Continental Influence, A Relocated Finish, and a Soggy Spring: Walk the 2024 Badminton Course with Eric Winter

Bubby Upton and Cola at Huntsman’s Close. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

Badminton week is upon us, and once again, course designer Eric Winter is at the helm of this week’s primary challenge — cross-country day at the world’s most prestigious CCI5*. We joined Eric for a cruise around the course to get a sense of what might unfold on Saturday as we build towards crowning our 2024 MARS Badminton champion.

As usual, we’re swapping directions this year – so we’re back to having the historically influential Huntsman’s complex early on, as it was in 2022 when Laura Collett and London 52 were victorious.

There’s a few more throwbacks to that year in the mix, too: we’ve got the return of the two Vicarage Vee questions, with the introductory Vee, the Rolex Grand Slam Rails, coming at Fence 22/23 and the ‘real deal’ at 24/25. Both are numbered as two fences to take into account the alternative routes, which both involve jumping a ditch and then a rail, rather than the all-in-one direct approach.

We never envy anyone having to jump this iconic rider frightener, but doing it twice? Surely the stuff of nightmares, right? Well, actually, perhaps not: “I really do think that having the first question makes the Vicarage Vee itself easier,” says Eric, “because it really sets them up for it.”

Also back in the mix, and last seen two years ago, is the Broken Bridge at 13 that was newly introduced in 2022 and gave us some of the most circulated images of that event. It’s an incredible looking fence, but in practice, actually a fairly straightforward question – it’s all about establishing a punchy, positive gallop and following it through into a leap of faith into space.

Ros Canter and Lordships Graffalo. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

Though both last season and this season have been marked by their relentless dampness, Eric says that the preparation for each renewal of the event has looked quite different.

“Last year, actually, was funny, because we had a drought in February – it was bone-dry that month,” he says. “It was probably as dry in February as it was at any other point in the year. So for us with the prep, we were way ahead because that month, we were able to get a load of stuff done. Whereas this year, it’s been dribbling on, wet, wet, wet, and so it’s been more difficult.”

That means that some fences, such as fence two, the Haywain, have been held back until a week before the competition, when they were finally put into place ready for the competition.

The other major change this year has been a reconfiguration of the end of the course.

“We’re coming back across the arena and through the side of the collecting ring, not from the bottom, because when it was as wet as it was I thought it wasn’t going to be an attractive sight to pull them up that hill at the end of the course. So we changed that a little bit. It’s always a balance between thinking you don’t want to [take too much out], because you don’t want to dumb the sport down too much and finish up nowhere, but you also need to balance what is acceptable.”

The 2024 course, as seen from overhead.

Walking the Course

This year, we’ll start in the main arena as normal, popping a bright, flower-covered box fence and being sent off into the course proper by the cheers of the crowds. Then, there’s two more single fences – the old standby Badminton Haywain at 2, and a big brush fence on a mound at 3, to encourage horses into the air and help competitors settle into a rhythm before the first combination.

Fence 3.

This way around, the Horsequest Quarry at 4AB and 5 is the first significant combination – though unusually, it’s the Quarry without making use of the two feature stone walls, which simply act as a decorative perimeter. The combination itself is, instead, made up of two wide feeders on a curving right-handed line at 4AB and a skinny feeder atop the bank at 5, which makes use of the Quarry’s feature terrain.

“I’ve used the walls four out of the seven years I’ve been building here, and there has to be some time when you say, ‘we’re going to do something else!’. I wanted to do something else last year but then Mike Etherington-Smith said, ‘I’d go back to the walls’, so I said, ‘alright’. This way will mean that people can stand a bit closer to the jumps, too,” says Eric.

The first fence at the Horsequest Quarry at 4AB and 5.

“I think it’s quite light for an early combination at five-star – there’s a lot of space between each fence. But Huntsman’s is quite strong, and as there’s a combination here, a combination at the next fence, and a combination at Huntsman’s, it means we’ve gone a bit lighter here.”

