Safety, Philosophy & The Sport: A Chat with Badminton Course Designer Eric Winter

Eric Winter Photo by Samantha Clark

Eric Winter has designed some of the biggest, baddest courses in the world. He lead the charge at Blenheim Palace CCI3* for a decade before taking the reins over at the formidable Badminton Horse Trials CCI4* earlier this year. West coast riders became much more accustomed with his work this fall as he made his stateside debut at Galway Downs CCI3* earlier this month. We sat down with Eric for a chat about these venues, his philosophies and safety in the sport.

Eric on taking over at Badminton…

Eric Winter:It was always going to be difficult for a first year, but I thought we got some things really right, and some things I felt really settled in how I want to take Badminton forward. It’s a different site to anywhere else.”

On this year’s cross country result (The course had a 37% clear rate)…

Eric: “I think it was a bit over the top, but I almost wanted to start with that, being quite big. I want to get it so that people think that they bring cross country horses to badminton with mileage. They stop bringing 8-year-old horses that have average form hoping that it’s going to be a light year. I want them to think that Badminton is going to be consistently fairly up there. That they’re going to have to jump the Vicarage Vee or the footbridge which will be iconic fences that will stay in every year.”

The Vicarage Vee. Photo by Leslie Wylie.

On his course design philosophy… 

Eric:Throughout all levels I want them to be able to handle terrain and be able to balance and organize. The riders should work as one with the horse. For me as a designer, I’m always very conscious in that move between three-star and four-star When I do a three-star track, I’m always looking at four-star and saying, ‘how does this develop horses to do that?’ Badminton is more of an exam of that as opposed to an educational process of that.”

On what his courses test…

Eric: “Balance and ability to ride off a feel as opposed to riding of a set pattern. I’m not a big fan of walking a distance and saying that’s a level 6 stride distance. I like them to say ‘My aim is to go on six, but actually if I get in a bit big I might go on this.’ So they develop for a feel for the way their horse goes.”

“Eventing, more than any other sport, is about the relationship between the horse and the rider and that’s what I want to try to develop in the education through all the levels I do. To develop that relationship, so when they get to Kentucky [CCI4*], they’re on it. They know what their horses are going to do they know how they’re going to react. They have that relationship with their horse that’s kind of symbiotic.”

On his safety objective as a course designer… 

Eric: “Right fence, right place always. I think you can have some fences that work really well at the tail end of the course, or at the beginning of the course that don’t work so well if you put them somewhere else. I think the right fence in the right place is always the start point to me of safety.”

I’m quite big into the deformable technology – I use a lot of mims and a lot of clips – but in my ideal world we don’t break to many of those. If I’ve got the right fence in the right place then hopefully we’re not breaking lots of those.”

James Alliston and Happenstance taking on Eric’s CCI3* course at Galway Downs. Photo by Shelby Allen.

On rider responsibility… 

Eric:It’s accepting that not all horses and not all riders are four-star or even three-star quality. I love the riders that say, ‘Actually, that’s my level I’m comfortable there. I don’t want to go above two-star.’ Because that’s a rider that recognizes their own limitation. It’s no good saying, ‘I want you to look after me. I’m going to ride at four-star, and I want to ride really badly, but I’ve got to be able to stand up.’ Because that puts your sport at a really untenable position. You cannot win from that point.”

“It’s like me saying, ‘Actually I don’t want to learn to drive, so I’m not going to learn to drive, but I do want to drive on the highway.’ When you drive on the highway, but you don’t learn to drive you put everyone at risk. It’s exactly the same thing in riding. When you aren’t good enough, and that’s not to say you’re not going to be good enough, when you go up too quickly and you don’t have the necessary skills to ride at four-star level, you put your sport at risk. I think people should be more honest with themselves of what they are and are not capable of. Everybody has bad days, and some times things go wrong, but as a rule of thumb, your rider should have the necessary armory of talent and skill to be able to cope with those levels.”

On his career as a designer… 

Eric: “I show jumped for my initial years when I left school I worked for Caroline Bradley and the show jumping course design fascinated me and, then I went into eventing and now the cross country even more so. It has that bit of terrain and the use of ground and the appropriate questions at those places. The whole things is a package and I really enjoy it. It’s the coolest job in the world.”

On advice to up and coming course designers… 

Eric: “Be passionate. Life is too short to go through doing something you don’t like. You’ve got to love it. Nobody travels to an event for the dressage and the show jumping. They’re important, but these guys haven’t driven three days because the dressage arenas were fantastic or the show jumping was brilliant – they came to go cross country. Your cross country courses should excite people, they should excite you. If they don’t excite you as a course designer, they’re never going to excite anyone else.”

On advice to riders taking on his courses… 

Eric: My advice to all riders is to keep the horse between you and the ground. (After this he laughed… a lot – kick on y’all!) 

Thanks to Eric for his candid responses. We are all looking forward to Badminton 2018!

 

 

 

 

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