A Fairytale for Thinking Men: Walk the Luhmühlen Course with Tim Price

Walking the course at Luhmühlen on a sunny weekday, before the crowds pour in, is a special kind of joy. It’s ludicrously pretty here – so green, and with towering pines that look like Bob Ross specials, dappling the light and beckoning you into the woods. It’s one of those places where you find yourself suddenly desperate for a horse to ride – you could amble past the foxgloves, letting songbirds fix your hair, before nudging your way into a slow-motion canter to grandmother’s house. In the Luhmühlen daydream, you would never sprout an extra chin or develop an ungodly drop face – you’d be an enviable, glass-slippered beauty, and anonymous princes, charming or otherwise, would almost certainly lob themselves into some thorns for you. It’s all as life should be, as far as we’re concerned.

Too distracted by notions of princes, and songbirds, and the unlikely prospect of looking like anything other than a slightly haggard journalist who sampled one too many local beverages the previous night, I asked a real professional to help me dissect this year’s course.

Tim Price and Ascona M. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

You might have heard of Tim Price. He’s won this party before, back in 2015 with Wesko, and he sits second after dressage with Ascona M. He’s also won Burghley, and  he’s the World Number One and all that, but most importantly, he owns Scooby, the worst-trained dog in eventing and easily my favourite bad boi in the whole world. Basically, I asked Tim to join me for a beer and a chat purely because I knew he’d bring Scooby to me. I wasn’t disappointed.

Scooby Price, after escaping to the Küche and finding a Frau. A Frau with unidentifiable snacks. The best kind of Frau.

But now, onto pertinent matters. The first few fences on course are so kind and inviting that they almost give you the impression you’ve stumbled onto a three-star course. Low, wide, and with forgiving profiles, they almost make me think that after a Schnapps or two, perhaps I, too, could go five-star.

Fence one, with a sprouty umlaut.

But this is the Luhmühlen trap, and it’s easy to follow the trail of breadcrumbs and find yourself lured into its cauldron. It’s a very different kind of five-star than Badminton or Burghley – where they’re unrelentingly big, Luhmühlen’s toughness lies in its technicality and in its time. Even at the very beginning of the course, riders will need to have a plan of attack and they’ll need to stick to it – not because they’ll run into trouble at fences if they don’t, but because any time lost early on will be nearly impossible to make up later on in the course.

U ok, hun?

Fence 4 could be considered one of the first ‘proper’ jumps – it’s a big trakehner going from bright sunshine into the woods – but for horses and riders at this level it ought to be a cavaletti exercise. One guarded by an owl who has seen some things, man.

Then we head to our first combination at 5AB, two offset cottages with an acute dip between them. The dip is the trickiest bit of this combination – the jumps themselves, while reasonably skinny, wouldn’t look out of place on a 2* course.

5AB – a straightforward early question.

“This just gives you a chance to feel out where your horse is at,” explains Tim. “There’s four strides between them – it should be a bit short if you want to be on a true stride pattern for the job ahead, so there’s a slightly outside line that walks best.”

Next, we head over to the first water at 6ABC. A double of rolltops precedes the water itself, and then it’s just a matter of cruising over a skinny arrowhead on dry land. Curiously, there’s an alternative C element, which is a replica of the direct C, but feels miles away.

The double of rolltops and, in the background, the arrowhead at 6C.

“I guess it gives people an opportunity if they have a run-out; then, they can go and find something to jump to keep themselves on course. Often, if a horse has a run-out at something, they’ll run out at it again,” says Tim. “But it’s fairly generous – and perhaps, not really in keeping with the spirit of a five-star.”

The question in its entirety, Tim tells me, is a bit of a schooling exercise. “You find your line and your distance, pop through the two-stride line, and then just find that skinny.” It’s a slow piece of the course, though – after popping over 6C, competitors will have to do a big right-handed loop, cantering through a ‘door’ of flags, before jumping the table at 7 and coming back through the water at 8AB, a brush and brush corner.

Prince Charming? Sam Griffiths doesn’t look convinced.

“Again, it’s about finding your line, being on your game, and making sure your horse is with you,” says Tim. After escaping from the endless spiralling of the first water, it’s time to gallop back into the woods – but, as Tim points out, these canter stretches are one of the reasons the time will be so tough: “You have to run through the woods at speed, turning a bit blind up and down rolling hills. There’s not a lot of long galloping spaces on the course.”

After a spin through the woods and a couple of straightforward single fences, we head to the first serious question on the course – the corners at 11ABC. The first element is a big, bright house, while the B and C elements are both seriously chunky left-handed corners on a curving right-handed line.

