“There’ll be no one single fence that should catch them out — it’s a test of being able to deal with terrain and a number of different varieties of question,” says Badminton course designer Eric Winter as we cruise through the course he’s been incubating since early 2020. Since his appointment as designer in 2017, he’s created a flavour for the course that’s uniquely his: he’s never worried much about set stride patterns, choosing instead to reward those riders who can show adaptability on the fly, and he’s always been in favour of a well-rounded animal that’s comfortable crossing terrain and picking its way through the kinds of questions that might be encountered on a day’s hunting, for example.
And after three years without Badminton? Eric’s ethos has been to keep the challenge at the level it would have been if the pandemic hadn’t happened – and in fact, this year’s course is almost exactly the one he’d designed for 2020’s cancelled competition. What does that mean, in a practical sense? Well, mostly that it looks big. We’ve not seen anything this dimensionally beefy in a long time: Pau, Luhmühlen, and even Kentucky tend not to be as colossal, while Bicton’s pop-up five-star course was intentionally built smaller because the terrain was so tough. Tokyo and the European Championships, for their part, were four-star courses, and we’ve not seen a Badminton or a Burghley since 2019. It feels a little as though we’ve forgotten what it’s like when a designer and his team of builders really flirt with the maximum dimensions – but we’re getting a wake-up call now.
“I’m aiming for a 50-60% clear rate,” he says. “And just a couple inside the time. You’ve got to get people through the gate, and at 70%, there’s not enough happening — and people want to see something happen. Nothing disastrous, of course, but things have to change, and I want to create a course that means that if you’re in 30th place, you can still tack up and go fight for a spot in the top five. It’s worth tacking up for cross-country if you’re in 60th place because you could still end up in the top ten. That sort of thing. This is a day that makes you famous: look at the likes of Alex Bragg. In 2017 nobody had ever heard of him; he was a Somerset Intermediate rider with a few horses, and then he sat as the leader of Badminton from 12.30 until 2.30, and it put his name in front of a group of people who could then buy into him. On days like that, riders are made.”
In many ways, this year’s course feels like old-school Badminton: it’s jam-packed with variety, and it doesn’t have many of the super-skinny accuracy questions we tend to see at most major events these days. This is part of a conscious effort by Eric, who wants to reward boldness, adaptability, and those riders who take their horses out of the arena and train over terrain. As such, he’s starting to explore previously under-utilised areas of the estate – a healthy bit of pioneering that he assures us we’ll see lots more of in the years to come.
“We’ve moved away from the Colt Pond at the bottom and tried to move to the hillier sections,” says Eric, who wants to transform the typically flat-ish challenge into a more classic test of horsemanship. “And we’ve changed the track quite dramatically down at the Vicarage ditch line – that’s quite an intense route, and there’s some really big ditches down there. There’s a ditch down there that makes the Vicarage Vee look jumpable!”
Well, as they say, rather them than us. We headed to the Badminton estate for a closer look at the track to come with Eric himself – and here’s what we learned along the way.
Note: we only photographed the key combinations as we zoomed around with Eric, and the fences hadn’t yet been dressed for the main event. We’ll update this preview with further photos as we get them.
Fence 1: The Spillers Starter
This year, the course runs counter-clockwise – but that decision isn’t just an arbitrary one. Each running of Badminton sees the course change directions, which means that an Olympic or World Championship year is built counter-clockwise and a European Championships year is designed to run clockwise. Though Eric has focused his attention this year on playing with terrain and undulations more so than he has in his previous three courses here, running in this direction, he explains, gives horses and riders a bit of a flatter start, which allows them to simply focus their attentions on getting into a positive rhythm. That’s extra important, because the middle section of the course is so intense and will rely so heavily on that positivity – so if you squander your chances of getting going on the right foot now, you’ll face the consequences later.
To that end, the first few jumps are simple, straightforward, sizeable single fences, designed to get horses in the air. And the first fence they’ll meet? A familiar one in the Spillers Starter, which is situated in the arena and will get them underway with an appreciative roar from the crowd. The fence itself isn’t massive, but the butterflies — and the grim resolve riders will feel — will be. 3, 2, 1: have a good ride!