That combination at 6AB is the Bloomfields Brush Buckets, which features two maximum-height brush-topped jumps and a choice of routes between them, thanks to a strategically placed tree.

“You can jump the first one on an angle and ride the turn a bit wider, but I don’t think they will,” says Eric.  “That would get you straight to the last one but take any relationship out of it, and I don’t think the bulk of the riders will do that.”

The Bloomfields Brush Buckets.

Eric finds inspiration in all sorts of places – like the waterfall table fence by the Lake, which first came to fruition after Eric saw a similar design used as decoration in a restaurant. A lot of this year’s overarching themes, though, came from a more broadly continental input.

“I’ve got a heap of people I teach in the Netherlands who run at quite a decent level,” he says. “So I went to Strzegom and Arville and a few other places and did some coaching, and a few bits came out of that.”

Wherever inspiration strikes, though, the reality of each year’s Badminton course starts in the same, agricultural way.

“It starts with me and a load of bits of wood, and I go around and put them on the ground and think, ‘well, we can do this, or this, or this, and that, and that’, and then I start playing with angles, and then you come to something else and you think, ‘actually, I could put that there,’ and so you change it.”

“Originally, I was going to do two open corners with cord piles in Huntsman’s [7abcd], and then I thought, ‘actually, if I’m going to do open corners, I’d like to do an open oxer to start’, and so then you take the cord pile somewhere else. So it all starts to develop over three or four months of just fiddling around with it. It’s really handy that it’s a very different process here to anywhere else. Because I live locally, I pop in all the time – and so then you get a very different product because you don’t need the adjustability that a portable fence gives you – you can build permanent. Whereas if you fly in for four days or a week, you need a certain amount of portables that you can pop down.”

The view through an airier Huntsman’s Close.

Each year, it feels like the tree cover over Huntsman’s gets a bit greener, a bit airier, and a bit less like the bit of the woods in a fairytale where the witch appears and bundles a few kids into an oven. Which, you know, is quite nice, as it’s always one of the most influential spots on the track, whether it comes early or late, and probably, the competitors don’t really need a foreboding vibe shift to add to their nerves as they canter down to it.

This year, it doesn’t feel, necessarily, like a radical redesign of the complex, but it certainly shouldn’t be approached with any complacency. There’s a tough, technical direct route and a pretty slow alternative with an additional jumping effort, but anyone with any hope of being truly competitive will need to tackle the quickest line through – both to stay on the right side of the time and to truly sharpen themselves, and their horses, up for what’s to come.

That straight route will see our competitors jump a wide open oxer before powering on down on six (or seven, but preferably not) strides to two left-handed open corners – and the key to success over them will come down to two things: accepting a bolder angle to the first, and committing patiently to the line to the second, which doesn’t make itself completely visible until you’re just a couple of strides away from the second.

“The more angle you accept to the first corner, the easier the second corner will be – if they try to make the first of the corners too straightforward, the second becomes much more difficult,” he says. “Then, they have to be patient, hold their line, and wait for it to open up for them.”

The tough line from corner to corner at Huntsman’s.

Even with its modern, airier feel, this wooded pocket of the course is still plenty full of trees, which Eric sees as one of its greatest selling points from a design perspective.

“There’s a really nice placement of trees in here now, which means you can sort of bounce the riders’ line off the trees and control the angle of how they get to a fence,” says Eric, who puts this into practice with a tree just ahead of the first corner, which he’s expecting riders to be brave enough to go to the right-hand side of. “It means that you can create questions that would only really work in this space – you couldn’t rebuild them at Burghley or anywhere else.”

With the first major test behind them – and yes, this will be one where we’ll see plenty of influence exerted – they’ll head to the lake, jumping a single table at 8 en route.

Fence 9, with course builder for scale.

