Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the wet and wonderful Eventing Spring Carnival at Thoresby Park, where thus far several of the national classes have been cancelled, and priority given to 3* and 4* sections, in a desperate attempt to give horses and riders a serious run before their season gets underway.
With Badminton just weeks away, and Kentucky even closer, the sense of urgency is very real. These horses need to get out and prepare for the even bigger challenge that lies ahead of them, as do their riders, most of whom will be lacking match practice after less than favourable weather has led to the abandonment of several earlier fixtures.
So, fingers and toes (and eyes, or is that going too far?) crossed that we will get to see some 4* action this weekend. It’s looking promising; as I set off around Stuart Buntine’s track, the dressage was well underway, and despite the consistent rain that has been forecast, there is a quiet sense of hope that the competition will run its course, even at the expense of some of the smaller classes.
Now, about that course — all 3806 metres of it. Here’s an arial view, thanks to the CrossCountry App preview:
It’s no secret that the 4* at Thoresby is designed as a 5* prep run for most, although there was a sense that the course didn’t quite hit that brief last year, leaving some riders understandably nervous about tackling the undisputedly massive Badminton a month or so later. Time to find out if this has been rectified for 2023…grab your umbrella and let’s go!
THE TECHNICAL DETAILS:
Optimum Time: 6.26m
Fence one: the Uvex Hat Roll.
Nothing to worry about at fence 1, the Uvex Hat Roll, which, as the name might suggest, is a very straightforward roll top, shared by all of the competitors and a nice start to everyone’s day.
Fence two: the Kinaxia Logistics Workshop.
Ditto fence two, the Kinaxia Logistics Workshop, or more specifically, a wide-ish but untroubling box, which lies on a gentle left-hand curve before a nice tootle down the hill to fence three, the Tower Equine Brush, which is — yup, you guessed it! — a fairly big, but nonetheless inviting, brush fence. Nothing at all to be worried about, much like the rest of the course thus far, but an easier start to the course is never a bad thing and gives horses old and young a chance to get into the swing of it before the course gets underway properly.
Fence three: the Tower Equine Brush.
Similarly, the simple lines of the first few fences allows riders to establish a good pace – without going too crazy – and balance and rhythm are always key in preparation for anything that lies ahead, rather than trying to break the land speed record in an attempt to shave a few seconds off and risk losing control.
For the spicier horses, this relatively easy start to the track gives riders the chance to hopefully get them back on stride and listening before they meet anything too taxing, and likewise, with greener horses, riders can build their confidence ahead of more challenging combinations ahead.
Fence four: the Equine Bio Genie Trakehner.
The Equine Bio Genie Trakehner at number four shouldn’t interrupt that rhythm either – just remember not to look down into that ditch!
Fence five: the Sundown Bedding Brush.
As the course bears gently left towards the Sundown Bedding Brush at fence 5, which is set in the fence line and sees horses jumping straight towards the marquees and arenas, there is however, a feeling that things might be about to change. While seasoned campaigners shouldn’t have any problems jumping into the action-packed scene behind the fence, less experienced combinations may need a little more leg to prevent horses getting ‘gawky’ and losing their grip on the task in hand.
Fence six, the British Polo Gin Woodland Turn, with the A element in the foreground and the B element on the right hand side.
That task is about to get a little more serious at fence 6a and b, the British Polo Gin Woodland Turn, so it really is imperative at this point that riders have used their time wisely and got their noble steeds under control and listening, so they can land over the brush with the best possible set up before curving left handed to the A element, a post and rail on rising ground that drops away on landing, to B, a chunky skinny log on an almost direct right angle. Hence why there needs to be no back chat from horses as riders steady them and set them up for the jump and turn, as there is little room for error!
In my, inexperienced head, I decided that if (God forbid), I was to ride this, I would jump a slightly to the left, allowing for a smooth (ish) five-strided turn right to B. That’s in an ideal world of course, where your horse has read your mind and isn’t arguing the point…!
How delightful for my ego to hear none other than Piggy March also mark this out as a good route to take in her course walk for Piggy TV, which you can enjoy for free here!
However, as she says, ‘horses for courses,’ and this may not suit a boulder, scopier horse who might jump the first part quite big and lose a stride on landing, making it a tighter 4-strided turn to B; even less room for discussion between horse and rider, and even more need for upmost accuracy.