Fence 2: Haywain
There’s not an awful lot to say about this single fence, except that it’s a wagon, it’s pretty big, and it’s usually somewhere on the course. It looked like this in 2018 and 2019, and we still don’t really fancy jumping it ourselves, if we’re honest — but for competitors here, it’ll be no problem at all.
Fence 3: Badminton Logs
“The good thing about living locally is that in the winter, me and James [Willis, course builder] can go out in the woods and pick out some trees and play around,” says Eric, indicating the natural fallen tree trunks on a mound that make up fence three. “While we were out there, we saw two trees that had fallen down just like that, so I said, ‘that’ll be fantastic off that bank!’ Anyway, it took ages to get them up, and make them stand, and get them in the right shape. We had a crane and everything, and then [former Director] Hugh Thomas drove down and said, ‘you know what? That’s probably the most expensive and time-consuming 1.20m rolltop I’ve ever seen!’ It was difficult to argue with at about five o’clock in the evening after we’d just been working on that one fence.”
Fence 4ABC: HorseQuest Quarry
The first combination on the course comes up reasonably quickly at the Quarry, but it’s not a particularly tough question – and even here, Eric has provided a long route for those who might need a slower, steadier start to their round – or, more likely, those who find themselves landing in a bit of a muddle after ballooning over the first element, because those who make a concrete plan to go long here from the get-go might want to reconsider how prepared they really are for this course.
The straight route takes our competitors over a girthy, inviting log, which has been positioned further from the lip of the quarry than in previous years to ensure that horses land on the flat, rather than diving to the bottom.
Then, they’ll hook to the left, up and out of the quarry over a 1.20m stone wall. It’s a pretty upright, solid fence, but squaring off that turn will set horses up well – and any horse who’s been out hunting will have no concerns about a piddling little thing like this. That, as it turns out, is exactly what Eric is hoping for: “I think the way we make the sport safer is by building the kind of questions that encourage you to train outside of the arena — to take your young horses out and get them used to topography and terrain and make them footsure and quick off their feet.”
Finally, before they depart at a gallop, they’ll turn to the right and pop a narrow-ish brush box, which will be dressed in thick boughs of greenery – just like the brush boxes at the Lake in 2019.
Fence 5: RDA Fund Raiser
This single fence shouldn’t cause too many issues, but it’s not quite a run-and-jump breather fence: the skinny log with a ditch in front will encourage an attacking approach and can provide a test of line, as it’s approachable at an angle. Mostly, though, its role is to act as a speed bump.
“I hated the old days, when you could do three long routes and win because you could do 800mpm from the Quarry to Huntsman’s,” says Eric. “These days, it’s getting more like a one day; you land and can already see your next fence. You used to land and go across four fields before the next fence.”
Fence 6ABC: Voltaire Design Huntsman’s Close
From the Quarry, there’s not an enormous amount of space before you reach Huntsman’s Close, which is a much more significant question, and the ditch and log at fence five is essentially a speed bump en route to it. But even the speed bumps should be used tactically: riders who make sure their horse is adjustable and rideable to this ‘gimme’ fence will stand a much better chance of finding their line and sticking to it when they come to the first real challenge on the course.
And boy, what a challenge Huntsman’s Close is. There are a few things that contribute to making this combination tricky: there’s the line itself, which snakes you over (or past, if you haven’t done your homework) three tall, relatively wide angled hedges. The three-stride line between A and B looks easy enough, but the first time you walk it, B to C looks almost like an optical illusion – and it’s not until you walk it backwards and find a more creative line between the first two hedges that you start to find your way to the third. There’s some room for interpretation, depending on the kind of horse a competitor is sitting on: they could jump all three elements on a swooping arc, or angle the first and ride a curve to plan a straight line from the second to the third, or right direct from A to B and make a quick, sharp turn to the final element. It’s a great way to test how well competitors know their own horses, and how well they can interpret what their horse is giving them on the day – those who are easily influenced by other riders’ plans of action probably won’t do themselves any favours here.
