Obituary: Jo Pitt, equestrian

Jo Pitt. Picture: Steve Parsons/PA Wire.
Jo Pitt. Picture: Steve Parsons/PA Wire.
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Born: 22 February, 1979, in Aberdeenshire. Died: 2 May, 2013, in Norfolk, aged 34

The sudden death of Jo Pitt came as a devastating blow, not only to her family and friends but to the equestrian world at large which recognised her courage and talent in the fiercely competitive sport of dressage, in which she represented Great Britain at the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens.

Her death at the tragically young age of 34 came just a few days after she was diagnosed with a very rare condition of the lungs, namely pulmonary veno-occlusive disease.

Joanne Pitt, invariably known as Jo, was born in Aberdeenshire to engineering company director Robert Pitt and his wife, Hazel, who had made their home in Huntly. Their support of their daughter throughout her life enabled her to become a world team champion, especially through their ownership of the horses upon which she competed.

Diagnosed with right-sided hemiplegic cerebral palsy, for which there is no cure, Pitt suffered all her life from lack of feeling in the right side of her body and was unable to use her fingers.

From an early age, however, Pitt was not prepared to let her disability prevent her from living as normal life as possible, and that quiet determination shone through in an article about her attempts to make the London Paralympics which she contributed to the July 2012 magazine of the former pupils’ association of the Gordon Schools of Huntly.

At the age of six, she attended Hayfield riding school in Aberdeen for a summer holiday camp and there began her lifelong love of horses.

“I learned to ride with able-bodied people,” she recalled last year, “and didn’t consider myself disabled.”

She was taught to ride as an able-bodied person, then got her first pony and was a member of the Pony Club by the age of eight, before taking part in competitive events. Despite her disability, she passed her Pony Club C test and joined a riding club. It was after those early years that she first encountered para-equestrian dressage and began to take an interest in the sport, though she also took part in cross-country events.

Dressage is often described as the highest form of horse training, and though its intricacies are perhaps lost on the general public, the combination of movements required by horse and rider need many hours of dedicated practice to achieve. Considering that Pitt’s disability effectively reduced her to attaining competence with just one side, what she achieved in the sport is truly remarkable.

Pitt’s further education took place from 1995 at Oatridge Agricultural College in West Lothian, where she gained both National and Higher National Certificates in horse management.

She also passed her British Horse Society stage one exam but this was one area in which her disability prevented her going further.

She was once asked if she had considered any other career than working with horses and she briefly replied “teaching” but, in truth, there was no other path that she wished to pursue.

Pitt worked in a livery yard and as an instructor at riding schools but her big sporting breakthrough came in her early twenties when she was accepted for the British para-equestrian dressage development programme.

Her rise through the ranks was nothing short of meteoric. She only started on the programme in 2003 but the following year she was competing for Team GB at the Athens Paralympics, where she finished in joint eighth place in the grade II competition and tenth overall in the freestyle event.

Selected for the world championships in Finland in 2005, Pitt went on to represent Britain on the European and world stages, being named as a reserve for the 2008 Beijing Olympics and competing in the European championships in Norway in 2009.

An excellent performance at the prestigious Hartpury International para-equestrian event in 2010 – she had previously won there aboard her horse Lambrusco – paved the way for Pitt’s selection for the British team for the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky later that year.

It was there that she achieved the pinnacle of her career as the British team won gold and she picked up the individual bronze medal in the grade II freestyle championship, riding Estralita, a gelding with which she formed an unbreakable bond.

Though she tried very hard to make the 2012 Paralympic team, the sheer quality of Great Britain’s current equestrian squads, both Olympic and Paralympic, made the task very difficult, not least because there were 150 riders considered good enough to be asked to pre-selection trials.

Typically, her disappointment at not making the 2012 squad saw her rebound with determination and vigour. She won the British championship in her class, and was a virtual certainty to be chosen for Team GB for this year’s European championships.

She had also moved to Dereham in Norfolk to be with her fiancé, Rory, and her sudden death came at a time when she was working hard and training every day with the real prospect of once again being a medal winner for Britain.

Will Connell, British equestrian performance director, said: “Jo was a stalwart of para-equestrian dressage and has fought hard over the last year to establish herself once again as a real medal contender for Great Britain.”

David Hunter, para-equestrian dressage performance manager, added: “She was determined to make selection for the European championships in August. She had started the competition season with renewed vigour and only five weeks ago was competing at a major international competition in Deauville, France.”

Pitt was renowned for her positive approach to life and for making light of her disability, and never boasted about her considerable achievements. Instead, she was always quick to pay credit to her trainers, Michel Assouline and Niamh Meenan, and her family for their support.

Pitt was once asked which riders she most admired. She answered: “Those who try their hardest and don’t give up.” She could well have been describing herself.

Jo Pitt is survived by her parents, her two sisters and fiancé.