“We Don’t See Run-Outs That Much Anymore”: Pratoni’s Course in Focus

Cross-country morning has dawned here at the 2022 FEI World Championships of Eventing — crisp, drizzly, breezy, and with the promise of serious sport to come (though none of the torrential rain and thunderstorms we’d been forecast at the beginning of the week, crucially). We’ll see 88 horses and riders leave the start box today, representing a tightly-bunched field of 26 nations, and there’s very little room for error across much of the leaderboard as it currently stands.

Here’s the breakdown of the course to come by numbers:

  • 5600m
  • Optimum time: 9:50
  • Jumping efforts: 42
  • Fences: 30

So what is it that makes Pratoni so unique – and what will be the primary factors in today’s competition?

In a word: hills. Pratoni is situated in a volcanic crater, which means there are plenty of them, varying in intensity from long, slow pulls to steep, sharp, short runs. It’s unlike any other venue in the world, and will be a serious stamina test, even over a sub-10 minute track. But course designer Giuseppe della Chiesa has been sensible in how he uses them: they’re packed into the first half of the track, while the latter half, particularly the final couple of minutes, are on much flatter ground, to avoid punishing tired horses.

What makes it even more interesting is that, because of its shorter length — as is the norm at Championships — there’s a higher number of jumping efforts per 100m than you’d see on a normal long format. That ups the ante intensity-wise, because there’s not a lot of room to just get into a gallop. It’ll be a physical stamina test, but just as crucially, it’ll be a mental one, too.”

“All the jumps are jumpable by themselves, but reminds me a little bit of Tryon — I think the quantity is what gets you,” says Ireland’s Sam Watson, who’s one of the first riders out on course this morning with SAP Talisman.

“The first six minutes, you go up and down these hills a lot,” he continues. “I think more than anyone was expecting. And when I walked the course the first time, I was fit enough and I didn’t really notice it. When I ran the course — and I’ve run Avenches, I’ve run Tokyo, I’ve run a lot of courses recently –and this one took it out of me way more. It was interesting. I didn’t realise I was going up the hill for like the fourth, maybe the fifth little pull — that was just enough to kind of knock the wind out of me. So I think the first six and a half minutes are tough.”

Fence 1 is a friendly rolltop question with a significant groundline.

As is customary, Giuseppe’s placed a few single fences at the start to get horses and riders moving on in a positive rhythm and allow them to find their feet out on course. The first three fences are inviting, with solid groundlines, but fairly quickly, we head straight onto a hill — which is truly the main feature of the course. Fence one and fence two — which have the largest galloping space of the course in between them — are on the flat, but the second our riders land from the second fence, they’ll start the long pull up the first hill on course, which will open their horses’ lungs up nice and early.

Fence 2 is situated at the base of the first significant hill on course, and is a surprisingly small jumping effort.

After a pull uphill, there’s another straightforward single question at 3.

At the top of that hill, they’ll find another single fence — and a jolly big one, too — which will get their minds back on the job at hand before the first related question.

The first related distance at 4 and 5 offers a left- or right-handed option at both jumps.

The fences at 4 and 5 are reasonably narrow but shouldn’t cause problems.

At fences four and five we have a line of fences that feels kind of like a combination, but isn’t numbered as one — which means that riders could feasibly circle between the two without incurring penalties. They really shouldn’t have to do anything of the sort, though: that sort of lack of control at this early, straightforward question would be indicative of much bigger problems to come.

This is the first time we see Giuseppe give his competitors the luxury of choice, which will be an ongoing theme on this course. There are two reasonably narrow tables to choose from at 4, and the same again at 5, with a sharp dip in the ground between the two. Riders can go from either of the tables at 4, which are next to one another but on slightly different angles and distances, to either of the tables at 5. For those who want to choose the most economical line possible and save one or two valuable seconds early on, the left-handed fence 4 to the right-handed fence 5 will get them across the space faster.

Fence 6 is a triple bar that’ll require a positive, attacking approach.

From then, they’ll come to another single fence, though it’s a seriously wide one — and on the approach, it gives the illusion of taking off into space, because the landing side slopes away on a decline, so the key here will be to kick on for a forward, positive stride (and try, as best as they can, not to miss!). This is the first time on course that we’ll see MIM clips, so a miss here could result in early penalties. For those who get it right and respect it, it’s a chance to put their horses into full attacking mode — and they’re about to need it.

One of the talking points of the course is the formidable Pratoni slide, which comes up early at 7ABC and will ask a serious question of fit horses.

