Down and Dirty: Your Big, Bad Badminton Course Preview

Eric Winter, looking rather smug about not having to jump any of his own fences, frankly. Photo by Kit Houghton/Badminton.

Ask any rider what they think of course designer Eric Winter‘s beefy sophomore effort and the response is almost universally the same: “well,” they say, half sighing, half laughing, “it’s DEFINITELY Badminton!”

That is most certainly bloody is. Eric’s 2017 course was widely praised for bringing back the best of classic Badminton – timber as far as the eye could see, a spectacularly old-school bullfinch, and some enormous, galloping jumping efforts – while embracing the highest calibre of safety technology and, most notably, testing riders’ ability to adapt and overcome rather than stick to Plan A throughout. Historically, we’ve seen designers offer up an incredibly influential track on their debut, before tailing off into a much more straightforward course the following year. But Eric looks set to avoid the sophomore slump, adapting his ideas, instead, to take into account rider feedback and offer a track that tests, challenges, but doesn’t punish.

Andrew Nicholson and Nereo. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

But don’t take our word for it: we decided to get a professional involved to help us suss out all the challenges our horses and riders will face tomorrow. New Zealand’s Andrew Nicholson doesn’t need much introduction, but if this article happens to be your first foray into eventing (god help you), then let us recap for you: three Olympic medals out of six appearances, three World Equestrian Games medals, five wins at Burghley, wins at Luhmuehlen, Kentucky, and Pau, and, of course, an incredibly emotional win here last year on his 37th attempt, riding 2018 mount Nereo, and just two years after an injury that nearly ended his career. It could be argued – and, in fact, has been argued, and will continue to be argued – that he’s the best cross-country rider in the world, earning himself the moniker of ‘Mr Stickability’ through his occasionally heroic efforts to get the job done. Case in point:

Being a bonafide eventing god is busy work, and we were thrilled that this one made time to take us on a whirlwind tour of Badminton’s 2018 course. He is someone who knows, perhaps better than anyone else, exactly what it’ll take to succeed.

Andrew and Nereo take Badminton in 2017. Photo by kit Houghton/Mitsubishi Motors.

THE NEED TO KNOWS:

The course is a whopping 6740m in length, with an optimum time of 11:49 – nearly a minute longer than the course at Kentucky, and on much more temperamental going. Expect plenty of time penalties across the board – and mud, mud, and more mud.

FENCE 1: THE ASX STARTER

1.20m high/2.30m spread

Fence one.

The first fence on the course is the decorated flowerbox fence in the arena that always kicks off proceedings here. It’s neither particularly enormous (if you’re bonkers enough to jump four-star fences on the regular) nor in any way technical, but, for horses or riders who quaver in an atmosphere, it requires commitment to concentration. The crowds will be plentiful in the arena, cheering on both the starters and the finishers, and the buzz can set horses alight – which riders will want, but in moderation, and when combined with serious focus. As they leave the arena and head left, they come to…

FENCE 2: ROLEX FEEDER

1.20m high/1.60m top spread, 2.50 base spread

Fence two.

…which is another straightforward single fence, suitable for this early stage of the course. There are two iterations of the same fence, side by side, and the option chosen will have little bearing on what happens afterwards, but will give the horses slightly less wear-and-tear to deal with early on. This year sees the course run in the opposite direction to last year, which can change the questions asked by the terrain early on.

“This way around, the start used to be a lot faster – what Eric has done with it this year, utilising the terrain, adding artificial mounds, and making you turn off the galloping lane and back onto it, all those little things will slow you down,” explains Andrew.

FENCE 3: HORSEQUEST HUMP

1.20m high/1.50m top spread, 2m bottom spread

Fence three.

Fence 3 demonstrates exactly that, with a newly-made mound acting as the basis for the question asked. Atop the mound sits a chunky log which, on its own, would be a very easy question but, situated as it is, requires the riders to find a good, forward stride. If they do, they’ll be rewarded, as the fence will set them up in balance, and wake their horses up, for the first combination on course.

FENCE 4AB: HORSEQUEST QUARRY

1.20 high

Up, down, and handbrake turn: the Quarry in a nutshell. Photo by Rachel Dyke.

