Big, Bold, and Technically Challenging: The Badminton Grassroots Course, Unpacked

Voltaire Design General Manager Matt Tarrant, Paul Tapner, and James Willis.

Before the hullabaloo of the Badminton CCI5* begins, there’s another whole competition taking place in the grounds of the Badminton Estate: the Voltaire Design Grassroots Championship, which is the country’s biggest, beefiest goal event for competitors at the BE90 (US Novice) and BE100 (US Training) levels. We took a walk around this year’s track with designer James Willis and Badminton 5* winner Paul Tapner to unpack the secrets of the course.

Want more Grassroots action? Check out the CrossCountry App’s guided walks with Yogi Breisner at both BE90 and BE100, and follow along with the live scoring here.

Fence one – the 90cm version of which is shown here – is straightforward enough, though still a sizeable jump that’ll give horses and riders a sense that they’ve got a big test to come.

“At the 90cm level, we aim to build with 100cm technicality in mind, while the 100cm course is built with Novice (US Preliminary) technicality,” explains James Willis, chief course builder and designer for this track. “That’s our thinking behind creating this as a championship track.”

The start of this year’s course is separate from the hustle and bustle of the centre of the venue, though horses and riders do get to experience the buzz of it – and gain useful exposure – while hacking up to the start. There, though, they’re met with relative peace, which will help them gather their thoughts and prepare for what’s to come.

And what is to come, exactly? Well, for the first few fences, it’s as you’d expect: a number of single fences, each with straightforward but varying profiles, which will give them a chance to jump a few things out of a rhythm and gain in confidence while also ticking a few boxes and making sure their horses are listening to them.

“The first fence isn’t difficult,” says Paul, “but dealing with the nerves of leaving a start box in a championship situation is.”

Fence two — here, the 100 — is also designed simply to promote a good rhythm, while being fairly hefty, too.

Likewise, fence two is a very straightforward one — though, once again, dimensionally big for the level. Kick on, folks!

Fence 3, the stone wall, injects a bit of Badminton history into the grassroots course.

“If you really know your eventing history – and you’re as old as me – you’ll remember the five-star jumping the corner at this stone wall,” says Paul as we reach fence 3. “I would personally be very excited, as a 90 or 100 rider, to jump this stone wall thinking, ‘hang on, I’ve seen Ian Stark and Ginny Leng over this!’ You get to jump the same thing, which I think is quite special.”

Though neither class will be asked to tackle the original corner, they’ll get to face that little snippet of eventing history as an upright wall, “the difficulty of which lies in the terrain on the approach,” explains Paul. “That could cause a few people to have a few problems at this fence.”

Those who sit up, adjust the canter accordingly, and get a balanced shot over the fence, though, will be handsomely rewarded later on — because this track, like the five-star one, plays heavily with the going on the Badminton Estate.

Fence 4 is a simple brush fence, but with a slightly cambered approach that’ll help set horses and riders up for the challenges to come.

That terrain question comes up again fast — after jumping the wall and crossing the track, they’ll come to an upright brush. The line riders choose on the approach, Paul explains, will impact how they have to ride it — especially in the 100 class, where there’s an incline just before the jump that could catch riders unawares if they’ve not planned carefully enough.

“The jump itself is very easy, but the terrain can make it difficult, especially as it’s so close to fence three,” he says. “Fences one and two are a nice easy gallop  and jump, but once you hit three and four, you’ve actually got quite a bit of work to do. It’s quite tough for a 90 or 100 rider to be on the ball from that early on, but there are options here: depending on how straight or how curved you want your approach to be, you can tailor it to suit your individual horse. The major point, though, is not to just steer at the fence and go — you have to pay a bit of attention to what, exactly, you want to do to get there.”

Legs on! At fence 5, the BE100 competitors will leap a seriously beefy trakehner, which repurposes a log previously used in the CCI5*. Not that that’s any comfort to anyone, mind you.

At fence 5, 100 riders will get another chance to have a crack at some five-star history: they’ve got a whopping great big trakehner to pop, which uses a log previously housed on the main course here.

“This is the site of the famous Keepers’ Brush, and this is the ditch — although it’s slightly narrower than it would be on the five-star,” says Paul. “And the log is an ex-five-star log, too, which has been donated to the 100. I think it’s great that these competitors get to take in iconic features of Badminton.”