Corners so thicc.

“That would be one of the top three questions, for me,” says Tim. “I think it’ll be a short enough six strides to a short enough three, but you’ve also got to jump and ride downhill, and get the balance back before the first corner. You need to get the first one right to make that curving three strides to the second one work well. The corners are big and chunky and the flags are right in there, so it’ll be a place where you really want to clip off the ground and run on proper strides, not choked ones. You need to have a proper plan and trust the horse.”

Flag penalties proved influential here last year – we saw Piggy French and Quarrycrest Echo lose a considerable amount of leaderboard ground as a result. It’ll be interesting to see how harshly they’re judged here, after vocal dissent throughout the first half of the season from riders, trainers, and supporters alike.

Peeking over the hedge – and nearly falling in its colossal ditch – to see the corner at 13.

12 and 13 might be separately numbered, but they’re very much part of one question. The first element is a classic cross-country fence – a yawning ditch and brush. Then, the second is a right-handed brush corner, which is closer to 12 than we’ve seen in previous years.

Still, says Tim, “there’s a long enough way to the corner that you think you’ve got a bit of time to sort things out. You can go inside or outside the trees – I’m thinking of going outside the trees, which isn’t my normal inclination because it’s not the most direct route, but I think the strides work better on the outside. Then, you get a good seven strides in; if you go inside, you have to choke for a short seven or a very brave six.”

The coffin, and a marvellous jumping effort from Sam. Bravo.

At 14ABC we come to the coffin, or the rail-ditch-rail if you’re feeling particularly PC and have a few extra hours to commit to all the extra syllables. The first element is a hanging rail, the second is – obviously – a ditch, and the third is an angled hedge. It’s this angle that will prove the trickiest part of the question.

“This is a tougher, more acute question than we see in a lot of our preparation events – we see a lot of these shoulder brushes, as we call them, but rarely on such an angle and with the ditch element, too. That can disturb your horse’s rhythm,” says Tim. “It’s important not to get too close to the ditch and get a chippy step over it, because that’ll muck up your distance going up to the C. Most people will get suckered into going in a bit too strong and fast, but I think you’re better off to come a little bit quieter in the last few strides. You need to pop over the first and punch over the ditch. There’s been a lot of talk about this fence, and how people will ride it.”

Interestingly, we’ve had two internationals in a row in which coffins were the most influential questions on course – both of those were Ian Stark tracks, and he was vocal in the postmortem discussions about how seldom riders are training over this type of question. He pointed out that at both Tattersalls and Bramham, riders who were intimidated by the coffin would come in too fast – and that’s when they’d run into trouble.

“That coffin either rode really well or really badly at Bramham, and it was all about pace,” comments Tim. “It’s a question where you need to hold their hand a bit, not chuck them at it. It’s also at a stage of the course – just past the five-minute marker – where they’re starting to find their everyday gallop, the one we’ll use the whole way round. That’s where it starts to differ from a short format. You need to find lines that work within the gait. Some people are looking at jumping across the ditch and then coming back to the brush to make a bit more space, and make it a bit more obvious, but I think we need to accept that it’s quite a severe angle. You have to show the whole combination to the horse and trust that they’ll go.”

The point that Tim makes about the ‘everyday gallop’ – which only really develops after a few solid minutes on course – is an interesting one. “It evolves,” he explains, which affects the way that lines need to be walked and analysed. The stride length a horse has at the first combination will be very different from its stride length at the last, or in the middle of the course. “Different things come into focus at different points on a course; you need to try to work on the strengths that are coming in and take care of the ones that are going out.”

Another Prince Charming candidate, and a windmill, because why not?

It’s time for another wending trip through the Hansel und Gretel-esque woods, past slightly mystifying mushrooms and wolves in grandmothers’ clothing, probably, popping a couple of big fences before heading to the main water question on course. It’s preceded by 16, a big timber ditch-oxer, and then 17, a skinny arrowhead just before the water’s edge. Once they’ve galloped into the water, our competitors will pop over a boat (18A) and then up onto dry land and over another arrowhead.

The boat at 18A, and the skinny beyond it.

“The design of the skinny is unique – it makes it look narrower than it is, although it is narrow. There’s an option there, which is definitely fair play,” says Tim. “Then the water is quite deep. It’s notorious for that, actually – Luhmühlen always has deep waters, and we’ve seen people get caught out by it. Michi Jung and FischerRocana went down in that water before, so even nimble horses can be caught out by it. You need to make a proper job of the first skinny, and feel as though you’re jumping into the water, even though you land on the dry. Then, as soon as you land, you need to sit up and make sure your horse is listening. Then you can just pop out and gallop off.”

