Reporter’s Notebook: With Badminton in the Rearview, What Can We Learn?

The three-year wait for another crack at Badminton Horse Trials felt like it took about a decade — but on the other hand, driving back into those hallowed grounds and stepping into its stone stableyard felt so like a homecoming that it was almost as though we’d never left. And what a week it gave us: a hugely popular win, some extraordinary displays of horsemanship and classic cross-country riding, and a packed-out Saturday that proved that eventing certainly isn’t breathing its last just yet.

So much of the week felt like an enormous success, but it would be remiss of us not to treat any major event as an opportunity for reflection and refinement for the future — and to that end, here are some of the things I’ve been ruminating on in the days since. Much of this is opinion, and wholly subjective, but as always, we’d like to keep the dialogue an open one here at EN, and welcome further discussion in the comments.

Laura Collett realises a dream — and cements herself as the sport’s poster girl — at Badminton. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

A pony novel victory proves it doesn’t happen by magic

Badminton, like the Grand National in jumps racing, always seems to deliver a fairytale result: in its last few iterations alone, we’ve had a Grand Slam winner in Michael Jung, a win on the 37th attempt for post-injury Andrew Nicholson, and first five-star victories aboard unconventional, incredibly gutsy little mares for Jonelle Price and Piggy March. This year, Laura Collett went into the event as the statistical favourite, but that doesn’t make her pillar-to-post victory any less of a pony novel come to life.

I’m always cautious about leading a story with details of a rider’s previous injuries, because our sport’s emphasis on toughness has ramifications: when we value toughness as a quality above all others, there’s a very real risk that equestrians will feel pressurised to swallow down their pain and battle through it stoically, and whether that’s physical pain or mental health issues, avoiding the hard truth for fear of looking weak does circle back around eventually.

For this reason, I chose to focus my attentions in my final report on Laura’s faith and tenacity in producing a horse who, by dint of his exceptional talent, had to make all his necessary green errors in the spotlight. But Laura’s journey back from a horrific accident in 2013 does warrant inclusion in our coverage of her, not least because she’s been so open in explaining how she had to take steps back and work sensibly through her recovery.

Though her fall in a one-day at Tweseldown left her with a laundry list of injuries, including a punctured lung, a lacerated liver, kidney damage, broken ribs, and necessitated several resuscitations and an emergency tracheotomy, it was the loss of vision in her right eye, which came about after a tiny fragment of her shoulder bone travelled through her bloodstream and damaged her optic nerve, which would have taken the largest toll on her return to the top of the sport. In the aftermath of her recovery, she spent plenty of time jumping just those horses she could most rely on, practicing the basics and learning how to see a stride all over again without the benefit of depth perception.

For Laura, leaving the start box with the knowledge of Nicola Wilson’s fall earlier in the day would have been an enormous exercise in compartmentalisation, because the worst thing anyone can do is ride afraid: defensive riding so often becomes backwards riding, which saps momentum and can lead to catastrophic mistakes. Laura, like all the rest of us, will undoubtedly have been hugely concerned for her compatriot, who she’s ridden alongside at events for years and who is such a cherished part of our community for her easy smile and ready kindness.

But when Laura left the start box, it was a masterclass in focus; she looked at every point as though the only thing on her mind was the next stride, the next fence, and the next minute marker. That focus — and the effort she’s put in in the gym and riding racehorses — paid dividends when London 52 hung a leg jumping into the Quarry at fence 4A, twisting dramatically in the air and looking, for one aching moment, as though he might come down. A moment like that, particularly early on in the course, is a test of resolve as much as it is of riding skill, and Laura never faltered: her eyes were up, her attention was wholly on her line and the next fence, and as a result, her horse was able to regain his balance without Laura losing hers, which saved the day.

That Laura has become an expert in shutting out the noise and focusing on her job is no surprise, when you consider what she’s overcome on her path to the top. Not only did she have to battle through the aftermath of her fall, she also made her first forays into Senior competition off the back of a hugely successful career in the youth divisions, which comes with the weight of public expectation. She then had the same sort of pressure in a slightly different way when the prodigal London 52 made such a strong start to his four-star career, then had a summer full of learning experiences while the eventing world looked on.

But beyond that, she’s also had to face horrific public scrutiny when her connection to the racing world meant that the Gold Cup winner Kauto Star joined her string in his ‘retirement’. Racing’s viewers are largely very different from those who follow eventing, and they’re louder in their pushback, too — you only have to hop on Twitter after a reasonably big race to spot thousands of tweets haranguing jockeys and trainers, often paired with threats and extraordinary personal remarks. Throughout her partnership with Kauto Star, who she was training for the dressage ring, Laura was on the receiving end of this kind of negativity, and when the gelding died at the age of 15 following an accident in the field, the pushback quadrupled and expanded into death threats and a rumour mill that worked overtime, crafting false stories about the circumstances of the horse’s passing.