It’s hard to imagine anyone thinking too long and hard about history as they gallop up to this mammoth jump, though — instead, it’ll be all about keeping eyes and shoulders up and instilling your horse with confidence so you can leap across and into the meat of the course. Meanwhile, 90 competitors will have their own fence to jump – a hanging log with a solid base.

Fence 7ABC is the first combination on course, and it’s a familiar one to anyone who’s competed here before: the coffin complex, which is plenty technical for the levels. This one is the 90 route.

On their way to the coffin complex at 7ABC, which is a mainstay of the Grassroots course here, both classes will jump a railroad tie at 6, which is a straightforward fence in and of itself, but should be used well in order to create the rideability and canter that’ll be necessary to negotiate the coffin.

“This is really here just to help set you up for the next fence,” says James. “The coffin is quite a tricky fence, but anyone who’s been here will be expecting it. It’s a good test for the levels.”

Because of the direction of the course this year, its early appearance on the course lends an extra challenge, James tells us: “The way the park’s laid out, if you go this way, you get all the terrain in the first half — and then it gets quite flat. We want to use the terrain, but we try not to overuse it, too, because it all comes up quite quickly.”

As a result, the final dressings for the fences will reflect this, creating an easier profile rather than staying stark, bare, and ultimately more difficult to read.

Paul explains that while both the 90 and the 100 classes will have a good challenge on their hands here, it’s the 100 line that’s a true technical test.

“The 90 is fairly straightforward — it’s a fairly small fence going in, and it’s a fair distance from the ditch, and it’s all in a straight line,” he says. “It’s a pretty standard rail-ditch-rail question, in terms of the distances for that height. The 100, on the other hand, is significantly more difficult than the 90: not only is the A element bigger, it’s also closer to the left hand edge of the ditch. It’s very obvious to the horse that there’s quite a bit on landing after that, whereas the 90 is very in front of the horse. In the 100, your eye is almost taken to the left hand side of the white flag at B, which might make the A element quite difficult as the horses will know there’s something coming up fast.”

Fence 8AB offers another callback to the 5* course, with a double of solar panels on a bending line.

There’s no breather after the trials of the coffin, because fence 8AB, a double of solar panels on a bending line, comes up fast enough. Again, Paul explains, the 100 riders have much more of a technical test ahead of them here. In both cases, though, there’s a gentle natural quarry of sorts to negotiate between the two — and a low hanging tree overhead to avoid in the 100.

“Right now I’d be looking at that tree branch and thinking about how to avoid it taking my head off,” says Paul. “So I’d plan my line accordingly — and that’s part of cross-country riding. You have to negotiate natural features. The ground here, too, is an influence — it’s a combination fence, and so you have to make sure you’re getting to the B element. The 100 course could see horses go through in four strides, or five strides, or get there in a half stride and have a run-out at B. It’s a proper measured distance. It’s asking riders, ‘can you actually ride these distances? Can you ride these cross-country questions?’ The 90 is much more straightforward, but it’s checking to see if the rider can stay secure in their position, as their horse might jump massive or might just pop the first element. Both are being tested for security and balance.”

One tip that Paul gives his students is to plan their course walk sensibly, and this fence, with its risk of surface glare, he tells us, is the perfect example of why.

“I always tell riders to walk their course at the same time of day they’re going to ride it,” he says. “At the moment, the trees are letting through a huge amount of sunlight, but they may or may not let through the same amount when you’re due to ride them.”

Fancy a thrill? At 9, BE100 competitors will jump a level-appropriate approximation of the Vicarage ditch line…

There’s a single fence at 9, but “it’s a big test of bravery,” laughs Paul. For the 100 competitors, there’s an angled hedge over a ditch — a smaller, less technical version of the Vicarage fences we so often marvel at on the five-star course – and for the 90s, there’s a ditch and brush that’ll get them right up in the air.

…while competitors in the BE90 section will get to test their mettle over a ditch and brush.

“The 100 is once again significantly more difficult than the 90; it’s a real championship test,” says Paul. “It’s going to warrant a horse that’s really ready for a championship at BE100, rather than ‘just’ a BE100 horse. The 90 is a big fence and a proper bravery question, but it’s a lot more straightforward, and I think most horses will be able to do this.”

At fence 10 and 11AB, terrain becomes the main character.

At the high point of the course we meet fence 10, which is a natural elevated log apiece, followed by a downhill run to fence 11AB, a double of brush-topped mounds interspersed among the up-and-down terrain of this part of the course, which was once the site of an ancient settlement.