“There’s options to be had; you’ve got to make your decision as to what suits you as a rider and what suits your horse.” Wise words, as ever, from Mrs March, and applicable to life in general, not just a 4* course…!
Fence seven: the ESA Horses Owl Hole.
Onwards then, and back up the hill to the ESA Horses Owl Hole at 7. This is fairly straightforward, but these odd-looking jumps must always be treated with respect; after all, horses do literally have to jump through a hoop, and some horses balk at the sudden change in visibility, or duck in the air while jumping to avoid making contact with the brush. Plus, such is the gap that they have to jump through, it’s skinnier than average, so both legs firmly on!
Fence eight: the Invested Cube at A and a triple brush B element on the far right.
Quickly after this comes a whole myriad of fences, amongst which lies another combination. It’s imperative then, for riders to know their line, and ideally, to let horses in on the secret too (sat nav anyone?!) but failing that, make sure they are definitely listening – it would be all too easy otherwise for any super keen beans to take control and jump the wrong fence, which although still arguably worthy of praise, would of course result in immediate elimination – not the ideal outcome!
On its own, the narrow box at the Investec Cubes here at 8AB wouldn’t be worth losing any sleep over, but this is 4*, lads, and such gifts have been left far behind. Instead, this first element is followed by a skinny triple brush, sneakily placed on a right-handed turn a mere three strides away. To my mind, the best bet here would be to angle the first element slightly, before aiming to turn in the air, and land on a good line to the B element. It’s a question, for sure, especially compared to the fences prior to this, but hopefully at this level, horses should understand what is being asked of them, and lock onto B without too many issues, though as it is a skinny, one can never forget the propensity for run outs!
Fence nine: the Oakham Veterinary Hospital Operating Table.
Hopefully there will be no need for the Oakham Veterinary Hospital Operating Table at number 9 to be used as anything more than a jump; it’s a simple table, intended to offer horses a let-up after the combinations they’ve already tackled and a nice breather before the questions that lie beyond. Still, she’s a hefty old table, and not one I’d be wanting to crash into – so it’s all the more important to be maintain a good rhythm and balance.
Fence ten: the three-part Lycetts Turn combination.
The B element…
…and the C element.
Aaaaand before you can relax, we have some more alphabet practice, with 10ABC at the Lycetts Turn. Set right amongst the thick of the marquees and the members tent, there’s a lot for horses to take in before they even think about what’s in front of them. Remember what we said about being in control, and having your horse on side waaaay back at the beginning? Yep, you’re going to need that here; there’s no room for error, so concentrate, my loves!
10A is another table, behind which, again on a right-hand line, lies a post and rail corner, and then behind that is a matching table, which is MIM-clipped. Each individual element on its own is pretty harmless; it’s the way they have to be joined together that’s the difficult part! But in reality, the best bet would be not to overthink your line, make a decision and stick to it, riding forward with your eyes on the prize — ie., the table at C – and try to be brave. For fear of sounding like a stuck record, the need to have a horse who is listening and adjustable as you approach is increasingly pertinent: a check in pace might be advisable, allowing for a neat jump slightly left at the first element, leaving a doable four strides to the corner at B, and straight over C behind it. Or that’s my theory at least – but again, it’s much easier said than done, and I think we could see a few less-than-pretty lines and near misses here. Precision is key, and on a super fit 4* horse, gagging for a run, that isn’t always the easiest to maintain!
Fence eleven: the Ecovoltz Corners at A…
Up the hill now to the Ecovoltz Corners at 11AB, two hunky, chunky lads, although I can’t see them causing too many problems: 4* horses are more than accustomed to this type of fence, and as long as riders focus on a positive jump over the first element, the four strides to the middle of the second corner at B should meet them pretty nicely before they gallop off down the hill, past the dreamy Thoresby Hall on the right (though I wouldn’t want to be charged with cleaning all of those windows), gradually right-handed round the corner to the Warner Leisure Garden. This will give horses the chance to open up a little more; it’s a nice swooping line away from the hustle and bustle of the white tents and arenas, but riders will be mindful not to get too carried away as there’s a verrrry interesting line coming up.
