Most of the UK’s spring season has been a complete washout, with 47 days of eventing lost so far to the non-stop rain. After the partial abandonment of last month’s Burnham Market International, the murmurings began — what would this mean for the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials, due to take place in the first week of May, and looking ever more threatened by the deluge?
Event director Hugh Thomas and course designer Eric Winter put paid to those concerns yesterday, revealing the course for this year’s event and their confidence in its ability to run.
Winter’s sophomore effort is visually very similar to his course last year — it’s rustic, it celebrates an intermingling of the golden era of classic eventing with modern safety technology, and, well, it’s big. But when you get into the nitty-gritty, it becomes obvious how much thought has gone into creating a course that will amply challenge the best of the best without asking impossible questions of less experienced combinations.
The course will run in the opposite direction this year — counter-clockwise around the park, as opposed to the clockwise trajectory of 2017 — and makes use of artificial terrain challenges, as well as those found naturally on the estate. The optimum time is yet to be confirmed, but is provisionally set at 12 minutes, with 45 jumping efforts over some 6,840 metres, and an average speed of 570mpm.
This year’s course begins, familiarly, in the main arena, with the beautiful dressed ASX Starter flowerbed starting off proceedings. With its horse-friendly colour spectrum, sloping profile, and obvious groundline, it’s an easy fence for these experienced combinations to tackle. It’s the vibrant atmosphere of the main arena that becomes the distraction here — the likes of Andrew Nicholson and Nereo won’t bat an eyelid at the crowds, but first-timers here will have to exercise discipline to set off in sync.
As they clear the first fence and gallop out of the arena, they’ve got a reasonably long stretch to prepare for the second fence, the Rolex Feeder. Here, they can jump the left- or right-hand rolltop, depending upon the line they’re on, before heading up the hill. Again, this is an easy fence for the level, but Winter has been sly here — he recognises that most horses and riders won’t be travelling at full speed yet, and as such, the long stretch between one and two is an easy way to steal crucial seconds on the clock from the competitors.
Fence three, the HorseQuest Hump, is set atop the first of the artificial mounds on course, which is new this year and, according to Winter, only likely to be used in conjunction with a fence when the course is run in this direction. It’s a set-up fence to prepare for the first combination on course; with its airy log atop the mound, it slightly disrupts the rhythm of the approach and requires both horse and rider to sit up, take notice, and ride actively and reactively.
This should put them in good stead coming into 4AB, the HorseQuest Quarry, which consists of a 1.15m wall with a steep landing side, and then a 90-degree turn to the left, up another steep bank, and over a second wall.
“The second fence shouldn’t be an issue — horses run up these banks and jump fences at the top really well,” explains Winter. “It’s the first fence that’s the issue — keeping the horse under control, having it so that it doesn’t run off with you. These horses are as fit as racehorses.”
There’s an alternative here, which sees the second wall on a straighter line, and likely won’t add much in the way of time penalties. But riding the direct route at 4ab can establish the control needed for the faster line at fence 5, the Rolex Grand Slam Skinny. This narrow ditch and hedge can be approached one of two ways — around the back of a tree on the approach, which allows for horse and rider to tackle it head-on, or inside the tree, which creates a steep angle and requires serious accuracy. Those who are in it to win it will look to save time by coming inside the tree.
Fence 6ABC sees the return of Huntsmans Close, with its trio of beefy logs. The first is wide and inviting, but riders mustn’t get complacent — with two skinny logs following on a tricky line, they must take off precisely where they intend to over A. There’s an alternative route, with a loop back around over a different B element, but this will waste time and disrupt the rhythm.
It’s time for a breather at fence 7, the Traders Table — though its dimensions are almost maxed out, and it’s one of the biggest fences on course, it’s also one of the most straightforward.
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.
At fence 9ABC, we enter Badminton proper. 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 to the left 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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
Fence 17 is a new addition this year, and the Devoucoux Quad Bar is 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 …
…the Vicarage Vee at 22/23, possibly the biggest rider-frightener in the world and back in action after a year out for revetting. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Then, it’s back into the main arena and the roar of an appreciative crowd before popping the final fence, the 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.
To check out the course, its alternative routes, commentary from Eric Winter and Lucinda Green, and some great walk-throughs and drone flyovers, check out CrossCountry App’s guide here.
Go Badminton, and Go Eventing!