The line between 11AB, shown here on the 100 course, is a technical test.

These brush fences might look familiar: they were situated in the Lake last year as part of the five-star track. In this setting, they provide a very interesting challenge: riders will need to be secure and balanced in the saddle to cope with the terrain, which changes throughout, and they’ll need to be confident in their approach, too.

“If there’s any doubt in the riders’ bravery or security, this will see them stopping or saying hello to their horse’s ears in a close way,” says Paul. “The rider needs to react to what happens over the first fence, which is actually very like Eric’s 5* course. There’s a slight unknown because the horses might jump the A element in a variety of ways, and you need to react as a rider to what happens in that moment in time if you want to get to the next one. It walks as a three-and-a-half, but actually, it’s a forward three with room for four if you don’t have a nice jump over the first one. That decision is the reaction you’re being asked for here.”

The calibre of horse and rider at this championship, Paul says, mean that you’ll probably see most of them able to scramble their way through this combination one way or another — but they should aim for better than that.

“We talk a lot about the cumulative effect of confidence around a course, and this is one of those fences where you can really give it, or you can really take it away,” he says. “If you lose it now, though, then later on in the course your horse might say he’s had enough and doesn’t want to try anymore. You shouldn’t rely on your horse’s good nature to fumble on through here.”

Fence 12: “just” an airy, MIM-clipped timber oxer, which is skinnier on the 100 course, as seen here.

At fence 12, there’s a big, beefy let-up fence, which should be respected — not least because it’s MIM-clipped — but will ultimately give a great feel without the mental challenge of the previous questions.

A chance to breathe: the wagons at 13 shouldn’t cause any problems, and riders will enjoy a great view of Badminton House in the distance, too.

Similarly, 13 is a mental breather, which simply serves to get horses and riders up in the air after a long galloping stretch. That’ll help prepare them for the next combination, which comes up fast — as you can see in the background of this shot.

At fence 14 – shown here on the 90 course – a house has been cleverly whittled into a corner, which creates an interesting bending line question with another house, just visible past the unjumpables in the middle.

Fences 14 and 15 are separately numbered, which means that should they need to, riders will be able to circle between the jumps without incurring jumping penalties, which does give the option of jumping both fences as tables. To save time and maximise smoothness, though, they’ll prefer to go straight — and though the line looks like two tables on a rather mad angle, the first element has actually been whittled down on the lefthand side to create a four stride corner-to-table question on a bending right-handed line.

Here’s a better look at that whittling job on the 100 line.

“This is a very significant question,” says Paul. “The horses have galloped up the hill and they’re just starting to feel their lungs. Up ’til now, the riders have had a few tests, but now, you’ve got to really ride. I love that on both courses, fence 14 is solid, but it’s definitely a question of a corner on the white flag, or a totally different line across the tables. This is the modern interpretation of a something we often saw when I was young, where you could pick your line over an apex and get different stride patterns depending on where you chose. On both courses, they’re numbered separately so you can ride straight through or circle, which would waste plenty of time but gives you an option to react if something doesn’t go quite to plan.”

On the 90 course, the direct line is dictated in part by unjumpable elements — in this case, discarded skinnies from near the end of last year’s 5* course.

“I always tell my students that they need to practice riding their horses past cross-country fences in the warm-up,” says Paul. “That skill will come in handy here — because otherwise, you’ll definitely see some horses thrown off their line because they’re spooking at the fences as they canter past!”

The Coronation Corral at 16AB is shared among all three courses, with appropriate technicality levels for 90, 100, and 5*.

As the competitors head up towards the house, they’ll get to tackle part of the new Coronation Corral at 16AB, which also features on the five-star course. They’ll approach on a curving line and then pop a double of MIM-clipped white gates on a curving line.

“I love that all three courses go through this corral — it really features as part of the main course,” says Paul. “But it’s not like it’s a mini five-star — it’s very much their own course and question. There’s a lot of safety and innovation in this fence, with hinges on the top of the gate, which is great because horses of all experience levels can have difficulty with this kind of fence.”

At fence 17, competitors get ready to meet Badminton Lake.

Next, they’ll head on down to the house end of Badminton Lake, where both classes will have a timber fence at 17 to jump before embarking on their individual routes through the water.