We don’t expect to see the toughest questions on course coming into play at this early stage, and this first combination is relatively straightforward. It’s a pop over a stone wall, set atop another mound, so horses will land on a steep downhill slope before turning 90 degrees to the left, up another steep mound, and over a second wall of the same dimensions. The key will be to ensure that horses don’t land too enthusiastically from the first and overshoot the turn, but it should ride well and set them up for the narrow fence at 5.

FENCE 5: ROLEX GRAND SLAM SKINNY

1.45m high/base spread 2m

Fence 5.

The skinny at 5 isn’t necessarily a difficult fence on its own, as its just a narrow brush with a bit of a ditch on the take-off side, but a well-placed tree on the approach changes things slightly. Those who are looking to go fast will cut inside the tree and angle the fence – those who favour a straight approach will go around the back of the tree, making for an easy enough effort but adding a fair chunk of time.

FENCE 6ABC: IRISH SPORT HORSE HUNTSMAN’S CLOSE

1.20m high/1.10m-1.20m base spread

Fence 6B to C.

The first serious question on the course. It invites complacency, because it’s made up of beefy logs, which tend to jump well, but riders will have to be in control and aware of their lines.

“From the word go, it’s tricky,” says Andrew. “They’re simple logs, but they’re put on tricky little angles – and from B to C walks as two strides, but I can see people finding themselves on two-and-a-half.”

Taking off on a precise line over the A element will allow riders to follow the curving line around through those tricky little angles, or, if they fancy losing serious ground on the clock, they can take a different, circuitous route over a separate B element.

FENCE 7: TRADERS TABLE

Fence 7. We wouldn’t want to jump it, but to each their own.

1.20m high/1.90 top spread, 2.90 base spread

Dimensionally maxed out, the Table is one of the sort of big, bulky galloping fences we’re seeing rather more of on course this year. It’s a breather fence, essentially, so just imagine actually breathing whilst galloping towards it. Yeah, we thought so.

FENCE 8: WADWORTHS WATER

1.20m high/1.20m base spread

Fence 8 – the first big splash of the day.

Number 8 is Wadsworths Water, and horses and riders will come to it after a long galloping stretch, so a conscious effort must be made to create the correct approach. The fence itself is a large A-frame hanging log into the water — the water itself isn’t visible until the last few strides, but the fence invites horses to take a confident leap in, because it presents so many options. The left-hand side of the log is over the water, creating an obvious groundline with the bank, while the right-hand side angles back over to dry land, leaving less of a rider-frightening gap, but also less of a visual cue for the horse to size up the fence.

From here, says Andrew, horses and riders move into the most testing section of the course.

“It’s very intense from the lake – from that very first bit of the water you jump in by the far bit of the house, right the way around to the Vicarage is a very intense bit of the course and there’s some serious fences there.”

FENCE 9ABC: THE LAKE

A: 1.08m high/1m base spread/1.80m drop

B: 1.45m high/1m base spread/1.30m jumpable width

C: 1.45m high/1m base spread/1.30m jumpable width

Check out the dutty great angle on that final element. Photo by Rachel Dyke.

The Lake in all its glory.

At about the four-minute marker, we see what will likely be one of the most influential questions on the course. The Lake is always an enormous spectator favourite, which thousands of loud and appreciative fans clustered by the ropes to catch a slice of the action – but the atmosphere will be the least of anyone’s worries.

The Lake begins with an enormous, reasonably skinny log in, but there’s no time to land in a heap after the colossal initial effort. Our intrepid combinations must then head straight for the narrow brush in the middle of the water, before turning to the last — a skinny brush angled away from the approach, leaving the door wide open for a run-out which, incidentally, would take the horses straight back to their friends at the start. Winter created a seriously influential lake last year, which rewarded riders who thought on their feet, and we could well see this making similar waves. The long alternative route takes riders around the back of the lake and probably won’t be a popular option.

“When you get to the Lake it’s a big fence in, with a big drop, and then the B element is a big, high brush in the water,” says Andrew. “Then, it’s three strides up a steep bank, turning to another angled brush, which could be four strides – you’ve just got to sit and ride it. You know early on the combinations are going to be hard work.”