The first element of the slalom-style question at fence twelve, the Warner Leisure Garden.
The subsequent two elements.
Despite the bucolic name, this ain’t no leisure garden, with thee solid brush topped hanging logs set out at angles to one another, and as has been the theme so far on this course, accuracy is the name of the game, as is a decisive line and a respectful, listening pony. Luckily enough, as I came around the corner to this particular conundrum, I came upon Hector Payne (another rider who decided to save his horse for another day, following non-stop rain and less than favourable conditions), who kindly clarified things for me a little.
“It’s a very clever fence with lots of different options,” he says. “It’s designed to be jumped on a 3 and a 2 [stride pattern], but you could end up deep to B after three strides, so I would be tempted to come through the trees on a little curve to A, before adding a little curve to B so you can go on four strides, and again, a slight curve to C on three strides, so horses can see what they’re jumping with less risk of a glance-off. To go straight through on a three and a two requires a dead straight line and makes an already tricky question even trickier, but it depends what you’re sat on [which choice you’ll ultimately make.”
This view was remarkably similar to that of Wesko alumni Harry Mutch, who I caught up with earlier and who has three horses contending the 4*: “I think [my five-star horse] will probably do 3 and 2, and then the others just have to see how they’re going, because they’re less experienced. I think being chancy on the three and two is bit unnecessary, whereas I think the four and three is actually quite nice if you can just be patient — but the three and two is there. If you’re on something you know and trust, you can commit on the straight line, and the horses can actually see where they’re going.”
That’s the plan of the Burghley 2022 champ too, who intends to get stuck straight in, coming at an angle to A, before a nice three strides to B, and then another two to C, which, as she points out, is wide enough to allow for a sneaky third stride if horses “jink slightly on landing over the second element.” The main takeaway from Piggy’s analysis is much as you’d expect: the most important thing is to make a decision on your line and stick to it as best you can – don’t dither, and have confidence in your line!
Fence thirteen: the aptly named Excloosive Oxer.
After successfully manoeuvring their way through that combination, it’s a short gallop on to The Excloosive Oxer at number 13, set on the top of a reasonably steep, though short hill. It’s fairly straightforward, especially given there is an option as to which way to go here. Riders on bolder horses won’t think twice about taking the inside line straight up the hill, although that does involve quite a sharp turn over the fence at the top — though it’s a decent size, with an obvious back rail meaning horses will easily understand what they need to jump. Those wanting to give their horses a kinder approach can easily scoot behind the trees, up a gentler incline, and find themselves with more space for a straight approach up and over. Although not as direct, this shouldn’t waste too much time, and will give riders a chance to restore any confidence lost thus far over the more complicated lines. As ever, there is no right or wrong approach to this fence – it is entirely dependent on what you’re sat on.
Fence fourteen: the Agria Lifetime Equine Stables.
On again now to the Agria Lifetime Equine Stables at 14, which takes the shape of a fairly decent table set slightly downhill. Again, this shouldn’t trouble anyone, instead offering a slight breather halfway round the track. Still, it’s a 4* fence, so riders will be making sure they’re sitting up in order to get the best possible approach and give it the respect that something of this size deserves.
As the track winds away to the back fields, the hubbub of the main show field is left far behind – unless any over exuberant Shire horses have quit the day job and designed to join the athletes out on course.
Fence fifteen: the Protexin Equine Premium Stile and Chest.
Next up is the Protexin Equine Premium Stile & Chest, another combination that requires a very definite route, and a check back into a bold and bouncy. The first part is a sizeable post and rail that riders will want to approach with plenty of controllable power to allow for a clean jump over – probably slightly to the right – to be followed with a five-stride curve round to the rolltop chest at B, mindful that a matching chest lies close behind at C. As Piggy points out, it is important to get the line to B right, otherwise C becomes trickier than it needs to be. The most important thing, she suggests, is that riders approach B well enough to make sure they’ve got the right shoulder well under control to C.
I caught up with the one and only Yas Ingham at this fence too, and she tells me she’s going for five strides between A and B, too: “It seems to look like it’s going to ride on a curving five strides, so I’ll be jumping before straightening up for two strides and then making sure I can see the C flags between B, and riding a straight line out. There’s not too much to trouble them — as long as you correctly make your turn and you’re straight, they should pick up the line.”
