An Academic Challenge: Walk Mike Etherington-Smith’s Luhmühlen CCI5* Track

Mike Etherington-Smith looks to put his mark on Luhmühlen once again. Photo by Thomas Ix.

It’s nearly cross-country day here at the Longines Luhmühlen CCI5*, and this unique venue plays host to not only a seriously good field of entries, it also has a seriously interesting, and hugely academic, course to help determine this year’s movers and shakers.

We caught up with course designer Mike Etherington-Smith to find out what his intentions are for this year’s track.

“Somebody asked me the other day, have I made any changes because of a number of horses are here from Badminton who didn’t have a good time? And I said no,” he says. Instead, he designed the course with social license at the forefront of his mind — a topic that has long been at the forefront of eventing in Germany, where the public consensus has long tended to be against the sport. Instead of building enormous fences that could see a tired horse stumble or fall, he’s chosen to use plenty of accuracy questions, where 15 or 20 penalties are much more likely than nasty accidents.

“I’m very conscious of the exposure of the sport in this country and very mindful of that, which is creeping towards the UK as well,” he says. “We’ve all got a responsibility to look after horses, and so what I try to do with any course I produce has always been the same: if a rider makes a mistake or an error, the horse has a way to get out of it. So there’s a run out or that sort of thing, rather than having horses falling, which we all try and avoid very hard.”

In a sport with as many variables as eventing, though, he concedes that it can sometimes be an uphill battle to ensure 100% safety across the board.

“Obvious, that’s a great theory, but the reality is somewhat different,” he says. “We need luck on that one, obviously. Because riders do make mistakes, horses do make mistakes, and course designers, too, make mistakes. Hopefully we don’t make too many, which is why we work very closely with the with the riders and we have open dialogue all the time, so if they’ve got any thoughts or concerns, they come and share them. I haven’t had any thoughts and concerns [this year], which is nice!”

“So that’s the basic principle of this: that I’m just very mindful of how the sport is seen in this part of the world.” Though Luhmühlen is often — unfairly, perhaps — categorised as a ‘softer’ five-star than, say, Badminton and Burghley, Mike is quick to point out that it simply reflects a different attitude to the sport, a different kind of challenge than the run-and-jump courses — and, of course, a different style of terrain.

“While there are quite a lot of skinnies and angles, we shouldn’t compare Luhmuhlen with Badminton, with Adelaide, with Kentucky, because they’ve all got their own personalities and their own characteristics,” he says. “I mean, here it’s very flat. So as a course designer, you’re trying to find anything that’s got a little bit of a hill in it. My job is to make a course with what we’ve got. If you’ve got lots of terrain, you can make a course look very big very easily. This doesn’t have that — but it’s a great venue to design, and a great venue to play with.”

To increase the challenge and the influence of this phase in a safe way, Mike opts to put a number of technical questions in fairly quick succession, which requires riders to slow down and ride almost gymnastic exercises, and should make the clock play a bigger part than it would if he were to simply stick single fences on this flat bit of land.

“I try and keep riders slower for longer on the course so that time becomes influential, but it’s really, really hard here because there isn’t any terrain to add to that, to help in that regard,” he says. “Compared to two weeks ago [at Millstreet] where I got quite a lot of terrain, I was able to make the time very influential — I’m not even sure one person got it. Here, because you don’t want to turn horses inside out, you have to think ‘okay, how can I do it?’ So I try and keep horses slower over a longer distance, if possible. That’s again, another great theory, but these guys are so good now — they get into a rhythm and they’re quick away from a fence. You watch the good guys — it’s all very smooth and seamless. And you see the not-so-good guys, and it’s all about setting up, jump the fence and then off they go again. Whereas the good guys are in a rhythm,  they’re in a groove and so they make the time.”

The biggest challenge, he says, is maintaining the focus all the way around — for the riders just as much as their horses. With 13 collapsible fences on course, including MIMclipped rails and collapsible tables and corners, they’ll need to prepare quality lines and balanced, neat approaches, too. And once the first horse heads out from the start box? He’ll be making his way the whole way around to learn from how horses handle his course.