Hard? Perhaps an understatement. The angle on the C element is just short of diabolical, and we predict a good smattering of run-outs if the line isn’t right or if, as last year at the Lake, riders try to stick too closely to the striding they walked.

FENCE 10: THE L200S

1.20m high/1.40m top spread/2.40m base spread

The iconic L200s – a mainstay of the Badminton course. Photo by Rachel Dyke.

After the lake, horses and riders will get to sail over fence 10, the Mitsubishi L200s — because who doesn’t like to jump actual pickup trucks as a bit of a breather? Surrounded by 15,000 spectators, but with one of the toughest questions on course behind them, everyone who makes it this far should get a good jump over this Badminton classic.

FENCE 11: WORLD HORSE WELFARE GATES

1.20m high

Fence 11 – airy, upright, and to be respected.

Fence 11, the World Horse Welfare Gates, feature two identical gates. Competitors can go left- or right-handed over the gate of their choosing, which is airy, white, and tall — 1.20m, to be precise. Last year, some were caught out by trying to use this fence as a chance to save a few seconds — but this is a fence that must be respected and jumped straight on.

FENCE 12: FORMULATE! WHITE OXERS

1.20m high/1.70m top spread/2.80m base spread

The classic, airy oxers at fence 12.

In front of the house, fence 12, the Formulate! White Oxers are big — 1.80m wide — and a classic Winter test of a rider’s street smarts. There are two oxers to choose from, and both are the same dimensions, but it’s up to the rider to choose which line will offer the best and most flowing ride for their horse. The rider who has a well-thought-out plan — and is able to adapt it on the fly — will be the rider who makes light work of this fence.

FENCE 13: THE STICKPILE

1.20 high/1.70 top spread/3m base spread

Just an easy pop around the park, eh?

Next up is 13, the Stick Pile, which is one of the largest fences on course, and is on a straight line, which means that riders will have to make a real effort to balance and set up for the fence, lest they find themselves zooming along on a (speedy) half-stride.

FENCES 14, 15, AND 16AB: THE OUTLANDER PHEV MOUND

14: 1.20m high/1.50 top spread/1.90 bottom spread

15: left 1.15m high, right 1.20m high

16AB: 1.20m high/1.50m spread/1.90m base spread

Choices to make: the banks at 16AB.

At 14, 15, and 16AB, riders negotiate the Outlander PHEV Mound, which is one of the most difficult questions on the course. 14 is a large, open corner, and, on landing from it, competitors will gallop down into the quarry and over a wide oxer. Then, it’s up a choice of banks — either very steep or less steep — and over 16A, an airy rail at the top. 16B is another open corner, on a longer line from the steep bank, or a much shorter line from the less steep bank, so it’ll be up to the riders to decide which option will suit their horse — and their level of control at this point. The winding alternative route gives even more options, but will gobble up the time.

“The combination of the corner is difficult,” says Andrew. “You go up the steep slope, left or right to the verticals on the top, four strides to the corner or however many strides – six, I think – to the right hand side. The difference is, the vertical on the right hand mound is high and the mound is steep, so that’s a big effort. The left hand stride’s a little bit less of an effort but you have two less strides to get to the corner, so riders will just have to choose which they’re going to do.”

FENCE 17: DEVOUCOUX QUAD BAR

1.20m high/2.80m base spread

You don’t quite get an idea of how colossal this timber fence is until you see a person next to it, or a horse over the top of it, so let Michi Jung help you get a feel for it (or perhaps a ‘good feeling’ of it) instead. It. Is. Beefy.

It’s a new addition this year, and a classic rider frightener. The sprawling downhill timber fence is tall, wide, and gappy, but those who attack it will make it look easy. Expect this to produce some of the classic images of Badminton 2018.

FENCE 18ABC: THE ECLIPSE CROSS POND

A: 1.15m high

BC: 1.20m high/1.40m top spread/1.60m base spread

Time for a dip? Photo by Rachel Dyke.