Watching riders’ every move at this brain teaser are three not so subtle piggies, fashioned out of some pink round bales – as if horses haven’t got enough to focus on without the added distraction of giant farm animals judging them too! But still, at this stage of the course, most riders should be sat on a horse that is fully focussed on the task in hand, so hopefully these curly tailed little creatures shouldn’t knock anyone off their line.
Fence sixteen: the City Calling Recruitment Rails.
After a galloping stretch that sees the course begin to loop back to the direction of the start, horses are offered another slight let-up fence: the City Calling Recruitment Rails at 16. A repeat offender from last year’s course, this may look simple enough, but riders will be keen not to let their mounts get too strung out and long on the approach: this is a decent sized vertical, and the last thing they will want is for a tiring horse to get long into it and risk clipping the top rail. If used correctly, this straightforward jump will serve to set horses up for the remainder of the questions that lie in wait towards the end of the track, giving riders a chance to make sure they’ve still got plenty of control without throwing too much of a brain melt into the question.
Fence seventeen: the Animalintex Oxer.
Likewise at 17, the Animalintex Oxer, which lies a short gallop away. This is a sizeable brush, and horses will be jumping towards the Hawkstone Bar, which one would assume will be full of punters hoping to get a good seat at the water complex which lies just beyond it. This will give horses plenty to look at behind the fence, so riders will want to make sure they set them up will for the fairly tight right handed turn to the Hawkstone Splash at 18AB. Tempting as it may to sack off the rest of the course in favour of a cold beverage in the bar, there’s still a little way to go, and it seems a shame to call it a day when you’ve made it this far into such a challenging track!
Fence eighteen: the Hawkstone Splash.
The first play in the water involves jumping in over a skinny triple brush, before a right-handed turn back out over another skinny triple brush at B, and although the fences themselves are simple enough, this is still a decent ask, this late on in the course. Harry Mutch emphasises how important it is that horses are still very much in the zone: “Riders need to keep the horse’s attention. We’re quite late on in the course to see the water for the first time, so it might just take them by surprise, and I think you’ve just got to be aware of that.”
Fence nineteen: the Unibed Hollow.
A successful first venture through the water is followed by a quick trip back up the hill, through some reasonably sticky ground, to the Unibed Hollow at 19AB, a new combination for this year, and one that Piggy March was very complimentary about, affirming that it should ride well.
My initial thoughts were that it looks like a miniature version of The Quarry at Badminton, though a far less extreme version (unless of course, you’re a Borrower, in which case it is pretty darn scary). The angles that have dominated most of the previous combinations out on course so far are nowhere to be seen; instead, riders will be wanting to make sure they have enough power left to maintain a strong, bouncy canter in over the upright post and rails in, to land neatly enough on the other side that they make it comfortably through on a slightly curving three strides to jump out over the post and rails sitting on the top of the hill on the other side of the so-called ‘hollow,’ which is basically a big old dip with some sort of scary looking sandstone type surface. Not the most inviting thing to ask horses to jump into, but hopefully their eyes will be on the top bar of the A element, and not what lies beyond.
Fence twenty: the second pass through the Hawkstone water.
After jumping safely out of the other side, it’s a swift gallop back down the hill towards the bug puddle in front of the Hawkstone Bar, for another splish-splash through the water at 20AB. This time there’s a bit more of a test, with a big ol’ jump in over a solid looking brush topped log, and then a tight right-handed turn back out past some cleverly placed wooden barrels over another triple brush at B. There is the option to go around the back of the barrels, giving riders time to straighten their horses before presenting them to the B element, but this will waste valuable seconds, something that many riders might not have to spare at this point of the course.
The main thing for those opting to go the direct route is to make sure they get a decent jump in, leaving them room to get safely back out without an issue – with just three fences to go before home, it would be an absolute travesty to have any issue here.
But, as Harry noted, for those horses getting their first run of the season (finally!), this is a reasonable question for them: “The drop in is big enough, and we haven’t seen one at all this year, really. So just get in and then it’s a really quick turn to an acute angle out.”