“It’s really how you deliver to the second one of these hedges that gets you to the third one,” says Eric. “If you don’t deliver well to the second, and you arrive there a bit straight, especially on one that’s a little fresh, you’re stuffed — but they’re all there to look at different horses. Bettina Hoy’s big black thing that she used to ride that would really run through the bridle at the start of the course, if you got there on that on a straight line, you’d be stuffed. But if you’re on a little pony you can turn and pop them and do what you want, because there’s enough distance to S-bend them a bit. It’s a bit about what you’re sat on, but around the whole course, I’ve tried to look at the training of everything — so some bits suit those [run-and-jump] horses, while some bits suit the little, nippier ones.”
The weather will also play a major role here, because it’s the most shadowy part of the course: a very sunny day could cast high-contrast shadows that move through the day and lend an element of visual trickery to the questions, so riders will need to have a solid plan and be firm in how they communicate it.
This is the first point on the course where we’ll expect to see some broken hearts: it’s not at all hard to imagine even a very good horse dipping out to the left-hand side of the C element, or a particularly naughty one grabbing the bit between his teeth and galloping headlong down the welcoming gap down its right hand side. We’ll see our first moments of agricultural riding here – but function over form is what Eric so often rewards.
Visually, though, this feels like a much nicer prospect than the Huntsman’s Close of 2019, which came late in the course and was made up of white birch rails, spectral and primed to fall like some kind of aggressive wooden spiderweb.
Fence 7: Pedigree Kennels
Eric Winter is a kind, benevolent man, and he doesn’t want you to feel intimidated by your first Badminton experience in three years — so as a little present, he’s given you a table that’s so large the Tories are charging bedroom tax on it. A breather! A little break! How nice!
Fence 8: Lightsource bp Lower Lake
This is the first chance our competitors will have to get their toes wet (or, preferably, their horses’ toes, rather than their own). As they approach the lake from the house end, they’ll pop an inviting brush fence and arc through the water. The aim of the game? Letting horses and riders get ahead on the clock now, because they’ll lose plenty of time in the middle section of the course as they traverse the Vicarage ditch line.
Fence 9 and 10AB: Badminton Lake
The iconic Badminton lake, with its sweeping vista of the house’s facade (and a lot of drunk people enjoying the hospitality in the lakeside marquees) looks a little different here – in this, the first running post-Mitsubishi sponsorship, we’re not actually making horses jump truck beds. A shame, really — though my offer to park my Peugeot 208 a couple of strides off of the A element was quickly rejected, which seems like evidence of a worrying lack of creativity to me.
Anyway, the defining feature of this year’s journey through — and around — the Lake is really that turn into it. So often, we see the first element sit roughly where the B element of 10 is now, but this time, our competitors will jump into the lake nearly facing the house, having ridden directly at the crowd and then hair-pinned back. The big, brush-topped log at 9 isn’t too dissimilar to the one we saw in 2019, though it’s been relocated – and the lack of a big fence beforehand, the role those trucks used to fill, means that the turn in isn’t set up for the riders. Instead, they’ll need to manufacture the adjustment in the canter and create the turn themselves, rather than hairing around at a gallop and firing over the log.
The rest of the question looks, at first glance, to be a lot more straightforward than in any of Eric’s previous years. Competitors will have a choice of two skinnies in the water, depending on how and where they land, and then they’ll cruise out over the same question on dry land at 10B. The line from the log to the right-handed skinny is a little bit easier, but makes the B element on dry land a much more angled question; if riders can plan their line well and get a neat jump over the log that lets them get to the left-handed skinny, they’ll find the line out much easier. In 2019, we saw a step up out of the water to a capacious brush mound; in 2017 and 2018, there was a much less obvious line between the skinny elements Eric opted to use, and his signature use of variable striding caught plenty of people out.
That’s what’s key to remember here: though the question and the line look straightforward, Eric leans heavily on striding challenges, and wants to see that his competitors can make rapid-fire adjustments depending on the jump they get into the lake. The answer to the question isn’t to find your striding in your walks and commit to it come hell or high water – instead, it’s to know the distances that are available to you so well, and so intrinsically, that you can rework how you use them if something doesn’t go quite to plan. With that big drop on the landing side of the log in, it’s likely that most competitors will find themselves landing in a very different place to the one they’d planned — and they need to be able to tackle the rest of their line accordingly.
