(c) Matt Nuttall
Francis Whittington is fast gaining a reputation as being a strong medal contender in the world of British Eventing. We caught up with him before the Event Riders Ball, the end of season party in aid of the Friends of PICU.
Francis’s talent was certainly noticed on the circuit as he rose through the Pony Club competitions securing many of the top places. Early success came as Francis won Individual Gold and Team Silver at the Pony European Championships in Hasselt, Belgium with North Down Nova, when he was just 16 years old.
Since then he has been notching up numerous high profile wins and placings, most recently with his win at the Blenheim Palace International Horse Trials, and has beaten some of the world’s finest event riders. Becoming British National Champion at Gatcombe Park and a regular around Badminton and Burghley (this year going clear at Burghley on Hasty Imp, an exciting young horse for the future), Francis has a strong team of novice and advanced horses.
We caught up with Francis to find out about his 2014 season, his forthcoming plans and his vision for the future success of Eventing .
Blenheim was a brilliant result for you, how has the season gone generally?
All in all this is the best season I have ever had. From the end of last year, we started changing our training programme and looked at what we needed to improve. We have focused on dressage and had good consistent tests throughout the season. This had made a huge difference to our results.
Also, from my point of view, I have pulled out good successes in the past, but I had to work out my own processing and preparation in my head. To do this, I have been using an online programme I work with at home called Zing Up, (Link: founder.zingup.com/franciswhittington) and this has helped me to clear the brain, recall info, retain info, process info and it is invaluable to me. It works on a whole balanced approach.
Building on that structure and having a system in place, everything is now about sticking to the system and tweaking it where necessary and most importantly believing in the system.
(c) The Gaitpost
Easy Target is one of my favourite horses, how did your partnership come about?
I went to a local dealer’s yard to try another horse. I saw him there and asked if I could try him. He had been traded in as a part exchange because he was a bit too fruity but within 5 minutes I knew he was the one for me and I have had him since he was 4.
(c) The Gaitpost
Tell us about your other horses.
– Hasty Imp is definitely one to watch and is coming up through the ranks. He cruised around Burghley and is very steady.
– Westside went to Pau and is a very exciting horse. He has good dressage and is the ideal type of horse for Rio as he likes the shorter format.
– Fernhill Highlight came 5th at Blenheim and is really growing into himself and our partnership is also growing. Next year could be a very exciting time for him as well.
What have you got planned for the winter? Are you getting a break?
No ! I’ve got lots of training planned. I’ve Iooked at our weaknesses and have put a plan in place to deal with them.
How did #whereswhittington come about?
It came about as my head girl, Sharon Mepham, started tweeting things at shows like ‘Where’s Whittington’ and cutting my head out of pictures and hiding them in crowd shots. It got bigger and bigger and I really want to develop this more. It is really fun and I’ve got an idea, which will be great fun to do! Watch this space!
Have you tried Vine?
I have tried it but I don’t get it at all! Maybe it’s a younger thing! Tapner and Ben Hobday’s clips are very amusing.
Is it impossible to find sponsors?
At the moment, everyone is trying to get a piece of the pie and there is a shortage and a limited supply so the thinner each slice becomes.
I believe we need to look further afield and have been trying to create a bit of team image to take to a wider pool outside of the sport. I, myself, have been focusing on the financial industry: one of my sponsors is a bank (http://aldermore.co.uk ), one is a tax consultancy firm (http://www.charter-tax.com ), and one is a financial advisory firm (http://www.tmfp.co.uk) . It is a different approach to what a lot of riders are doing.
Does the sport need to adapt like other sports have?
We have a sport that doesn’t fully know where its feet are and we need to make a change from being amateur to being professional (not in terms of riders, but the sports perception). At the moment, I am a big supporter of both British Eventing and the FEI and I believe they do a very good job to run the office but one of the difficulties we have is each event is run as its own entity. We have all these different organisers with their own remit and there is no uniformity.
So what we really need is uniformity from the organisers and a better definition of what BE’s role is. We need to look at clarifying which events are there for the competitors and which events are there to provide an experience for the spectators. The likes of Blenheim, Barbury, Badminton and Burghley for example have the opportunity to be a showcase for our sport and open up their doors for corporate hospitality. By developing corporate hospitality in our sport, we are giving companies a taste of the experience of what our sport can offer to them and their guests.
What we really need is a company to come in and take over the marketing and corporate hospitality, and even the broadcasting, we need them to grow hand in hand. To do this we need the buy in from all the different factions of the sport that we all enjoy and that is the hardest part to succeed.