The first entry point into the lake is fence 9, the Lightsource bp Log, which looks impressive from a spectator standpoint: it’s a heavy, airborne piece of timber that’s offset on an angle from the take-off point, but it’s also a question we’ve seen here and elsewhere before, and it tends to ride very well.

Then, they’ll canter back out of the water, run along the length of the lake, and turn back on themselves at the far end to tackle the main complex here, the Mars Badminton Lake at 10ABCD, which has benefited from renovation work and new banking, and a complete re-levelling within the water itself.

There’s a couple of options here, and we’ll likely see both in action. The direct route begins over a deformable palisade on dry land, after which they’ll immediately head down a short, steep bank into the drink. Then, it’s a stiff line to a wide corner in the water – the same we saw used last year, though repositioned this time – and out over a skinny brush on dry land. The long route involves a different pagoda, a slightly longer route to the corner, which creates a more forgiving angle, and then two brushes on the way out.

The direct route through the Lake complex, which will take competitors over the corner in the water and out over the right-handed skinny brush.

Similarly to Huntsman’s, Eric makes great use of unjumpable elements within this question – though unlike the trees there, they’re not used to make the line trickier, but rather to lend a helping hand. Before the colossal corner in the water, there’s a pagoda to the right hand side, and riders will want to land travelling and balanced from that steep entry into the water, skim close to the pagoda to help them find a super line to the corner, and then, after landing from that, stay close to the second pagoda, which is to the left and on the landing side, and begin their turn to the final element once they reach it.

The key? A forward, travelling, super-balanced pace, and, although all three elements are related, a commitment to seeing each through with its own respective line and approach. If they try to be too direct here, that corner becomes very nearly unjumpable.

The final element at the Lake, with Eric for scale.

For those who opt to take the longer route, they won’t add a hugely significant amount of time – but because there is an additional jumping element, riders will have to be very conscious of how much jump they’ll need to leave in the tank for later in the course.

Finally, the lake segment of the course comes to a close with a familiar skip over the World Horse Welfare waterfall table at 11, which they can travel to at a good pace and enjoy a pipe opener before they begin their journey to the guts of the course.

Before they disappear into the woods, though, they’ll have another fence to jump: the Joules Tables at 12. Competitors will only have one of the two tables to jump, and there’s no conceivable difference between them – it’s just whether the left or right-handed option comes up better for them. This marks a return of last year’s collapsible tables, which were in a similar spot on the lawn of Badminton House last year, though, of course, jumped in the other direction.

Laura Collett and London 52 over the Broken Bridge, last seen in 2022. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

There’s another single fence at 13: the fan-favourite KBIS Broken Bridge, which is a real old-school galloping fence and a test of nothing but boldness. It’s a sloping upward approach to a small upright, and on the landing side of that, a maximum-dimension two-meter drop to the far side of a ditch. Riders will want to approach this with tonnes of pace, which will help their horses land far out from the fence, and will give them enough airtime to really think about their life choices, because who does this? For fun? Bizarre.

At 14 we come to the British Equestrian Federation Triple Bar, which is another pacey, bold, galloping fence, and is just about big enough to park a car underneath it, if that’s what you’re into. They call this a let-up fence, which makes sense if you’re deranged, I guess, because it has a three-meter base spread.

While the last couple of fences have been colossal, though, they certainly haven’t been technical, and now, with a bit of air in their lungs and bravado running through their veins, our competitors will meet the LeMieux Eyelashes at 15ABC, which is a totally new complex this year.

The LeMieux Eyelashes at 15ABC.

In short, this combination is an angled hedge to an open, 1.80m wide water-filled ditch, to another angled hedge. Simple, right? In reality, though, it’s a serious question and a harbinger of a lot of intensity to come.

To stand a chance of success here, riders will need to be ultra-committed to seeing their line through and riding straight and positive to stay on it. But that wide, water-filled ditch lends an element of enormous unpredictability, because horses won’t see it until they’re in midair over the first element, which, in theory, should be a forward one-stride distance, and if they’re surprised by it, take a peek into it, or drop a shoulder while they read it, the line could suddenly disappear from view.