Lots of big-league cross-country courses have an iconic fence to their name: at Burghley it’s the capacious Cottesmore Leap, while Badminton boasts the Vicarage Vee as its bucket-list rider frightener. At Pratoni? The most talked about fence, and the one that has become emblematic of this historic venue, is the Pratoni Slide. This week, it goes by the moniker of The Kep Italia Target, but fundamentally, it’s the exact same question that we saw posed at the 2007 European Championships here. Let’s take a little leap into the eventing time machine to see how that looked:

And, before we move onto the final details, another look at that view from the top, this time with a Padraig McCarthy in situ for scale. This ‘slide’ was carved into the hillside in 1960 for use in the eventing at the Rome Olympics, so it’s another real nod to the past in a venue that largely has to rely on portable fences because of its status as a protected piece of countryside.

There’s a couple of options here for riders to choose between, and what is perhaps most interesting about the whole thing is how different the long route is this year, as opposed to in 2007. That year, which marked Giuseppe Della Chiesa’s championship designing debut, saw the majority of the field opt for the long route, which proved to be nearly as quick as the direct route and considerably less risky. Then, they could jump the log drop at the A element and cruise on down to the right over another fence, effectively just adding a swooping loop to the line — but this time, likely in order to force the frontrunners to take the risk and go direct, Giuseppe has crafted a much longer alternative that doesn’t feature the log drop and wends its way through the wooded area to the left of the slide instead. This certainly walks as a much slower route, and it still features some sharp terrain that’ll make it difficult enough, so we’ll likely see the slide taken head on by much of the field.

If they do run into issues when they get to the first of the skinnies on the direct route, they can add in an extra loop and jump a 7BC skinny, but that can only be jumped after a runout. Here’s how those routes look:

For good measure, here’s a view of the direct route from the bottom of that first major hill on course.

This is, without a doubt, the first part of the course that’ll have everyone’s beady eyes on it in those crucial early rounds — particularly as riders and trainers alike work out how gettable the time is. In the last few World Championships, the time has proven to be almost disappointingly easy to catch, with double-digit numbers of riders coming home inside the time. But when we last saw a championship run here, back at that Europeans in 2007, just one horse and rider caught the time. That was eventual winner Nicolas Touzaint, who is competing here again this week and sits 66th overnight on 34.4 with Absolut Gold HDC, with the great Galan de Sauvagere. If the time is similarly influential this weekend, the risk v reward factor may skew in favour of straight routes here. If, however, the time is catchable, we may well see more riders go long on team orders.

“The slide comes quite early, and I think we’re possibly underplaying its influence,” says Sam. “It’s identical to 2007 — they’re placed in the same place. I’ve looked at it back on the video. But what we’re all thinking is that that was 15 years ago, and these horses have all been jumping skinnies since they were baby horses. Skinnies have been in their life since they ever started doing cross country, so they’re just going to lock on more.”

The real question here, he points out, is the second of the skinnies — just as it was in 2007.

“I think what people are underplaying is there’s a bit of a drop at the back of the second skinny, and they’ve just come down a really steep hill. That Slide, that’s really steep. I actually think there’s a psychological element to some horses thinking that they won’t want to jump that second skinny because they can’t see the landing on the back of it. And in their head, they’ve just gone down the steepest bit of ground they’ve ever gone down — so I think there’ll just be more horses than we think [that run into issues here].”

The slide itself shouldn’t be an issue, he says, no matter how frightening it might look.

“Where we can warm up, our hacking route, where some poor Belgian and Austrian riders were calmly walking their horses, I came flying past them to go down the hill just to see if I had brakes, and [SAP Talisman] balanced up beautifully once the terrain got steep enough — and that wasn’t even as steep as the slide,” he says. ” There isn’t a horse in the world, to be honest, that will be out of control going down that slide. When we run downhill, we suddenly get to a point where you balance and you check your stride. I think with the first skinny, that you keep the fence in the way of the horse and you keep the horse in front of you. I just think you’ve got to apply a little bit of leg and a little bit of pressure to the second one and get them to the base of it. Giuseppe’s been kind with the distance, but you’ve got to get them there.”

The direct comparison that he makes, in terms of influence, is the waterfall feature at Tryon in 2018, which threw a number of experienced combinations out of contention.

“We had a lot of number one riders pick up penalties and that’s what suddenly threw it open for the U.S., the Australians, and I think the Kiwis,” he says. “There were three big nations suddenly on the back foot. I think we could see that here, which is exciting for everyone.”