Can the spectator experience be improved?
It depends on what type of level of event you are putting on… are you trying to take the Easyjet approach or are you following a BA 1st class route?
Easyjet events are there for the sport. The odd person may come and watch but it’s a no thrills experience. The entry price isn’t as high and that is reflected in what is on offer at the event.
BA 1st Class events encourage a spectator to come for the experience, such as shopping, country fair etc. The equestrian competition that is on then becomes the entertainment to mix in with the day out.
It is my belief that the Board should be stripped down to 3 people whose sole interest is the business aspect of the sport and strip away the bureaucracy.
What advice would you give someone wanting to start eventing?
If you are determined to event, get a plan, be prepared to work hard and work to a programme. However hard you think you are working, you need to work harder.
There is a lot of chat about prize money. What are your views?
Prize money is part of the change but in order for it to change certain other things need to change first. Badminton and Burghley need to lead from the front. They take a lot of income back into the estate and many feel they need to share that out. It is starting to get to the point where riders are getting really hacked off. Badminton and Burghley could change this and increase the prize money.
Whoever does it first will get massive kudos and I think the sport’s aim should be £100,000 for 1st prize and we should aim to achieve this by Rio.
In an ideal world, we need a Bernie Ecclestone equivalent to come on board and dig deep and make this sport truly amazing!
What is your view on the perception that Eventing is elitist?
We have levels like any sport and yes 4* is elitist. But so it should be. Some people will never ride at 4*, only a small percentage of the world will ever be able to do so. Aren’t we lucky that we are able to do this? Yes we are and we shouldn’t be chastised for this. We all work bloody hard at what we are doing, what we are training hard to achieve and what we want to achieve. It doesn’t change a fact that only a very small number can get to the top and that is elitist. We should market the sport as that. We have the other levels: Intro, Pre Novice and Intermediate and these are the events that people can experience Eventing all the way through to competing in the Grass Roots Finals at Badminton. The various levels within the sport allow other riders to experience what only the elite group can do at 4*.
What or who inspires you within the equestrian world? Past and present.
There are a number of people who I find inspiring in what they have done, namely William Fox-Pitt and Andrew Hoy. I am inspired watching their method in how they work, how they train, how they think, it is inspiring stuff and they are good examples of caring for the horses and getting the best out of them.
Is there an all time favourite yard/stables that you’ve been too? And why?
Which country in your opinion does equestrian best? And why?
Great Britain and there are 2 points that lead to this:
Firstly, the proximity of our borders within the UK and the ease of access for the equestrian population to events. We are able to provide and facilitate enough basis for competitions to allow more people to compete on a regular basis.
And secondly, we have got a very strong base in Eventing that is supported heavily from the ranks of the Pony Club and Riding Club and it is important that we as a sport support these organisations.
What would you like your legacy to be?
I would like to have been a part of seeing a sport that continues to unite, a sport that has taken steps for a solution for better sponsorship and corporate hospitality.
What is the quality that you most like in a horse?
A trainable mind
If you weren’t a 3-day eventer, what would you be doing?
Anything I wanted to. I have an absolute belief that if we can work this hard for the small renumeration we get now, we can achieve anything. I do what I do because I choose to do this not because I have to.
What is the most valuable piece of advice you have been given? Who gave it to you?
Most recently, the most important thing that has been said to me was in a group discussion. Yogi Breisner told a group of us that none of us were doing well enough and that we had to do better. This rings through my mind daily.
Tell us something about yourself that only you know?
If I told you that, then it wouldn’t be only me knowing it !
What would be your message to the equestrian world?
Rhythm, balance, control
Do you have a secret superstition before an event?
Yes, but it’s a secret
What are your top 5 indispensable pieces of kit, for you or your horse?
My WOW saddles
Pro-tector XC hat
Kentucky XC boots
Celeris riding boots
Against The Clock…
Dick Francis or Jilly Cooper?
Royal Ascot or Cheltenham Festival?
Badminton or Burghley?
Sand or Snow?
Tea or G&T?
Earl Grey tea
Bay or grey?
Huge thanks to Francis for taking time out to talk to The Gaitpost. Keep up to date with Francis by following him on Twitter @FWeventing and also by visiting his website www.whittingtoneventing.co.uk
For more information about the Event Riders Ball this Friday, go to http://eventersball.weebly.com and help the organisers Bruce Haskell, Nikki Goldup and Alexia Ross raise lots of money for the Friends of PICU by donating at their Just Giving page.
The 2015 Blenheim Palace International Horse Trials will take place on 17th to 20th September.
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