Onwards from a big leap at 17 to a technical test at 18ABC, the Eclipse Cross Pond. The direct route is actually only two fences — an airy vertical into the pond is 18A, and a 1.20m high/1.40m wide timber oxer up a slope on the other side of the pond is 18BC. The alternative here takes out the slope but adds an extra fence — competitors will have to jump two oxers instead of one.

“There’s a decent vertical rail and then a bit of a drop, and then they’ve committed to four strides up the steep bank to a big oxer,” explains Andrew. “If you go the longer way you have one more jump to jump, because there’s three elements to it, so you’ve got a toss up which is the better thing for your horse at that point.”

FENCE 19: VICARAGE ROLLTOP

1.45m high/2.20m base spread

Fence 19 – a let up, but only if you’re a certain brand of insane.

19’s Vicarage Rolltop is a maximum-height brush rolltop — but for all that, it’s a let-up on course before the next set of tricky questions.

FENCE 20ABC: HILDON WATER POND

A: 1.15m high/1.30m top spread/2.10m base spread

B: .90m high/1.40m base spread

C: 1.45m high/1.30m base spread

Part A…

…part B…

…and a dutty great big angle at part C. Have fun guys!

The Hildon Water Pond at 20ABC features a seriously slow alternative route, but myriad run-out possibilities in the direct route. In this, they must jump A, a large woodpile, before shortening the stride sufficiently to sneak down a steep bank and over the trough into the water at B. The trough isn’t enormous, but its approach — and the cascade of water that will dance out of its underside — may catch out riders who haven’t prepared sufficiently. Then, it’s a pull through the water, a tight turn to the left, and a skinny brush fence on dry land, which is placed on a severe angle and opens the door for a right-handed runout. The alternative will add on roughly ten seconds, but flows much better.

FENCE 21: NATIONAL STAR TRAKEHNER

1.20m high/2.20m base spread

Eyes up, wise up, crack on.

The National Star Trakehner at 21 looks imposing, with its yawning great ditch beneath a hanging log, but it’s another real breather for horses and riders. And then it’s straight on to that old favourite …

FENCE 22 AND 23: THE KBIS VICARAGE VEE

1.20m high/3m base spread/2.10m jumpable width

The Vicarage Vee – bloody scary, no matter how you look at it. Photo by Rachel Dyke.

Badminton’s most famous fence is back after a year out for some bank Botox and a cheeky facelift. As with any old friend who returns after an absence with some obvious structural changes, there have been some flippant murmurings, and even the suggestion that the fence might be easier now, which we think is a rather charming notion when discussing the manifestation of all our deeply repressed insecurities in fence form.

This fence is as Badminton as it gets, with a timber upright placed perpendicularly over a water-filled ditch. The direct route is a single fence numbered as 22/23, while the long route features a couple of hops over the stream and then a pop over a trakehner. It’ll add 20 or 30 seconds, but is an easy option for competitors who run out at the direct route on the first attempt.

“I think it’s the same sort of question it always was – people will tell you that it looks easier, but I think it’s still pretty difficult,” Andrew assures us. “Perhaps a bit of the angle’s been taken off the rail, and they’ve put a barrier out to put you pretty much on the right line. You’ve just got to balance the horse and get a bit of the speed before you turn – then, once you turn into the fence, you’ve got to have the courage to pick up the right line and stick with it, you know. Don’t alter the line, just keep riding up to the fence.”

Right-o, Andrew. We’ll get right on that.

FENCE 24ABCD: SHOGUN HOLLOW

A: 1.20m high/1m base spread

B: 2m base spread/1.30m jumpable width

CD: 1.17m high/1m base spread

Part A.

Part B.

Just over eight minutes in, fence 24ABCD, the Shogun Hollow, is “easy — if the horse and rider stay on their line,” says Winter. Competitors will come through a line of trees and pop over the upright rails at 24A, down to a narrow angled ditch (24B), and up to a narrow house (24CD), angled in the same direction. The angles will push less experienced riders and horses off their line — they’ll have to commit to what they’ve walked and not be taken in by optical trickery to make this work. The distances are token Winter — a variable two or three strides between A and B impacts whether the measured two between the ditch and house become long, short, or another number entirely. We learned over and over again last year that Winter will always reward adaptability and a rider who doesn’t adhere to a fixed idea of striding, and we’ll see that demonstrated again here. The long route is far more circuitous and adds an extra element.