“It’s understanding how I want the horses to benefit from the experience so they grow as they go around,” he says, referring to the goal for his own viewing tomorrow. “There will be horses stepping up for the first time, and some horses that need a bit of reestablishment. So you get them into the course quite nicely and then, it needs to be a positive experience and beneficial. It’s very easy to destroy horses physically or mentally, in particular, and there’s nothing clever in that. So I watch horses travelling; I watch how they cover the ground; I watch how they jump the fences; I watch how the riders deal with things. I watch how the horses react when a rider makes a mistake — because riders always make mistakes, and then you want the horse to take over and sort it out. I’ll just quietly watch everything.”

Now let’s take a look at what this clever course offers – because a significant part of the challenge on Saturday will be simply knowing where, exactly, you’re going. On first walking it, it’s definitely not always obvious – and so riders will want to make sure they’ve logged enough focused walks to ensure that they never waste a second trying to remember if their next move is a left- or right-handed turn.


Length: 6350m

Optimum time: 11:08

Fences: 28

Jumping efforts: 46

The CCI5* course map, replete with a dizzying array of twists and turns.

We headed out into the uniquely beautiful woods of the Lüneberg Heide to see what, exactly, Mike has cooked up for us this year. First of all, it’s key to note that the course is being run in the opposite direction to the last few years, which means that the overall feel of the course is a little different: the twistiest, turniest bits of the track are earlier on; the spooky arena comes later in the course when the horses may well benefit from a bit of a pep injection from the enthusiastic crowd; and, notably, what is usually a downhill run to the first water is now a short but steep uphill climb after the final water, so riders will need to manage their horses’ energy levels well to ensure they have enough in the tank to tackle that. Got it? Cool. Let’s get walking.

Fence 1 is an old standby, and used for both courses.

As in any course, the first few fences of Luhmühlen’s track are straightforward single fences with obvious profiles, designed to allow horses and riders alike the chance to get their eye in and enjoy the feeling of bowling over big jumps. In fact, the first two fences are shared between the four- and five-star, while the third fence sees each class jump basically the same table, just alongside one another.

Fence 2: another run and jump fence, but with a wide bottom spread to give horses some air.

I mean, look, I’m not going to mess around, here: they’re simple efforts for competitors of this level, but they’re not small. I climbed under fence two, just out of curiosity, and found enough space under there to comfortably sleep around four people — six, if they’re very cozy and have discussed boundaries at length — and while that’s handy to know ahead of Saturday night’s party, it’s also a sure sign that a fence needs to be ridden with respect. People have absolutely fallen off in the first three fences at this level before, and it would be a serious downer to do so just because you decided to freewheel to a straightforward jump.

Fence 3 – the left-handed table is the 5* one.

At the third fence, after a decent enough gallop stretch, we get the first differentiation between the classes — but it’s so minimal that it basically doesn’t count.

Fence 4 – a collapsible table, reflecting Luhmühlen’s deep commitment to safety first.

Then, it’s on to fence four — a wide table that’s designed to collapse if it’s hit with significant force. We’ve seen this relatively new bit of technology in use in Kentucky and Badminton so far this year, and it’s no surprise that we’re seeing it in Germany — this is a country that’s particularly hot on safety and welfare, because they’ve dealt with the social license issue for a lot longer than the rest of us. The German public has a largely negative view of eventing, and events like Luhmühlen work hard to showcase what the sport can be — and their main priority? Keeping horses from falling, always. And if a not inconsiderable investment in a collapsible table can go some way towards helping them with that goal? You bet they’re going to click ‘Add to Cart’ immediately.

Fence 5ABC – the first combination on course – has a fair and forgiving stride pattern to reflect its early appearance.

With the first four fences behind them, riders will hopefully have spent their time settling their horse into a rhythm and making micro-checks on the rideability. Now, they’ll get to make a rather more macro-check on it, because at fence 5ABC, we meet the first combination on course. It’s not a tough one — the first element is a beefy enough brush-topped oxer, which is followed by two tall, brush-topped skinnies on a curving right-handed line, but the distance between A and B is broad enough that there’s space to make a proper turn and line up those skinny B and C elements, which then come up on an easy three strides. It shouldn’t cause any issues, but it should absolutely be used to ensure that the power steering works, because they’ll need it before too long.

Fence 6 – another wide table to give a great feeling.