Fence 8 will feel like a real relief after the tricky question at the combination prior.

Once they’ve made it through the slide one way or another, competitors find themselves back down at the flat bottom part of the course, where they’ll jump a timber oxer to get back on the move again and inject a boost of run-and-jump confidence before the next combination.

There’s a double of angled brushes at 9AB, which should ride well but could see a few fresh horses drive by the second element.

The combination at 9AB features two big, angled brushes on five strides. This feels forgiving after the slide, but could open the door for a horse who’s not quite on the money to slip out to the left. Realistically, though, it should be one of the less influential questions on this course.

There’s an identical triple bar to the one at 6 when you get to fence 10, which heralds the arrival of hill number two.

Then, there’s another single fence at 10, and it’s a bit of a case of deja-vu: it’s the same triple bar we saw at fence 6, but this time, it’s on a bit of flat ground, making it a real run and jump fence — albeit one that is, once again, set with MIMclips.

The first element of 11 at the direct route is lettered 11AB, so once riders commit here, they have to see this route through.

Once they’ve jumped fence 10, riders will be faced with a gallop up the steepest, though not the longest, uphill climb on the course, and at the top, they’ll be met with a serious question. Fence 11ABCD is one of the combinations on course with a number of route options, but more significantly, the fences are largely lettered in such a way that you have to be very aware of where you’re going, lest you jump the same letter twice and get yourself eliminated. That means that, as seen in the route diagram below, competitors who commit to the direct route — a brush-topped hanging log with an angled groundline, followed by two brush corners — have to see it through, because the first element is lettered as 11AB, and the second element of the long route is 11BC.

The long route will certainly add some seconds, which could prove enormously expensive — but the direct route is a serious five-star question, with a tricky three-stride line between those two brush corners. We’ll almost certainly see some horses — very possibly even top-notch ones — pick up a run-out here or, even more likely, a contravention of the flag rule.

The second element of the direct route, 11C, is followed by another brush corner at 11D.

After clearing 11ABCD, it’s time for another ‘breather’ fence at 12, but this rolltop is made more interesting by its downhill position. This was used in the same spot at the test event in May, and jumped well throughout the day, but it’s a different feeling and riders will need to rebalance their horses on the approach.

Fence 12 is a straightforward rolltop, but situated on a downhill pull that’ll require a focused ride.

One of the interesting things about this course is that, despite the space available in this area of protected parkland, there’s not actually a huge amount of galloping space on offer — partly because Giuseppe, who had made clear his plans to add an extra loop on the flat, open section of land behind the water complex and ditch line, hasn’t actually built in that space. Instead, the course tends to twist and turn back on itself, lending it a short-format sort of intensity. But between fences 12 and 13, which is a wide table covered in Willberry Wonder Ponies, there’s a bit of space to motor on as the course begins to flatten itself out again.

Fence 13, the Wilberry Wonder Pony Table, is covered in representatives of the cancer charity that’s been so well-supported by the equestrian community.

This is a rather serpentine-y part of the course: after hanging left-handed to get to 13, competitors will navigate a bit of a hairpin bend to the right to get to the pagoda fence at 14.

The pagoda question at 14 crests the top of a hill, and shouldn’t cause issues — but it is MIM clipped, and those look like they could be very influential on Saturday.

The pagoda, which features a MIM-clipped upright question and is on the course’s altitude midpoint, isn’t likely to cause issues: it was part of the test event course, where just one person hit it and activated the clip after coming in too deep. The roof is more obvious this time, as it’s covered in foliage, but a good, bouncy canter into this will give horses confidence, keep them focused on the rail, and help them make a nice shape and avoid those pesky 11 penalties.

Fence 15 is another let-up fence before the next set of intense questions.

Then, it’s onward to a fence 15, which is plenty wide but very readable for horses. It’ll encourage a longer, flatter, more open jump, though, which is in interesting opposition to the way they’ll want to be jumping to get the best result at the next combination — but at this midway point on course, riders should find they have plenty more adjustability to play with.

The MIMclip Complex at 16ABC features two elements on its direct route: a clipped timber oxer, and a yellow-clipped open corner.

Fence 16ABC, the MIMclip Complex, is actually a two-part question if you go straight, but it comes with an element of risk — and the clue, there, is in the fence’s name. The A element, which is the same for both routes, is a clipped timber oxer on a cambered approach, and if riders continue on straight from there, they’ll jump a right-handed open corner that’s seriously wide. It’s also, as per reasonably new FEI rules, clipped with yellow MIMs rather than red ones. Those yellow clips, which were designed precisely for this sort of fence, are more easily activated than red ones.