FENCE 25: COUNTRYSIDE HAYWAIN

1.20m high/1.80m top spread/2m base spread

Taking it easy over the Haywain. Photo by Rachel Dyke.

The Countryside Haywain at 25 is a longtime Badminton fence — an inviting, wide haywagon — and a break from the intensity of the previous section of the course. This gives competitors a bit of confidence before they reach the next combination.

FENCE 26ABC: JOULES CORNERS

A: 1.45m high/2m top spread/2.40m base spread

B: 1.45m high/1.60m top spread/2m base spread

C: 1.45m high/1.60m top spread/2m base spread

26ABC sees the Joules Corners, a tricky accuracy question for tired horses and riders. They’ll have to collect and rebalance to tackle the direct route, which begins over a big brush oxer at 26. This will encourage horses to land running, but although there’s a bit of space before the angled corners of the B and C elements, riders will have to prepare to adjust straight away on landing. There’s no room for errors or deviation from the line here — even the tiniest mistake can cause an expensive runout, as we saw last year. The alternative here sees an easier S-bend over the elements, but will cost valuable seconds.

FENCE 27: BHS TABLE

1.20m high/1.70m top spread/2.40m base spread

Wonder if they sublet this out as a studio flat in the off-season?

The BHS Table at 27 is big, solid, and imposing, but can be jumped on an angle to save a bit of time. Four-star stalwarts won’t falter on their approach; inexperienced combinations may grant this fence more set-up time.

FENCE 28: CROOKED S BULLFINCH

1.45m high/1.20m base spread

Another classic Bullfinch from Eric Winter.

Winter made bullfinches trendy again last year — although not without causing some controversy — and this time he’s added one in again. The Crooked S Bullfinch at 28 isn’t a fence out of water this time, but rather, atop a long, steep hill. The fence itself shouldn’t cause problems but riders will have to help their tiring horses out and give them the push they need to pop over it.

FENCE 29ABC: SAVILLS ESCALATOR

A: 1.45m high/2.40 spread/2.90 base spread

B: 1.45m high

C: 1.45m high

The first element.

Looking through to B and C.

Part B.

29ABC, the Savills Escalator, is the last big question on the way home. It’s a test of balance — with its straight line through, Winter expects horses to lock on and power through, and it’ll be up to their riders to ensure that the canter and balance is correct to allow them to clear the brush fence at A and then the two skinny angle stone brushes of B and C. The long route features more turns, and may well be harder work for a horse without much petrol left in the tank.

FENCE 30: FISCHER BRUSH

1.45m high/2.80m base spread.

A good galloping effort near the end of the course.

As they approach fence 30, the Fischer Brush, competitors will be able to see the main arena once again, and so the big ditch and hedge should jump well and strongly, ready to head for home.

FENCE 31: ROLEX TREETRUNK

1.20m high

The penultimate fence on course.

The penultimate fence, the Rolex Treetrunk at 31, features a slight incline to a hanging log, so some organisation is needed on the approach — but it’s not a difficult fence, and those who make it this far will find it a much easier question than those that have come before it.

FENCE 32: SHOGUN SPORT SADDLE

1.20m high/2.20m base spread

And home!

Then, it’s back into the main arena and the roar of an appreciative crowd before popping the final fence, the fan-designed Shogun Sport Saddle at 32. A forgiving profile, and so close to the end — but it’s still a Badminton fence, and it still must be jumped and respected. But once it is? Well, that’s the sort of thing that dreams are made of.

OVERALL IMPRESSIONS:

“I think this year, Eric’s made the course more clear – last year, horses often didn’t know what they had to do until the last minute, and this year it’s clearer earlier,” explains Andrew. “I think there’s a lot more big, bulky fences – the type of fences that horses jump really big, which takes up a lot of energy.”