Then, there’s another wide table — this course has lots of those, and lots of sweet, chunky wood carvings, too — as we enter into the twistiest and initially most confusing part of the course. This segment is a bit of a roller-coaster ride of turns, and if I’m perfectly honest with you, at like, four distinct spots in this field, I just nearly gave up on the generally accepted sequence of numbers. It’s confusing out there, man.

Luhmühlen 2023: the movie.

Anyway, eventually I entered the deepest dungeons of my mind palace, remembered how to count, and found my way through the next batch of fences and circles, and if I can do it, so can the riders in this year’s field. I think.

Fence 7AB features an interesting bit of terrain in a man-made quarry with a steep entry and exit.

Let’s twist again, baby: the next spin of the washing machine takes us to fence 7AB, which is a pair of narrow houses — but the most interesting thing about them is the terrain they’re set on. Luhmühlen is historically a flat course, but here and there, we encounter some natural, and some manmade, bits of undulating ground — and this, a dugout quarry, is an example of the latter. They’ll pop the first, land on a sharp downhill into the quarry, and then straight up to the B element. This walks as a five stride line, but the addition of the undulation means that the stride pattern could be very different: some horses will bound up or down slopes, while others will tiptoe them, and so riders will need to keep their eyes up, their legs on, and ride the line and the rhythm rather than being beholden to the number they have in mind. If they do that, and maintain the balance throughout, this shouldn’t cause them any issues.

Fence 8 gives riders options: they can jump to the left or right of the central decorations.

Then, they get another table to jump, with a left- or right-handed option — but the left-handed one looks the best here, as they’ll be able to economise their line, stick to the left-handed rope, and get themselves set up to ride a smart, outside shoulder turn off the rope and into the next combination on the best possible line.

Fence 9AB is an accuracy test, but one that should sharpen up, rather than catch out, 5* competitors.

That line will take them over fence 9AB, a double of brush-topped corners, both of which are left-handed. Depending on how much of a bend they want to put in their line here, we’ll see a couple of different stride patterns as they skim their way through. Then, they’ll head to their next big circle, which comprises the next two fences. Are you dizzy yet?

Fence 10 is a Luhmühlen classic: a serious ditch and brush that we’re used to seeing late in the course.

This big loop on the course takes them over another Luhmühlen classique: a wide, imposing ditch and brush that actually looks pretty friendly if you keep your eyes well up on the approach. The one hitch? As they land, they’ll see a glimpse of home, the finish line, and the collecting ring — so riders will need to ensure they keep the focus and the motivation up so they can spin back to the woods and to the next combination.

The coffin at fence 11ABC is always responsible for a few penalties here – whether that’s due to a MIM activation at the rail at A, or a run-out at C.

Focus really will be the name of the game when they get to the coffin at 11ABC, which always appears here in one way or another, and always sees a few faulters — whether that’s because they activate the MIMclip on the rail at the A element, or because they duck out to the side of that skinny C. The stride between the ditch and the C element feels long, so they’ll want to keep that coffin canter in place to clear the first element cleanly, but then ride positively so their horse lands sufficiently far out from the ditch. If they land too close, they’ll find it a stretch to get to their spot for the C — and it wouldn’t be at all beyond the realm of possibility for a horse to spot that the much easier route would be to slip out the side door.

Fence 12.

After that fiddly little number, our competitors will enjoy a bit of a galloping stretch en route to the back field — which they can use to make up for lost time and to build positivity, which is something they’ll need in abundance very soon. When they get to the end of the stretch, they’ll be rewarded with an airy oxer at 12, which will get them up in the air and feeling great ahead of the first water.

Fence 13ABCD is the first water complex – seen here sans water, which will be topped up before Saturday – and it’s one of the toughest questions on course.

And hoo, boy, what a water it is. The first element of the direct route is a brush-topped hanging log with a forward ground line, so horses are likely to jump out and over and land well clear — but because this is a drop into water, and their first time seeing water, no less, you’ll always see a couple suck back a bit and land very close to the fence. If they do, they’ll find themselves up against it a bit: the stride pattern here is fiendishly exact, and there’s not a lot of space to put in a serious bend to add a stride, though those who plan ahead and adjust quickly will be able to manage it. If they land far out and on their line, they can make that long three — or, if they jump to the right hand side of the fence, they can make a short-ish four happen. Then, it’s out onto dry land and over a straightforward table.

For those who choose to take the alternative at the first water, their A element is no less imposing.