“Perhaps I’m overthinking that,” says Eric, sagely, while absolutely not overthinking it at all. This will be a very interesting combination to watch in action.

A closer look at the ditch to the final brush element of the Eyelashes.

Upon landing, our riders will head into one of the longest galloping stretches on course, where they’ll need to find a high cruising speed to regain some time on the clock while also remaining conscious of their horses’ remaining energy levels. The Countryside Brush Oxer at 16 will help them to get back up in the air after this healthy gallop, before they tackle the Mars Equestrian Sustainability Bay water at 17AB and 18.

Airy enough? The upright rail at the MARS Sustainability Bay water.

The direct route comprises a 1.20m MIM-clipped airy upright rail at A to a narrow 1.30m drop down into the pond. Then, they’ll splash through and canter out of the pond and jump a steeply angled log at 18, which is nearly perpendicular to 17B and is related. Once again, though, we see a handy visual aid here: there’s a tree on dry land on the far end of the pond that riders will need to stay close to, and then use it as their marker for where to complete the trajectory of their curving line to the log. If they cut it too straight, it looks – and likely becomes – almost unjumpable. Done right, it’s absolutely readable and quite a friendly fence, not least because horses will see the wide open space of the long galloping lane ahead stretching in front of them, which is a great encouragement.

The final element of the water, when viewed from a much friendlier angle.

Fence 19, after another long run, is a classic ditch-and-brush galloping fence, which looks particularly imposing from the side, where you can see the depth of that ditch, but shouldn’t cause a spot of bother for horses or riders as they take it in stride.

Then, there’s another big galloping stretch before Eric asks horse and rider alike to close the stride and put their thinking caps on for a much more technical effort. This is fence 20ABC, the Ineos Grenadier Sunken Road, which makes use of last year’s newly-minted sunken road complex. The first element is a skinny brush arrowhead on a slightly bending forward three-stride line to a step up, with plenty of undulating terrain in between, and then a forward one stride to another skinny brush arrowhead.

The Sunken Road at 20ABC.

21 sees another smart use of the estate’s undulations, with an option of two different MIM-clipped birch rails at the top lip of a quarry. The left-handed option is smaller, but set right on the lip, while the right-handed option is set back a bit, but is built to slightly larger dimensions.

Then, it’s over that duo of aforementioned Vicarage Vees at 22/23 and 24/25 – easy-peasy, surely, as Eric points out that the Rolex Grand Slam Rails makes the Holland Cooper Vicarage Vee, the world’s most terrifying rider frightener, ‘slightly easier’, which I’m sure fills everyone who has to jump it with confidence, maybe.

There’s a new look this year to 26ABCD, the Lightsource bp Mound, which is another spot on course that boasts a useful crater of terrain, which has been so well-used in previous years. This year, though, Eric and his team have built a beefy drop into it, and particularly interestingly, he’s put a lip on the edge of the drop to stop horses from sneaking and sliding their way off it – instead, they’ll have to leap, and that’ll add no small amount of unpredictability to how and where they’ll land, because the landing, too, is on a downhill slope.

Looking down from the apex of the Lightsource bp Mound. The direct route will take them over two stumps, out of shot to the right hand side of this view.

“It’s a tiny rail, but it’ll stop them sliding down on their bellies – it’ll throw them further from the bank and create more power that the riders then need to control,” says Eric.

Once they’ve landed and are travelling onward again, they’ll traverse the flat bottom of the dip and then run up a short, steep uphill slope to the final two elements, a duo of skinny brush-topped stumps on offset angles. There’s two bending strides between them, and it’s not one of the toughest lines we’ll see on this course, which reflects Eric’s desire not to overtax a tiring horse.

