The Olympic medal winner on the thrill of competing at Burghley and beyond
As a three-time Olympic medal-winning eventer, William Fox-Pitt knows a thing or two about competition; yet the equestrian champion is adamant that winning has never been what matters to him. “I’m at a stage in my career now where I’m much more excited by individual horses than by personal ambition,” he says.
Over the years, Fox-Pitt has seen enough of the ups and downs of eventing to realise that you can never quite predict how a race day will go, or how a horse will behave: “Sometimes your best horses are disappointing and your weaker ones are challenging – not every horse can ride every ride.” The real skill, he explains, lies in identifying your strengths and weaknesses as a rider and working out which horses you are most compatible with as a result.
Fox-Pitt, who retired three of his horses last year at the grand old age of 17 (“They’ve given everything, so they deserve a happy retirement”), admits that slowing down hasn’t been easy for him. “Eventing is under my skin,” he says. “I’ve been doing it for 33 years, so it’s what I know and love. On a competition day you’re going through such a sense of excitement and exhilaration – letting that go is tough.”
One of Fox-Pitt’s best-loved events in the eventing calendar is the forthcoming Burghley Horse Trials, which takes place against the beautiful backdrop of the 16th-century Burghley House. “It’s a very special place where I’ve had some terrific cross-country rides – it’s a real test of the rider’s skill and you take the absolute top horses there,” says Fox-Pitt, who has secured numerous victories at the event.
Keen to share his passion with others, Fox-Pitt has set up his own eventing club, open to equestrian enthusiasts everywhere: “I wanted to put something back into the sport and get some younger blood involved,” he says. For those considering going one step further and becoming a horse owner, he recommends joining a syndicate as a way of managing the risk involved and gaining access to friendly advice. “It’s sensible to spread your chances and means you can attend more events.”
Riders often build close, collaborative relationships with event-horse owners. “They become friends as well as equestrian acquaintances,” says Fox-Pitt, adding that trust is vital to success. “A good owner respects your judgement and understands that sometimes if the ground or the horse isn’t right, your decision is final.” Catherine Witt, who has worked with Fox-Pitt for many years, knows that sometimes the best thing an owner can do is to back away. “I never get overly involved on competition days because riders need to be in the zone,” she says. “I’ve always had a good relationship with William because I’ve kept out of the way at the big events. If he decides not to compete with a particular horse, that’s his decision.”
There is, however, still plenty of excitement and exhilaration to be had for owners. “My recommendation would be to start your goals small and move up from there – I was once overjoyed when we won a one-star,” Witt says. “Ultimately, you’ve got to have a passion – the results are really just a bonus.”
BY FRANCES HEDGES 20 JULY 2017