The alternative route has much easier stride patterns — although they’ll pay the penalty by losing plenty of time on the clock. The first element is also no easier: it’s a big old brush, which doesn’t offer a glimpse of the water to come, so a horse that tends towards being a touch backwards at water might be put off. Then, they’ll skim through the water, up onto dry land, and over a skinny, before swinging left, jumping another skinny on dry land, and then turning back to the table that’s also the final element of the direct route.

One important thing to note here is that the direct and long routes can only be mixed and matched in certain ways, because the direct first element is an AB, while the long route is just an A. Once they’ve committed to their first element, they’ll need to ensure they don’t accidentally double up their letters, or miss any, if they change course midway. This will arguably be one of the most influential complexes on the course.

Fence 14 will offer some relief after a tough water complex.

Then, it’s one final loop in this field and over another straightforward table at 14, before they head on out and over to the next field to the step complex.

The first element of 15ABC is a sizeable table…

Into the woods we go! Fence 15ABC is almost the same across both classes, except for the A element: while both classes will jump a table at A, the five-star one is set further back from the B element, a big step up with a ditch in front, which adds some space for readjusting, but does make the line trickier. They’ll want to hang right as they head to the bank, which will give them three straightforward enough strides to the angled brush at C — but again, we’re seeing variable terrain here, which means that you can’t always expect the stride pattern you want. From the bank to the C is quite uphill, but that C element should be forgiving enough.

…and the second, a stiff step up with a ditch in front, shouldn’t be underestimated. The C will come up fast.

Here’s a closer look at the line from the bank to the C element, with its slew of options where take-off points are concerned. And once they land? Good luck to them — every single one of us on site this week has gotten lost in the long wooded stretch between this fence and the next — the longest gallop on course, and one that’s currently roped with three different paths. I’ve sampled two of them so far and in both cases, was fairly certain I was about to be eaten by wolves or wild boars or, I don’t know, malevolent German witches or something.

Your reward for not getting lost in the woods? A beefy trakehner at 16 to take you into one of the busiest parts of the course: the Meßmer Water.

If they can survive the witches, though, our competitors will be able to make good use of this stretch to take stock of how their horses feel at the halfway point, and to try to make up some time — though these wooded areas are one of the things that make Luhmühlen tricky. The tightly-packed skinny trees make it feel as though you’re going extraordinarily fast, but it’s all an optical illusion, so they’ll want to ensure that they’re keeping a close eye on the clock and any landmarks they’ve picked out along the way so they don’t get lulled into a false sense of speed when they’re actually just hacking through the woods.

Then, the woods will open up and they’ll come to one of the most crowded spectator hotspots on course: the Meßmer Water. First, they’ll jump a trakehner at 16 to get them up in the air as they greet the hubbub, before they come to the first element of this busy water complex.

There’s a very slow long route here, but the direct route begins with an achingly skinny arrowhead at 17A…

That first element at 17A is a very skinny arrowhead on dry land. They’ll enjoy a stride on grass before cantering into the water and then out onto an island in the center, atop which is a small log fence.

….followed by a pop over a log on the island at 17B, and finally, another skinny in the water at 17C.

Then, it’s down the mound, back into the water, and over another skinny at 17C — this one actually in the water. We’ve seen skinnies in the water here cause issues before, but that’s when this complex has come up much earlier on — this late in the course, they should be well focused on the task at hand. If riders are concerned, though, they do have a long route that’s made up of three totally different fences, but it’ll require them to do big loops around the water complex that’ll add lots of time and cost valuable energy.

Then, they’ll jump another big table on the way to the arena fences.

Then, they’ll hang a right and head down towards the beating heart of the venue, first jumping another big table at 18…

Fence 19 is a single right-handed corner – a breather compared to the 4* version of this question, which has two corners on a line.

…and then over a right-handed corner at 19, which is the second of a double used in the four-star class, and has trees planted on the approach that’ll dictate the line they take on the approach.

Then it’s into the arena and hang a right, all the way around to 20a, a wide, brush-topped oxer…

A big roar of encouragement will await them as they cut into the main arena, turn right, and then gallop all the way down the long side, before turning left and jumping 20A, a seriously big, brush-topped oxer that’s a country mile away from its B and C elements, just visible on the left-hand side of the photo.