Fence 11: World Horse Welfare Lakeside
This enormous 1.20m (3’11) lakeside table returns for its sophomore appearance after causing very little concern in 2019. It’s a unique fence, and a frightening looking one, because not only is it somehow both beefy and airy, it’s also topped with a water feature. This was inspired by a fountain Eric spotted in an Oxford restaurant while wining and dining his wife, Lizzel, back in 2018 – and though there’s little opportunity to throw a coin into this one and wish for a fairytale ending, it comes up at enough speed that the horses don’t even notice the moving water. More frightening, frankly, is that 2.30m (7’6) base spread.
Fence 12AB: Clarence Court Egg Boxes
Look familiar? You’ve seen these odes to chicken ovulation before – a couple of times, in fact. They’re usually a mainstay of Burghley’s course, but they’ve made their way south-west this year to make their mark on Badminton. It’s actually quite rare for ‘novelty’ fences like these to show up on Badminton’s course, because designers tend to lean into the traditional, rugged features of the countryside and aim to build timeless fences that look natural, rather than creating showpieces for their sponsors, but that makes the few rare instances on this course stand out in a bright, sunny sort of way.
Though this is a combination fence, it’s certainly not one of the complicated ones on course, and it’s not actually designed to present much of a question to competitors at all. Instead, it’s a perfect example of Eric’s own brand of sneaky ingenuity: here, he’s given riders a cheat code, and now he can sit back and see who’s clever enough to use it.
The egg boxes are set on two positive strides and are slightly angled, and they’ll be quite easy to cruise over in a nice rhythm and use as a let-up fence. And if your horse is absolutely on his game, listening to your aids, and behaving marvellously? Fantastic – save his energy, and your own, and use them as such. But from here on out, the course is getting very, very serious indeed, and this is your final chance to install some nuance to your aids.
“I wanted somewhere before the guts of the course where, if they’d had a sticky jump at the lake, they could just give their horse a tap and wake it up a bit,” says Eric. “If you make it too complicated in the build-up and they haven’t got them in front of their leg, they won’t have a good time – so this fence and the next fence are really fences just to get them set up and going forward again. They’re for rebuilding.”
As riders clear the egg boxes, they’ll head into the middle section of the course: a section so intense, and so exciting, that we’re hereby dubbing it the Devil’s Playground.
Fence 13: Ford Broken Bridge
What a novelty! The broken bridge at 13 was teased to us all for 2020, and though we were robbed of our chance to go truly 1949 and see the dressage take place in front of the house, we’re very excited about this truly old-school effort that’ll yield some — ugh, can we bring ourselves to say it? — iconic photos from this year’s event.
Though these fences were commonplace decades ago, many competitors this year will never have met anything quite like it. For horses, it’ll look pretty straightforward: the rails on either side channel them down to the little upright rails at the end of the bridge, and as long as they’re ridden in with a positive, forward pace, they’ll land well clear of the revetted lip on the landing side. It’ll look — and feel — a little bit like jumping off the edge of the world, and we don’t really recommend looking down, because it’s all a bit vertigo-inducing. Ultimately, it’s a rider frightener – and as is often the case with those, the answer is to keep your eyes up and kick like the devil’s on your tail. He is, and he’s wearing a Schoffel gilet and carting a Labrador around with him.
“Ride it fast. You can’t be going quick enough,” says Eric sagely. Butter wouldn’t melt.
Fence 14ABC: KBIS Brush Village
Think back, if you will, to those eggboxes a scant few moments ago. How did you ride them? Did you cruise through without a care in the world, or did you sit up, ask your horse to change his stride length, and use them as a schooling exercise? You did the latter, didn’t you – and that was jolly clever of you, because now you’re going to reap the rewards of your commitment to forward thinking. The KBIS Brush Village is a lot of things: dimensionally massive, first of all, which feels like rather a surprise after a couple of years of smaller jumps even at the top level, and technically complicated, which is a serious bit of strategic building after that run-and-jump broken bridge.
The key thing about this combination that can’t be understated is that it comes up incredibly quickly after landing from the bridge. Riders will have only a short space to readjust their stride and get their horse’s head up, and if they land running and their horse is inclined to go through the bridle or fight against the contact, they’ll be in trouble by the time they get over the first element, a very wide brush-topped table.