The primary part of the question, then, really is that drop, and how they prepare for it, how they manage the variables of the landing, and, of course, the line they take over it – jumping it slightly left-to-right will make the rest of the line come up easier. It’s one of the last big questions on this course.

Austin O’Connor and Colorado Blue jump the cordwood pile in 2023. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

But it’s not the last question. Next up is 27AB, the Wiltshire Brewers’ Drays, which appears after horses and riders have left the woods and re-entered the heart of the park. There’s two options here: the direct route is a truly colossal cordwood pile with a maximum top spread of two meters, and so if riders feel their horse is tiring, they can opt for a line of two more conservatively-sized cordwood piles. That’s a decision that’ll be unique to each horse and rider; will one large jumping effort take more out of them than adding another whole jump to their roster?

The stiff angles of the Worcester Avenue Brushes.

The penultimate combination on course is 28ABC, the Worcester Avenue Brushes, a trio of angled brushes that can be tackled pretty well straight through, if riders are chasing the time, or can be made a bit more forgiving by steering around unjumpable elements to meet each fence more directly.

Fence 29, the Sound Gates, is a straightforward deformable white upright gate, which will give way if it’s given a clang from a wearying horse, and fence 30ABC, the final combination, sees a change to the end of the course: last year, and in many previous years, there’s been an uphill run at the end of the course from the Keeper’s ditchline, whereas this new route, which travels through the former cooldown area, gives horses level ground, and no climb, to finish on. This final combination, the Savills Keeper’s Curve, is two fences on the direct route or three on the indirect – on the straight route, it’s two wide timber oxers, and on the indirect, it’s a timber oxer to a double of upright rails. Timewise, it won’t have much impact one way or another, so the choice will come down to what a rider knows about their horse: do they struggle with a tidy front end, or with making width, when they’re running out of steam? Most, it’s likely, will choose the two oxers.

And home! No one can possibly miss the final fence, which has a bright new colour scheme this year in honour of new title sponsor, MARS Equestrian.

Having cleared that question, our competitors have just two fences left to tackle: the Rolex Brush Roll at 31, a hefty-enough rolltop in the old collecting ring, and then, finally, the brightly-coloured Mars M at 32, which is in the middle of the arena. Very good riders have made avoidable mistakes at the final fence here before, so it mustn’t be underestimated, but the thrill of the finish, the roar of the crowd, and the proximity to home can be powerful motivators to find that last push.

This year, many of our UK-based competitors will feel confident in their preparation, despite a tricky spring season thanks to the weather. That’s because this year, the CCI4*-S at Thoresby Park was broadly praised for being a much more suitable Badminton feeder course, with sufficient technicality and dimensions to get horses and riders alike into the right headspace.

This, Eric explains, is no coincidence.

“[Thoresby director and designer] Stuart Buntine has been Assistant Technical Delegate here. I had him here for the two or three days when we first put out fences, so he had a bit of an idea of what was going to be here. I think when you start to get into that thought process, when you start to put your fences out you’re a bit braver, because you know you’re still way off of what it’ll be here. But if you’re not dealing with this, and you’re just coaching Pony Club over the winter and what-have-you, and a lot of your winter training’s at a meter, or a meter ten-ish, then you suddenly come here and it’s a bit in-your-face.”

And so, with the course walked, the preparation milestones ticked off, and the breathing exercises jotted down from the Calm App, we’re all — media, riders, and spectators alike — just about to ready to head into the heart of the action. We’ll see you there, ENers.

For a closer look at each fence on the course, head to the Cross Country App guided coursewalk, featuring Mark Todd, or tune in to Badminton TV for a video tour of the course’s intricacies, included as part of your subscription to watch this year’s livestream in full. You can find all the information you need on membership here. Go Eventing!

EN’s coverage of MARS Badminton Horse Trials is brought to you by Kentucky Performance Products, your go-to source for science-backed nutritional support across all types of horses, disciplines, and needs. Click here to learn more about what KPP can do for your horse — thank you for supporting our wonderful sponsors!

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