Which is a reasonably distance and a 90-degree turn from 20B and C, a double of angled brushes with water trays beneath them.

That distance means there’s time to prepare, and the 90 degree turn will help them to ensure the balance and straightness they’ll need for the B and C elements, a tricky double of angled, brush-topped hanging logs with water trays underneath them, on a two-stride line. There’s ample opportunity to run out to the right here, so they’ll need to commit to their line and ride positively and genuinely through these fences.

Finally, they’ll jump THAT bird at 21 – but he’s not caused issues since he left his watery perch of 2019.

Then, they’ll turn left at the short side of the arena and pop over the colourful bird at 21, which will still strike fear into the hearts of everyone who saw it wreak havoc when it lived in the water complex at the 2019 European Championships. The good news is that it hasn’t caused any issues since it’s been an arena fence, and it is quite pretty, all things considered.

There’s a rail-fronted hedge to pop at 22 – another mainstay here at Luhmühlen.

Once they come out of the arena, they’re just a few fences from home — but there’s still enough to do between here and the finish that they can’t fall victim to complacency. First, they’ll pop the hedge and rail at 22, which is always a part of the course here, before heading out into the middle field on their way to the final water.

Then, it’s on to the upright gate and angled log combo at 23AB.

We’ve seen a double of gates used in this field before, but this year, it’s a slightly friendlier fence: at 23AB, they’ll pop a MIMclipped gate atop a mound, then cruise down to an angled stump at the B element. That walks as a four-stride line, but again, we’ve got a bit of terrain here that could complicate that calculation a bit, depending on the ride they get over the A element.

Next, we’ll head into the dappled light of the final water complex, the Longines Waßer. There’s a rolltop to start, followed by two angled brushes in the water – and then a short, steep uphill climb.

After galloping across the length of the field, they’ll nip back under the shade of the trees and into the Longines Water at 24ABC, which, on a sunny day, can have an interesting interplay between light and dark that can require extra sympathetic riding. The first element is a simple rolltop on dry land, and then they’ll head into the drink and over a double of offset angled hedges — one in the pond itself, and the other on dry land.

Finally, they’ll gallop up the steepest hill on the course, and though it’s not a long one, they’ll want to make sure they’ve left enough petrol in the tank to cruise on up it. Then, they’ll be able to catch their breath with another good gallop through the calm of the woods, before emerging in the final field for the last couple of fences.

They’ll enjoy another straightforward table after that big climb and long gallop…

First, it’s another straightforward table at 25…

…and a rolltop at 26, too, to get them focused before the final combo on course.

…and then down to a rolltop on a very slight downhill approach and landing, which is a set-up fence for the final combination.

That comes at 27AB, and it’ll look pretty familiar to anyone who went to Pratoni.

That final combination is 27AB, a double of timber oxers on a curving left-handed line, which gives riders some options as far as the stride pattern, and the amount of bend in the line, goes. They’ll be able to make that call depending on how much they’ve got left to work with at this point — and as these fences are MIMclipped, they’ll be wise to allow for an extra stride to straighten up on the approach to the second if they think their horse might jump low, or uneven, and potentially activate the safety device.

Will Coleman and Chin Tonic HS jump the final fence at Luhmühlen in 2022. Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

And then it’s everyone’s favourite fence: the last one. They’ll still want to give it plenty of respect — it’s a five-star fence, after all, and it would be a crying shame to have a miss here just because you can taste the finish. Eyes up, legs on, balance, and go — and then you’re home clear.

Tomorrow’s cross-country will begin with the CCI5* at 9.15 a.m. local time (8.15 a.m. BST/3.15 a.m. EST), and full times for the class — holds notwithstanding — can be found here. Then, it’s on to the CCI4*-S, incorporating the German National Championships, from 12.55 local (11.55 a.m. BST/6.55 a.m. EST) — after that, as the Germans say, we make party. Join us on EN for live updates throughout the CCI5*, and for details on how to follow along on the live stream, click here. Until then: Go Eventing!

Longines Luhmühlen: [Website] [Entries] [Timing & Scoring] [How to Watch] [Live Stream] [EN’s Coverage] [EN’s Form Guide]

EN’s coverage of Longines Luhmühlen is brought to you by Kentucky Performance Products and Ocala Horse Properties.

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