for the Sport

William has dealt with some of the highest highs and lowest lows in eventing. Through listening, watching, and learning, I saw firsthand how he uses emotionally charged moments as opportunities to learn, and I try to emulate that now in my own professional and personal life.

Here in the U.S., I’ve seen riders obsess over results and lose sight of the bigger picture. I admit I’ve been guilty of that myself. I’ve seen riders deflate so much after a jumping penalty on cross-country that it shattered their entire outlook. Plenty of riders collapse under the pressure of worrying that people might be judging them. I’ve felt how that kind of rollercoaster can affect the way I ride and how the horse I’m riding perceives me.

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William maintained a positive attitude about every horse he worked with, no matter what. He practiced patience before passing judgments and believes in allowing each horse the time it needs to learn and develop. He never seemed to let his emotions, high or low, effect how he communicated with a horse. 

He told me that, during their journey together, he wasn’t always sure that one of his top horses, Cool Mountain, was up to making the next step. But, of course, the horse always did when he was ready. William just had to practice patience, stick to the plan, and wait for the horse to rise to the occasion. 

I think he gets what he does out of every horse because he believes in them and practices that kind of even patience while they learn to think for themselves. I think that’s an undeniable attitude one should bring to training any horse or rider. If a young horse makes a mistake or seems resistant to stepping up, it's just part of the journey. Likewise, if a rider has jumping faults on cross-country, those moments, regardless of how that rider may feel about them, are but opportunities to learn and improve.

Time to Absorb

I used to see a lot of riders drilling their horses in the dressage ring in the days leading up to them. William will more likely be out for a hack and doing a stretchy trot before a show. Of course, if the horse needed to be worked a little bit more, then he would work it a little more.  But on those days before competitions, I thought back to the conversations we had while hacking out, and how I processed all the new information I’d absorbed during those moments of reflection. 

Andrew competing on Daddy’s Quest – one of the ten horses he competed in England. Photo courtesy of Andrew McConnon.

Today, I’ll often pony a horse on a hack the day before an event. It’s an important processing time for all of us. Sometimes they get a day off before a show. I may be tempted to trot a few more 20-meter circles and practice a couple more flying changes, but then I think back to William’s advice and remember that it’s all about building each individual horse’s specific training plan and sticking to it at the show. That time is often as important as the training itself.

That goes for long-term planning as well. I also try to implement rest time for the horses at the end of their competition schedules. English weather kind of dictates that of course, and the horses there get long breaks over the winter. But it’s different in the U.S. Just as tempting as it is to do those last couple of 20-meter circles or flying changes on the day before a competition, it can be equally so to compete throughout the year because we event year-round. But, like those hacks and stretchy trots the day before a competition, that time to unwind at the end of a year can be so crucial for a horse’s overall well-being and the long-term effectiveness of their training.

During my two years at William’s, I was lucky enough to compete ten different horses at over 50 competitions. As riders, we try to set our horse up for success by putting in the work and ensuring we do everything we can to point them in the right direction. We can strategize knowing it doesn't always go according to plan. That’s why shaping our training programs to empower horses and riders to think for themselves is so important. I remember William told me that a good horse should be able to sort out his own feet—likewise, good riders need to be able to think on the fly as well.

Feature photo by Jon Stroud.

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Written by Andrew McConnon

Andrew McConnon owns and operates McConnon Eventing out of Tallwoods Farm in Vass, North Carolina. Having grown up on his family’s farm in New England, Andrew spent his early years working with Marc Donovan, an upper-level eventer and USEF “R” show jumping course designer. Andrew later moved to Southern Pines, where he was based with Olympian Robert Costello and eventually competed successfully up to the CCI3* level. After his experience with William Fox-Pitt, he re-launched his business, focusing on training and teaching, as well as importing sport horses. In September, he competed in the 2020 Adequan® USEF Futures Team Challenge – East Coast and was recently named to the USEF International High Performance Programs 2021 Development Training List.