The end of an Eventing era

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William Fox-Pitt bids a quiet farewell to 5 Star Eventing – Sally Cooper talks to him about his plans for training and breeding … and some family time

William Fox-Pitt at his yard in Dorset – All images: Courtenay Hitchcock

No fuss, no pomp … just a casual announcement on Sunday 12th May at the end of the BBC Badminton Eventing coverage, surrounded by his children.
‘Yes, that’s it …’
And so, with no fanfare and in his own typically quiet, unassuming style William Fox-Pitt – the Great Equestrian from our own county has retired from 5* Eventing in his 40th year of competing, aged 55.
At the May 2024 Badminton, as he rode the most amazing Cross Country on the mare Grafennacht, the question on everyone’s lips was if, as had quietly been rumoured, it really was to be the end, was he to get his dream swan-song?

William Fox-Pitt riding Grafennacht at Mars Badminton Horse Trials 2024 © Badminton Horse Trials Ltd.
Photography by Kit Houghton Photography

A parent, not a trainer
William’s career started in the 1980s – he has been so successful that it is hard to provide a snapshot without writing a book. William has been British number one many times, and was the first British rider to become World No.1. He has won 20 major Championship medals and represented GB at five Olympic Games, winning two team silver medals and one team bronze. He is the only rider to have achieved five of the six 5 Star three-day events worldwide. William was awarded the MBE in the Queen’s 2019 birthday honours for services to the equestrian world.
I met William to have a chat about his plans for the next stage of his career. He has a state-of-the-art eventing training yard near Sturminster Newton, where he lives with his wife Alice Plunkett, one of ITV’s BAFTA-winning racing team, and their four children, Oliver, Thomas, Chloe and Emily. The family is happily ensconced in Dorset life.
William can often be seen driving his children and their ponies around and supporting Portman Pony Club and school Show Jumping events. How many Pony Clubs and schools can say that their children are coached and encouraged by a 5 Star Olympian?
And yet he accepts no formality or ceremony, and teaches with his trademark quiet persuasion and enthusiasm. ‘I enjoy my involvement with the young people – but as a parent, not a trainer. Retirement from 5 Star allows me to attend their events more. Next weekend we are off to Goodwood, pony racing!’
Many moons ago, when my own children were members, I remember the Pony Club being invited to the Fox-Pitt eventing yard to have a look around. As you’d expect, it was all very impressive and chic, but there were certain things which we can all still recall today.
On the yard tour, William showed us a horse literally wrapped up in many red ribbons. ‘That one’s a secret,’ he said. ‘Its Alice’s new horse for her birthday today. No telling!’
William was asked by the wide-eyed young riders if they could look in the enormous eventing horse lorry. Not a problem. They were all examining the travelling horse and human facilities when William realised that he had a visitor – a horse owner had unexpectedly turned up to see him ride her horse. It was spectacularly windy, and William said: ‘You can all stay and watch me ride in the outside arena if you stay out of sight and are very quiet.’
We watched in silence as he calmly mounted a beautiful, skittish animal in the high winds. The horse immediately went crazy – but the long legs, calm seat and Velcro bottom just went with the flow. He simply stayed put and rode on. Young and old alike, we were all in awe of what we saw – a true equestrian, doing his thing to perfection. Calm, confident horsemanship with total respect for the animal.

William Fox Pitt in Dorset

The swan-song that wasn’t
William survived a major riding accident in France in 2015, when he suffered a life-threatening head injury during a cross country fall at the 2015FEI World Breeding Eventing Championships for Young Horses. He was placed in a medically induced coma for two weeks, and had to learn to walk and talk again. The fall threatened to end his career – but, despite lingering vision problems and memory issues, he miraculouslyreturned to competing and even went on to ride in the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Unfortunately, this year’s Badminton dream finale was not to be. While the pair were in second place after that fabulous Cross Country, they had six down in the Showjumping and dropped to 13th position. William was typically self-effacing. ‘The mare will definitely return – but with younger bones on her back …’
William’s plan is to have more time to develop his business model for the Dorset estate. Naturally he is keen to spend more time with his children, family and friends and, he admits, his chickens. ‘Yes! I love my chickens! Thanks to Mr Fox we have some gaps, and one of my daughters and I are having fun with the incubator, producing some new fancy breeds.’
William is the first to accept that he is very lucky to still be in one piece after a long career in a dangerous sport.
He also recognises that he has been extremely lucky to choose to retire in his own time – and he admits that Alice is absolutely delighted that he is hanging up his 5 Star boots! ‘Particularly since my 2015 accident. It’s been very hard on Alice and my family to watch me competing – they do it with great fear and trepidation. But equally, it’s very nice that they care!’
But why was 2024 the year? ‘The decision hinged on many factors: horsepower, financial issues like sponsorship making the business model less appealing and, inevitably, my age,’ he says.In the month that saw the sad death of Georgie Campbell at Bicton, it was inevitable that the conversation turned to Health and Safety.
‘Standards have improved enormously in my time,’ William says. ‘There is a huge degree of assessment and safety in Cross Country. We try to make it as safe as possible, but at the end of the day it is a very risky sport involving huge animals and vast jumps. It is no different from skiing or driving – sometimes we are in the lap of the gods. And we know that. Sadly, accidents do happen, and lives can be lost.’