Last year, we saw the course ask several tough adaptability questions. The Lake was the most prominent – and influential – example of this, garnering equal criticism and praise for its variable striding, which some riders felt offered no right answers and punished horses for doing the right thing. As many others, including Lucinda Green, felt that the question asked was a clever and appropriate one, and one which encouraged riders to walk the lines and have an idea of striding, but then be adaptable and flexible enough to change that idea on the fly depending on the jump they got in. This year, those questions have been slightly pared back.

“I think he’s toned it down a little, but the coffin fence is one where you don’t really know – it walks two and two, but it could ride as anything, really,” says Andrew. “There’s a few other fences – the water where there’s a birch rail [fence 18ABC]; that’s five direct strides to the oxer, but you could see some doing the six. There’s a few places like that, but the majority is a bit more clear.”

CHOOSING AN ALTERNATIVE:

The alternative routes at the combinations have been built to offer a breather without disrupting the rhythm of horse and rider – but the cost of avoiding a direct route is a serious smattering of time penalties.

Despite this: “Even for the very experienced horses and riders, some of them will be thinking about taking some of the longer routes, just to lighten the course up a bit.”

THE ROLE OF THE GOING:

It’s been a seriously soggy spring, and until the eleventh hour, rumours ran rampant that Badminton could be the next victim of the unprecedented spate of axings across the British eventing calendar. Of course, this hasn’t proven the case, partly because of the well-draining Gloucestershire ground, and in large part due to the tireless ministrations of Badminton’s ground crew – but that doesn’t mean that the going is perfect. Slop that meets sunshine becomes bottomless, sticky ground, and that’s what the competitors will have to deal with tomorrow. It won’t make for a pretty sight, but Andrew suggests that it might not be as terrible to go late in the day as many might expect.

“I think the footing will ride the same for the later horses – for the earlier ones it looks pretty, but they’ll sink in no matter what,” he explains. “As long as it remains the same, the horses will cope with it. It’s when it changes – a fast bit of ground in one place, and then a much deeper bit – that it causes a problem, because horses can’t maintain a rhythm in that. The one issue for later competitors will be the bends – they might just have to go a little bit wider and a little bit further to save a bit of energy and make it a bit easier on the horses.”

And what will enough wider, further turns do? Well, they’ll use up precious seconds, of course, on a day when every second really does count. There are only sixteen seconds to play with between the top twenty horses and riders.

A place Nicholson knows well: the Badminton press conference. Photo by Jenni Autry.

MAKING THE TIME – ANDREW’S PREDICTIONS:

“It could well be one of those years in which no one makes the time – I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s nobody, if the ground does what I think it will. The last two minutes of the course is probably a bit quicker than normal, but it’s still going to be very difficult to make the time.”

This sentiment has been echoed by several experienced riders, including current leader Oliver Townend.

For all of today’s cross country times, click here.

You can follow along with the interactive cross country course map, available on the Cross Country App (iOS) or found here if on a desktop. Our North American combinations and leaders will be on course as follows:

12:58 BST/7:58am EST: Selena O’Hanlon and Foxwood High

1:06 BST/8:06am EST: Michael Jung and La Biosthetique Sam FBW

1:38 BST/8:38am EST: Lauren Kieffer and Veronica

1:58 BST/8:58am EST: Ros Canter and Allstar B

2:02 BST/9:02am EST: Yoshiaki Oiwa and The Duke of Cavan

2:06 BST/9:06am EST: Izzy Taylor and Perfect Stranger

2:34 BST/9:34am EST: Paul Tapner and Bonza King of Rouges

3:10 BST/10:10am EST: Jonty Evans and Cooley Rorkes Drift

3:26 BST/10:26am EST: Piggy French and Vanir Kamira

3:34 BST/10:34 EST: Madeline Backus and PS Arianna

3:50 BST/10:50am EST: Will Coleman and OBOS O’Reilly

4:02 BST/11:02am EST: Sam Griffiths and Paulank Brockagh

4:14 BST/11:14am EST: Mark Todd and Kiltubrid Rhapsody

4:34 BST/11:34am EST: Oliver Townend and Ballaghmor Class

Go eventing!

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