For the 90 competitors, there’s a swan on dry land at 18A…

For the 90, this begins at 18A with a carved wooden swan on dry land, followed by a left-handed turn through the water, out over a MIM-clipped hollowed-out log at 18B on dry land, and down over a brush fence.

…while 100 competitors will get the chance to tackle the same jump in the water.

In the 100, though, they’ll get the rare chance to pop a fence in the water, before following the 90s out over that same B element and down to their own brush fence.

At 18B, both classes’ competitors will pop this hollowed-out, MIM-clipped log, before heading on down to the brush fence.

“It’s not often that 100 competitors get to jump in the water, and while it’s not a huge jump, it’s very much in there,” says James. “Then they jump out on a left-handed turn and continue that curving line down the hill to the brush fence. There’s a lot going on here — it gets very busy down here on cross-country day.”

Paul says that this will add an extra dimension of challenge: “the horses will be distracted, so they’ll really have to ride here — and it’s quite a technical question, with that rail at B situated very close to the water. They’ll need to be on their A game, especially the 90 riders. The 100 riders should be fine, because they’ve had so many fences so far that have been a significant test — but this is the most significant test so far in the 90.”

The brush fences at 18c.

At least the house provides a good incentive to keep looking up, right?

The Voltaire Design Saddles at 19 will give competitors a great souvenir: their photos over this fence will be framed by the facade of Badminton House.

Once they’ve cleared the water, our competitors get to jump the Voltaire Design Saddles at 19, which they’ll want to do with a smile on their faces — because this is prime photo territory, not least because this jump is right in front of Badminton House. They won’t have time to appreciate the artwork while riding, but while walking the course, they should definitely find a moment to appreciate those new, intricate wood carvings alongside — a real bit of craftsmanship from James and his world-class team.

“This is the motivation to get through all those difficult combinations — to prove you were at Badminton,” says Paul with a grin.

Big enough for ya?! Here’s the 100 class’s fence 20, which will give a super feel, but looks pretty enormous from the ground.

We’re three fences from home now, and even the let-up fences are starting to look pretty colossal, as you can see here at fence 20. It’s wide and brushy, but with a forgiving profile that encourages a run-and-jump approach — “a yahoo! fence,” says Paul. “At this point in the course, even if you haven’t had a good time so far, you’ll get a good feeling over this one. You’re leaving the main atmosphere of the park, the guts of the course are behind you, and you’ll have a bit of fun over this. You don’t have to think for this one.”

At fence 21AB, a fallen log and arrowhead have become a classic eventing question – as shown here on the 90 course.

Then, it’s on to the final combination at 21AB, which features a fallen tree at the A element and a wooden arrowhead at the B.

“I like the concept of these trees, because ever since I was a kid, I’ve always looked out of car windows and spotted things that could be jumps,” says Paul. “You’ll see a fallen tree and think ‘I want to jump that’ — and this is your chance, in both classes. It takes you back to being a kid in the woods, playing with your pony. It’s an innate urge that’s present in me and a lot of other event riders, and to have that here is very cool.”

The curving left-handed line to the arrowhead will encourage riders to sit up and take notice, because there’s an easy side-door option for horses or riders who’ve stopped paying attention near the finish.

Nevertheless: “there’s certainly enough strides between the jumps for the horses and riders to have time to figure out what they need to do, so it is very fair,” says Paul.

Every competitor’s favourite sight: the final fence, which both classes will jump.

And then, everyone’s favourite fence: the last one.

“Whether it’s a point of celebration, relief, or commiseration, at every level, this is always a welcome sight,” says Paul. “They’ll be smiling over this one, because then they can have a celebratory ‘yeehaw’ and a tipple of choice afterwards.”

So often, we see riders get a messy jump at the final fence, because they’re so close to the end — but to avoid this, Paul tells his students to think of the finish line as a jump in an of itself, and to ride the final fence and the finish line almost as though they’re a related distance, keeping the approach and balance appropriate to such a line.

“The final fence happens as part of a combination on the way to these flags,” says Paul. “You need to know whether you need to go faster or slower to get to them in the right time, and you need to have a plan for your line to them — maybe it’s a shorter distance to the left or right hand flag, so you need to have your eyes on them and a plan for your line. Your course doesn’t finish until you’re through the flags.”

Good luck to all the competitors in the Voltaire Design Grassroots Championship — and remember, kick on, have fun, and Go Eventing!

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