William Fox-Pitt and the photo bomb horse Lucky

New plans
This summer William will be at the Paris Olympics as both trainer of the Brazilian event team and coach of the Japanese rider Kazuma Tomoto. He sees training and teaching as a natural and enjoyable progression from his own career – and it’s one for which he is increasingly liked and respected.
‘I enjoy the international teaching, and inspiring the next generation of professional riders,’ he says. ‘But I also enjoy the more “normal” local teaching. In many respects I wish that I had done more of that earlier.’
Breeding and producing will also take centre stage, he says:
‘I am looking forward to breeding, producing, training and selling on horses from the yard. I am keen to produce from lines that have brought me success in the past. Currently, we have a new trendy initiative and we have bred three cracking Connie X Thoroughbred youngsters. Hopefully my girls will ride them and other homebred horses in the future. I’m certainly not buying them in outside yaks – they can jolly well ride things that I produce at home!’
The overall aim is very much to have more time to develop his business plans for the Dorset estate. With so many new plans, will he miss the 5 Star competitions?
‘That’s an easy answer. I’ll miss the adrenalin. It’s an addictive drug. Eventing provides a target and drive, with a fantastic adrenalin crescendo.
‘However … I will not miss the morning of Cross Country, waking up and thinking: “What on earth am I doing here?”
To be honest, the biggest difference in lifestyle will be accepting that perfection is no longer essential … That “pretty good” is now perfectly fine!
‘The other thing I’m looking forward to is being able to say “Yes” to friends’ invitations. Saying “No” has been my stock answer for so long. That feels quite exciting!’

William Fox-Pitt happy and smiling

And so to the 19 random questions…

  1. What’s your relationship with Dorset?
    My father was born here, in Caundle Marsh. He lived here for a long time so we came back a lot of times to see my grandparents in Caundle Marsh and part of our family is Pitt-Rivers, we are cousins. It was family which drew me to move back in 2001. They created a base for me, and supported me – and now my involvement with Hinton St Mary Farms is increasing all the time. So I do have long-time Dorset connections, and now it’s where the Fox-Pitts are at home.
  2. What was the last song you sang out loud in your car
    My god, I don’t do singing out loud, I don’t subject anyone to that. Even myself!
  3. It’s Friday night, you have the house to yourself, no work is allowed. What will you do?
    Oh my goodness. I would enjoy no noise. I have a bit of a passion for gardening, so I think I would get out in the garden. I would probably not even turn the telly on …
    But by the time I’ve done the dogs and the garden and shut up the chickens, that’s probably my evening gone!
  4. What little luxury would you buy with £10?
    Very long, serious and thoughtful pause Probably … several bags of Haribo jelly babies
  5. The last film you watched?
    I saw Guy Ritchie’s The Gentlemen. I’d wholly recommend it. I don’t think it was anything extraordinary, but it’s defintely enjoyable.
  6. What would you like to tell 15 year old you?
    Always always have a go.
  7. Who’s your celebrity crush?
    Oh, goodness me … more serious contemplation I’m showing my age, but probably Gwyneth Paltrow!
  8. What’s your comfort meal?
    Oh I’m very greedy, I eat a LOT … Shepherd’s pie.
  9. The best biscuit for dunking.
    I’m not a dunker! I mean, I do very occasionally, and then it’s got to be a Digestive, but no … I’m definitely a biscuits man, but I’m not a dunking man. I do dunk toast in soup. But I wouldn’t dunk a biscuit in my tea.
  10. What’s your secret superpower?
    I haven’t got any superpowers! Erm … I’m quite reliable? Quite consistent. Predictable. Actually I’m quite … boring!
  1. What was the last gift you gave or recieved?
    I haven’t had anything since Christmas! Oh, I gave my family – including myself – a trip to Kenya for Christmas. That was pretty amazing. We’d always said we’d do a horse riding safari when the girls were old enough to go and the boys were young enough to still be around. So we finally went – it was very special. It was money that I’d put aside, just to put into a specific adventure.
  2. What’s your favorite quote?
    I’ve got several – but they’re not terribly printable! I got a school report once that was very bad, but very complimentary in other ways, and my father said ‘nice guys come last’.
    That has always stuck with me.
    I would probably say ‘Never say no’ or ‘never give up’ .. I should ask my poor sons this question, I’m always banging on to them “Remember, when I’m dead, remember I always said …”
    I think Always Have A Go has to be the best.
  3. Your most annoying trait?
    God you should ask my wife that question. I think … ponders
    I’m quite lazy. I think that annoys her sometimes, that I’m not urgent enough.
  4. Cats or dogs
    Dogs!
  5. What shop can you not pass without going in?
    None! I don’t go into any shops if I can help it! Though I suppose I’m a bit of a sucker for The Buck services at Andover, I tend to stop there for a cup of coffee too often. Does that count?
William Fox-Pitt training in his menage
  1. Tell us about one of the best evenings you’ve ever had
    Probably my wedding. It was very special. My wife’s family were home, nearly all of our best mates were there … It was just such a special night.
  2. What in life is frankly a mystery to you?
    That’s a good question … a mystery to me … Ice baths! I absolutely don’t get that. I’m a hot bath man. I would never. No.
  3. Chip shop chips or home baked cake?
    swift and unblinking, the first answer to cause no hesitation
    Home baked cake!
  4. You have the power to pass one law uncontested – what would you do?
    A suicide button. I put my dog down rather than let it suffer, and yet you have to watch your grandmother lie in bed for five years? It’s a contentious issue, but I suspect it’ll happen in my lifetime. I wouldn’t want to leave anyone in any pain. As in, by relieving myself of pain, I wouldn’t want to leave somebody else in pain behind. But if my family were looking after a vegetable in bed, I would like them to be able to just press a button.
    There’s got to be a way of protecting yourself, so no one’s going to murder you because you’ve got money or because you’ve got a garden or because they don’t like you. There has to be a way to work around that.
    I just know if I had an accident – like I did have, I was a vegetable – I say to all of them, if it should happen again … for God’s sake. Just unplug me. Please do not keep me going.
    There might be a hope of something one day, but honestly – look at the big picture and just think, what have you got?

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