If, instead, riders choose to go long, they’ll give themselves an extra jumping effort, but more space to play with and no yellow clips.

The open oxer at 17 features a sandpit underneath it – perfect for containing errant children, perhaps.

Fence 16ABC is situated on another of those hairpin bends, this time to the left, so those who go the direct route here will find themselves more easily on course for the next question — a wide timber oxer over a sandpit, which is where we’ll be recommending that any badly-behaved children be stowed for the day, just to spice things up a bit.

The rail-ditch-rail complex at 18 and 19ABCD features a number of different routes.

The question posed at 18 and 19ABCD is an interesting one and — surprise, surprise! — another to feature a choice of options that, on first walk, left most riders scratching their heads. Fence 18 is a a red-MIMed upright rail, while the direct route at 19ABCD, which comes up fast, is a sharp downhill to a ditch at 19ABC, followed by two strides up an incline to an arrowhead at 19D. To the right of that, there’s a ‘middling’ long route, which adds an extra element in the form of an extra upright rail at 19A, the ditch, sans declines and inclines, at 19BC, and a one-stride distance to an arrowhead at 19D. The true long route is a long serpentine of a route that takes the ditch out of the equation entirely but will add serious time. You can see the three routes below:

Fence 20 offers riders the choice of a forgiving wall with a spread, or a clipped gate — but those who want to cut off a few seconds here will opt to go left handed over the gates and hug the rope.

Once through the sort-of-coffin complex, there’s a single fence with three jumpable parts, which riders can choose between: there are clipped gates to the left and the right, or a wall with a spread in the middle. The middle option has the most forgiving profile, and takes out the risk of a frangible penalty, but those who are chasing the time will find that the left-handed gate allows them to keep hugging the rope and shave a couple of seconds off.

The first pass through the water complex comes at 21ABCD, with a choice of two routes through. Each route begins with this skinny on the island as the A element.

Something that’s particularly curious about this course is that horses won’t get their feet wet until seven minutes or so in, which is largely due to the fact that the protected area that the venue sits within doesn’t allow for the building of another water complex. Certainly, though, Giuseppe has made the most of the one he’s got, and the first trip through it here at 21ABCD is no joke.

Horses will get the chance to splash through the water before being asked to negotiate one of the 21A elements on an island in the centre. Both are brush-topped skinnies, but once you’ve committed to one, you’ll really need to see your line through — and it’s the left-handed of the two that sends you on the direct approach. After landing on the island, there’s another splash through the water and back onto dry land, where two angled brushes on an extraordinary angle away at 21BC and D. Riders will need to angle the first fence, ride a stride straight on, and then turn for the final two strides before the third element. This is a particularly compelling question, because it invites run-outs so abjectly and will likely be very influential as a result — but it’s also unlikely that a horse fall will occur here, because that door is so open for non-injurious penalties.

“There’s so much open space in front of you to run off that last angled brush — and again, I think there’ll be a couple of high profile fly-bys there,” says Sam. “We don’t see run-outs that much in the sport anymore; we hardly saw any run-outs at Badminton, and I just think that for the first time probably since Tryon, we just might see run-outs again. We didn’t see them Tokyo. So there’s plenty going on.”

That’s a reassuring notion after a season that’s seen run-outs at a minimum and horse falls nearing an all-time high.

The straight route out of the water is directly out the other side and over a stiff challenge of angled brushes on a curving three-stride line.

If they don’t fancy that line — and who can blame them, really? — riders can go for the right-handed skinny on the island and then head left out of the water, hang a right, and then jump a couple of angled brushes on a more forgiving line, taking the time penalties on the chin for having done so.

Fence 22 is a natural open ditch, which is a historic element of this course.

Another historical element on this course is the ditch line, which has been present since the 1960 Olympics, and now, horses and riders will pop over it twice in quick succession on a large semicircular line. Fence 22 is a natural, open, very rustic ditch, which jumped very well at the test event and is a classic hunting-style question, and the airy trakehner at 23 was similarly untroubling back in May.

Riders will do a wide, swooping turn back over an open trakehner at 23.

There’s no rest for the wicked, though, and after popping those ditchy questions, it’s straight back to the water complex for another big test.

The riders quickly come back around to the water complex, with two route options. The direct route, seen here, is a log drop in at 24AB.