If the rideability is there, the left-handed line to B and the forward three strides to C will come up well – but we’re expecting this corner-to-corner question to exert a fair amount of influence.
“The relationship between the bridge and this is crucial — how they set up will be key,” says Eric. “They need to woah and canter down to this. The real superstar horses will make the adjustment look easy.”
Fence 15: MARS Equestrian Footbridge
From the brush village, riders will head straight into another kind of test of line and commitment – the footbridge, a sprawling angled oxer and ditch combination on a slightly downhill approach. This is one of Badminton’s mainstay rider frightener fences, which is sometimes used instead of the Vicarage Vee to make use of this natural ditch in the estate. This year, though, our lucky competitors will get to jump both, plus a new addition to the course. We’re sure they’re delighted.
Fence 16: Countryside Alliance Roll Top Brush
This is one of those ‘let-up’ fences that appears on the course every year and never, ever looks any more like an act of generosity: at 1.45m (4’9) high, with a base spread of 2.30m (7’6), it’s among the course’s biggest fences. But for all that, it has a sloping, kind profile and a smattering of brush on top that’s basically the equestrian equivalent of singing your ABCs.
Fence 17AB: MARS Equestrian Sustainability Bay
This water complex is effectively unchanged from 2019: again, there’s a waterfall drop in at the A element, which will see competitors pop a little (70cm/2’3) log with a hefty drop in of 1.80m (5’10). Then, they’ll make a left-handed turn to the B element, a trough in the water. This is 1.14m (3’9) tall, but it’s not the dimensions that could cause an interruption – it’s the waterfall element, which will require positivity to conquer, but shouldn’t be one of the major influential questions on course because of where it appears.
“Last time, it was the first water on course, but this time, they’ve already got their feet wet,” says Eric. “I was surprised at how much trouble it caused last time — I think it’s difficult to know how much pace you want to it, because you roll back to it. You don’t want to chase to it, because you’ve got the other fence very close to it, so you want to pop off it — but then you’re really reliant on the horse being confident enough to roll on and jump the B element.”
Fence 18ABC: LeMieux Leap
This is an interesting combination — and almost certainly an influential one — because of its eye-wateringly huge open ditch, which had several of us scrambling to check the rulebook for dimensional limitations. Previously, we’ve seen this ditch feature as the yawning underbelly of a trakehner, but this time, horses and riders will pop an upright hedge on a downhill slope before leaping over a crevice deep and wide enough to park a car in. After that, they’ll need to gather up the knitting and unclench the bumcheeks quickly, because a sharp downhill to a skinny element at C comes up fast. It’s an interesting cross between a coffin complex and a Normandy bank, and it’ll make or break a few rounds. Upper level horses with hunting mileage are rare these days, but there are a couple in this field — and we’ll be looking to them to make the best of this novel question.
Fence 19AB and 20: Nyetimber Corners
Keen followers of eventing will have an almost visceral reaction to the words ‘yellow MIMS’: though we’re all for safety technology, these new, ultra-sensitive versions of the classic red clips have caused their fair share of disappointments since the FEI mandated their use on open corners. The Tokyo Olympics were undoubtedly affected by them: Michael Jung and fischerChipmunk FRH were among the combinations to activate them, and without the 11 penalties they received after the fence fell strides after landing, they’d have taken the individual gold medal.
The yellow MIMS clips at the Nyetimber corners are the only ones we’ll see on this course, but it’s not hard to imagine that they could end up being one of the primary stories of the day. They feature in the latter part of the most intense section of the course, so horses and riders alike will be mentally and physically tired at this stage, but they’ll need to pull it all back together to effectively showjump through this tight left-handed line. The short approach in and the dip in the ground between the two jumps should help them out: both will help set horses back onto their hind ends, but even so, this will take some serious riding and we could see it exert a dramatic influence on the leaderboard.
Fence 21 and 22: Rolex Rails
As I drove home from Badminton, my overworked phone buzzed away with question after question after question from riders who’d spotted my revoltingly self-indulgent ‘teasers’ on social media, in which I showed absolutely nothing of the course and bleated a few tepid takes like, “it’s big” and “it’s Badminton.” 95% of those messages said the same thing: “will I be jumping the Vicarage Vee this year?” I ignored them all and have never felt more in-demand. 10/10; highly recommend.