Still, experienced horses should manage it well, as long as riders are well prepared. Yas confirmed this, offering a little insight into her own plans at this fence along the way: “As I’m aiming for a spring 5*, automatically I would walk the more direct line. I think it’s definitely quite a substantial drop in so you’ll have to expect quite a big steep jump in, and obviously land, gather yourself back up again, and already look for your B element… luckily, you’ve got the barrels that do guide you on your line a little bit, so you’ve just got to be quick thinking on landing over the drop in, already thinking about B on the way out, but careful not to turn too early as well.”
Fence twenty-one: the Equilatte Coffee Table.
Phew, lots to remember! Lucky then, that riders now have a relatively straight forward run home — but the last three fences are still pretty beefy ones, especially the Equilatte Coffee Table at 21, as white as it is wide, and riders will be mindful that horses will be weary at this stage, so it is as pertinent as ever to give them the best possible approach, and not let them get too flat and long, risking a bad jump or take -off.
Fence twenty-two: the Childeric Saddles Oxer.
Ditto the penultimate fence, the Childeric Saddles Oxer. Although it may be tempting to relax a little with the finish line so close, it ain’t over til the fat lady sings, and this is still a 4* oxer that should be treated with the respect it deserves. Far better to wait until you’re over the Empire Coachbuilders Horseshoe at number 23, and safely through the finish flags that lie just beyond to finally chill out and breathe a sigh of relief. Home and dry (weather providing!) around the first 4*-S of the season….and a pretty decent one at that!
Fence twenty-three: the Empire Coachbuilders Horseshoe.
Most riders I spoke to agreed that it was a really great test for horses and riders at this level, and all were hopeful that the rain would hold off long enough to let them tackle it.
Last year’s Grantham Cup winner, Piggy reiterated this when I spoke to her briefly on Friday evening, after a day of almost constant rain: “It’s a step up from last year, a really good 4* course for horses having a run before Badminton and that sort of thing — it’s just the weather hasn’t been very kind, and that has made it very difficult for everyone. It’s put everyone in awkward positions of what situation is best for them, their horses, their owners. It’s such a shame for the place because it looks incredible… I hope it stops raining, it can dry up nicely, and we can have a good weekend of sport. The course is good, and there are a lot of very nice horses here, so it would be nice that they can all get a run.”
The weather gods must have been listening, thank goodness, as today (Saturday), saw a good old ‘drying day,’ and other riders were complimentary about the ground and the course, quietly optimistic they would get out and have a play.
Emma Thomas in particular was keen to get out and get stuck in, as she was hoping to use this weekend to get the necessary two MERs she needs ahead of a planned five-star run.
“The ground is incredible really, considering the weather and I think the track has great questions, especially in the mid-section of the course,” she says.
The World Champ also offered a similarly positive opinion, noting in particular the suitability of the track as pre-5* tune up: “There’s plenty of questions on course – it’s really good preparation for our spring five-star, the ground is drying out and I’m staying hopeful at this point, but I’m just going to see what it’s like in the morning before I start.”
That seems to be the opinion of several of the riders that remain – sadly, the deluge of Friday saw several of the line-up deciding to save their horses for another day, rather than risk them in the mud – so let’s keep those digits crossed for no more rain overnight making sure we finally get to go eventing, and over a pretty epic 4* track at that!
Tomorrow’s schedule has been slightly rejigged to accommodate the mass withdrawals, and so we’ll now see the national Advanced class start the day’s proceedings with showjumping from 9.00 am local time (4.00 a.m. ET) and cross-country kicking off at 11.00 a.m. (6.00 a.m. ET). The CCI4*-S classes will run back to back, with the Grantham Cup feature class showjumping from 10.30 a.m. (5.30 a.m. ET) and going cross-country from 12.30 p.m. (7.30 a.m. ET), while the second section will showjumping from 11.50 a.m. (6.50 a.m. ET) and go cross-country from 2.00 p.m. (9.00 a.m. ET). Horse&Country TV will be live-streaming the whole day’s cross-country action, so tune in to watch it as it happens, and keep it locked on EN for a full report on the finale of Britain’s first four-star of the 2023 season.
The Eventing Spring Carnival at Thoresby Park: [Website] [Times] [Live Scoring] [Live Stream] [EN’s Coverage]