Grandmother’s house in the background, where naughty children get baked into pies.

There’s a let-up fence at 19, and then a reasonably easy combination at 20AB – these two gates should be ridden on a straight line, which puts the second on a bit of an angle.

“You have to take your medicine a bit, because the striding is short – you need to punch them over them a bit.”

Next, it’s time to gallop into the main arena, where there’s a big table to be jumped and two angled viaduct walls (21ABC), which gives the riders the chance to make some decisions and potentially save a couple of valuable seconds.

“I’m not counting the number after the table, but you just need to find a good line and get organised. They might slither through it a little bit,” says Tim, who points out that you need to allow the horse a few strides to find their footing as it changes to sand beneath them. Coming out of the arena, he tells me, is a welcome moment for the horses – but with a winding turn to the hedge and rail at 22, it can highlight fatigue.

The only photograph I’ll take of this fence, apparently. Thanks, Tim.

“That turn will be where you might find that the wheels are falling off the bus a bit,” he says. “The hedge and rails typically jumps like sh*t, too. They flop through it and jump like cabbage. It’s got white rails and a hedge behind it, so you see some horses starting to come down in the hedge, or they land and you feel like they didn’t really use themselves over it at all. They don’t go, ‘wow, this is to be jumped’ – they just step through it.”

A kinder footbridge than usual.

The footbridge at 23 is much kinder now, with a less obvious angle and a filled-in ditch – it’s considerably less scary than Badminton’s version, and two small bushes on top make it very clear where riders should be aiming.

24AB consists of two low, wide tables on a 90-degree right-handed turn.

“It’s one of the only places where there’s a proper distance for a gallop, but unfortunately, the table at the end is very low, so it’s a bit boring,” laughs Tim. “Then, you can take an inside line for three strides, or a tidy four on the outside line – but if you’re down on the clock, you’ll have no choice. You’ll need to bowl through, leave one out, and maybe get a bit desperate.”

The final water, where we could see combinations getting caught out.

The final water is “tough enough”, says Tim. There’s a table at 25, landing on the dry and then, in the water itself, a pair of separately-numbered offset hedges (26, 27A). Then, back on dry land, we come to 27B – a fairly straightforward wodge of hedge.

“The water’s really deep, again – and they’ll be a bit loose-legged at this stage. It’s five strides from the table to the first hedge, and then a long enough one between the two in the water. You don’t want to come in too backwards or you’ll see some chippy second strides, and they’ll then have to flop up to the last on four, not three. At places like that, you’ll see class, and you’ll see good riders – some people will keep the balance and make it look easy, while others will look decidedly average.”

Though Luhmühlen’s not a course with an enormous amount of terrain, it does have the odd incline, and here we come to quite a steep one.

“It’s always a kick in the guts up the other side – it’s very steep, so that’s where you’ll be panicking if you’re struggling with the time. After that point, you’re ticking boxes – there’s a kind combination of angled rolltops at 29AB, and then a single fence from there,” Tim says.

Time, Tim tells me, will be one of the toughest criteria to meet on this course – and curiously, it’ll be made all the harder to get because the ground is the best it’s ever been.

“Here, it’s often firm with a bit of sand so it breaks, and they sort of just skip over the top nicely,” he explains. “Now, it’s got a little bit more give in it, and I think that’ll slow them down.”

When pushed, Tim wagers that four or five horses will make the time tomorrow: “there’s always a random, isn’t there, on an old-money 60-something dressage who goes inside the time,” he laughs.

Tim Price and Wesko win in 2015. Photo by Jenni Autry.

Wesko, with whom he won here in 2015, is the ideal stamp of a Luhmühlen winner – “you need a short-format horse that is very capable around a long-format, so they can stay. Basically, they’ve got to be able to jump a fence at speed and manage the distance – they need to have good footwork.”

We’d hate to jinx them now, but Ascona M, equipped with mare-brain, fuelled by rage, as all good mares are, and with some of the smartest toes in the business, could be just the horse for the job. Watch this space, folks.

Want a closer look at each of the fences, as well as commentary from course designer Mike Etherington-Smith? Check out this preview, ably documented by Antonia Von Baath.

For our intrepid competitors, there’s only one baffling German phrase they need to know tomorrow. Jetzt geht’s um die Wurst translates to ‘now it goes around the sausage’, but its meaning – however well-shrouded in piggy mystery – is universal. All or nothing – the mantra of five-star riding.

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