Anyway, the answer to that question, finally, is yes – twice. As if eventing’s most notorious rider frightener wasn’t enough on its own, Eric has opted to build another one, and its ditch is considerably bigger and more frightening. There’s a long route here if riders don’t fancy ageing themselves by 30 years simply from the stress of it all.
Fence 23AB: Holland Cooper Vicarage Vee
Of course, there’s a bright side to everything — and here, it’s that the Rolex Rails ditch is so big, and so mean looking, that by the time you get yourself to the Vicarage Vee itself, it actually looks…kind of small? That’s helped along by the new, thicker timber used for the rails, which are more visually appealing than they’ve been in their skinnier years of yore. There’s a lesson in body positivity in there somewhere, but more importantly, there’s a very precise line to be ridden here, or you’ll end up in the ditch. Once again, there’s a long route option — but if you take both long routes through this dastardly related distance, you might still be out there on Sunday.
Fence 24ABCD: Lightsource bp Solar Farm
This is, in effect, a sort of sunken road complex, and it has two distinctive routes that can’t be mixed and matched. The direct route on the left-hand side takes competitors over a single solar panel at the top of the quarry, after which they’ll canter down and then back up over the lip before popping over a bounce of solar panels. For those who don’t fancy their chances over a bounce late in the course, there’s a right-handed route that serpentines over four panels on a related line – but this long route probably won’t be used that much, as most riders won’t want to give their horse an extra jumping effort this late in the game.
Fence 25: Badminton Collection Flower Boxes
Fence 26AB and 27: MARS M
Fence 28: The Brewers Barrel
Fence 29AB: Savills Hay Feeders
At this point, we’re on the home stretch – but the silliest thing a person can do is get complacent over the final questions on a five-star course. Though there aren’t any questions that match the intensity of the middle section of the course at this stage, they’re still big fences that require attention and care, because well-placed competitors have seen their day end in this final stretch before, and they may well do again.
Fence 30: Joules Keepers Ditch
“It’s like the longest foreplay to an event ever,” bemoans Eric with a grin as he surveys the course that he designed and actually put out all the way back in 2020. For all that the time could have been spent panicking over the finer points of the course, though, it remains largely untouched – and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a creative, bold, and exciting track with some surprising elements – the use of terrain and those hefty ditches; the relative shortage of tiny skinnies and accuracy questions; the commitment to producing a real run-and-jump course and horse. In fact, some of the few skinnies on the course come very late on, as competitors head back towards the arena and its final efforts.
In 2019, we saw Eric use a pagoda as an unjumpable, flagged element that riders had to go through – and this is a clever move, because it doesn’t add extra effort for the horses, but it does make the line to their next fence more defined and thus, more tricky. Last time, competitors crossed a skinny ditch beneath the pagoda, but this time, they’ll canter through, cross a dipped, ditchy bit of ground, and pop a skinny house at the lip of the slope. They’ve got a left- or right-handed option here to play with, and they’ll want to make a sensible decision if they find themselves on tired horses at this very late stage. It’s very different to the usual chase fence we’d see here.
Fence 31: Rolex Trunk
After clearing the final combination, the red and white livery of the arena is in sight – here, you know you’ve very nearly done it. But there’s still two fences to come, and it would be a crying shame to come off at one of them, so there’s a bit of a weaving approach to keep you awake into fence 31, the Rolex Trunk, which is a big, straightforward hanging log.
Fence 32: Platinum Jubilee
As is tradition, the final fence is set in the arena — and after tackling Eric’s playground of doom, they’ll be glad for the thick crowds in the grandstands, who’ll cheer them home and into the waiting arms of their support teams. How does it feel to cross the finish line at Badminton? According to riders in years past, it’s beyond words; a feeling of elation and magic mixed with intense relief; it’s like a kind of numbness that’s unique to chasing a childhood dream and catching it, fleetingly, between your fingers. How will it feel after three years away from the world’s best-loved venue? Like coming home, we expect.