Go direct here, and you’ll meet a big log drop into the water at 24AB, followed by a big right-handed brush corner in the pond at 24CD. It’s essential to get the line right here, even before you’ve left the ground for the first element, because that corner will come up quick — and because of the lettering here, once you’ve jumped that AB element, you’ll need to get yourself out over the CD. The longer route consists of three elements: a rolltop on dry land, marked 24A, and then two boats in the water, marked 24BC and 24D. This is both a slower route, and one that adds an extra jumping element — not generally an attractive prospect for a tiring horse.

From 24AB, the direct route goes to a beefy brush corner in the water at 24CD.

At this point, the end feels achingly close, but there’s still plenty to do. First up: another rolltop at 25.

Riders will be delighted to meet fence 25, an inviting rolltop.

Then, it’s down to the lowest section of the course and a combination at 26AB that begins with a colossal brush-topped rolltop fence, followed by one of two options: a direct route over a brush-topped skinny, or a wider route over another big rolltop.

The combination at 26AB has two options — a brush rolltop to a skinny, or a wider route to another brush rolltop.

Here’s the skinny in the direct route at 26B.

The penultimate ‘combination’ isn’t technically a combination at all, but the option of a related distance makes it read a bit like one. If riders want to play it safe here at 27 and 28, both of which are clipped oxers, they can pick a 27 option that’s a much further distance away, as seen in the foreground of this photo:

The clipped oxers at 27 and 28 give two options: a 27 much further away, but on a wider, slower turn, as seen in the foreground here, or one on a related distance to 28 that’ll shave off valuable seconds.

Or, they can choose a 27 that’s on a related distance to 28, which won’t gain them much time, but considering the tight margins on the leaderboard, could actually make a significant difference.

Here’s a closer view of the related distance between the short route option at 27 and 28.

The final combination — for real this time — is a choice of two brush horses. There’s plenty more than two horses in this patch of field, and as we’ve seen several times before on this course, they’re all lettered in such a way that mixing and matching has to be done carefully. Here’s a view of the line through the straight route.

The final combination on course presents a wide variety of options, but the straight route is a direct line between two brush horses.

There are two alternate routes here, which offer more space between fences, but each of them adds an extra jumping element, as seen here:

And then, finally, 5600 metres after they left the start box, our competitors can come home — all the need to do is jump one last big fence. It’ll be a welcome sight for them all.

It’s every rider’s final fence: jump this, and you’re home and done.

We caught up with course designer Giuseppe after the test event to find out his vision and goals for this week’s course this spring. You can read the article in its entirety here, and an analysis of this spring’s test event (where 11% of the field made the time) with insights from Sam Watson here, but here are some of the most valuable takeaways we learned in that conversation.

“I was a younger designer [at the 2007 Europeans], and it was a bit hot,” remembers Giuseppe. “There were lots of experts that said, ‘oh, this is too easy, it’s not a championship’ — and then they all went out on Saturday and were like, ‘oh!’ There’s a bit of a hidden difficulty here that you don’t find until you’re out there on your horse, moving up and down. You could count 33 jumping efforts while you’re walking, but there are many more efforts hidden in the ground.”

“This venue is a fantastic venue, but you must use it with care because — and this will be very similar at the Championship — you must never finish on a hill,” he says. “A tired horse on a hill will not finish; he just stops. He says, ‘I’ve had enough’. But a tired horse on flat ground, if the rider has a bit of a brain, has the chance of a softer route to bring him home. I didn’t use that so much in the short-format competition, but in the long-format, I will. I’ve always been a big believe that you must do hills early on and finish flat.”

By placing technical combinations in the final two minutes, too, he hopes to minimise the chances of a blind gallop to the finish, which can drain a hard-working horse’s final supply of energy and potentially lead to accidents.

“I want to give them a chance to come home, and I’m quite happy with that, because when you finish on the flat there’s a real risk that the riders will just look at the clock and run. So I have this idea of always trying to keep them a bit busy — in a soft way, but busy on the flat. I think it worked quite well [at the test event], because to the last minute, they needed to have something left. I wanted to challenge the riders without punishing the horses, and I think it worked.”

Cross-country will commence at 10.30 a.m. local time (9.30 a.m. BST/4.30 a.m. EST) and can be viewed in its entirety on ClipMyHorse. You can find starting times here — and a reminder of how our team and individual leaderboards are looking below. Go Eventing!

The top ten going into tomorrow’s cross-country at Pratoni.

The team standings at the end of the first phase.

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