It would be enough to make most people want to delete social media forever, step away from horses, and go find another way to fill one’s time, but Laura pushed through what must have been one of the hardest periods in her life and has come out the other side a bastion of mental strength. No one should have to go through what she has, but it makes every good thing that happens to her feel that much more deserved, and she’s continued to be hugely generous with the public, using her social media to let fans get closer to her, her horses, and the work she does to be as good as she is.

She may have spent her youth dreaming of being Pippa Funnell winning at Badminton, but now, she’s the person that young riders watching on will dream of being. Six years to the day after London 52 arrived on her yard, she became the Badminton champion, wearing the same back number that Lucinda Green wore when she won her first Badminton. It feels a bit like kismet, and we’re lucky to have her as a role model for the next generation.

Oliver Townend and Swallow Springs. Photo by Nico Morgan Media.

Every event is an opportunity for improvement

I think we all felt a little rusty in our various roles at Badminton, even with two years of other events behind us -– I certainly felt like I’d picked up a frustrating amount of time faults through the week, and at 11pm in the media centre each night, I wondered how on earth I’d finished by 7 and still had time for a quick outfit change before the cocktail party in previous years. But there were a couple of notable incidents on Saturday that really brought to light how finely tuned our systems need to be to ensure that judgment calls are quick, fair, and made with the welfare of the horse at the forefront.

The first, and most obvious, of those is the visually horrifying fall that France’s Maxime Livio took at the final fence, in front of a grandstand packed with people. I don’t think there was a soul among us who didn’t think we’d just watched a horse die as Vitorio du Montet crumpled on landing, made a fitful attempt to rise, and then lay still on the ground. The cheer when he finally rose, a good fifteen minutes later, was among the loudest of the day, and he was escorted from the arena with his tearful groom lavishing him with kisses, while Maxime -– a very good horseman in his own right -– followed on, looking stricken by what could have been.

I hadn’t seen the pair’s previous fences, nor their entry into the arena, so was relying on the word of others to patch the situation together until I could rewatch the available footage later on. When I did, I saw a rider trying to nurse his tired horse the last number of meters home. Was this the right call? In hindsight, no –- but a rider’s brain works very differently when riding across the country at this level than it does in a less pressurised situation, and when the end is so close, it’s easy to see why a rider might take their foot off the gas and just try to get there. We’ve seen it happen previously without a horse fall, and so without any negative press, but it’s a stark reminder of our own responsibilities when it goes wrong.

I’d like to see stewards and fence judges who are prepared to make the call themselves, from a non-adrenalised place, and stick to their resolve. While it’s not at all an easy job, it is a very important one to get right — and though making the decision isn’t as objective as, say, spotting blood and penalising it, it would be worthwhile to ensure that there’s a set of standards that those important folks on the ground can adhere to when analysing whether to make a call. This, perhaps, could include creating an ‘evaluation point’, perhaps at the final or penultimate minute marker, or the nearest available stopping point, wherein they can decide whether the horse looks capable of completing the course safely, or whether it appears to be on the brink of exhaustion. It’ll never be an easy call, and no doubt any such decision will be met with pushback, but if it stops us from seeing another similar and avoidable incident — and eases the risk on even just one horse — it’ll be worthwhile.

Earlier in the day, there was some confusion regarding scoring, which was no doubt hindered in part by the crashing fall of Nicola Wilson, which rightly deployed most of the stewards, technical delegates, and resources to the scene in order to ensure she was appropriately removed from harm and stabilised. Furthermore, they needed to make the call to remove the fence that had caused the fall, which isn’t an easy call to make and requires some fairly extensive deliberation.

All this, though, meant that Oliver Townend and Swallow Springs were held on course for half an hour without any word as to their scoring at fence 4C, the brush element of the Quarry, where they’d had a very near miss and certainly looked to have flouted the contentious flag rule. They were ultimately restarted, allowed to finish the course, and subsequently eliminated –- though this, as it transpired, was an elimination for a perceived horse fall, not for falling foul of the flags. Upon an appeal, the decision was swiftly reversed: the horse’s shoulders hadn’t touched the ground, and the flag situation was deemed acceptable, but if it hadn’t been, it would have been a really tricky situation: allowing a horse to continue on over a course of this intensity for effectively no functional reason is a welfare concern.

Further to that, the incident proved that even with its most recent rewrites, the flag rule is still causing confusion: Oliver’s horse demonstrably passed through the flag with both shoulders, but the hind end scrambled along the side of the fence after having taken a great leap about a stride out and putting back down before reaching the jump itself. The flag rule currently works in favour of a horse whose hind end has cleared the height of the solid part of the fence, which Swallow Springs absolutely did, but perhaps further clarity in the wording is required so that the hind end effort has to happen over, or alongside, the fence itself, rather than a stride or half-stride outside in the actual jumpable realm of the fence.

I have, of course, the utmost respect for the officials on the ground at these big events, who have a multifaceted, intense, and often enormously subjective job on their hands, and ultimately, I know we’re all on the same page where emphasising welfare — and those all-important optics — are concerned. With Badminton behind us, though, I wonder if it’s time to tighten the parameters of judging. There’ll never be total objectivity, but when it pertains to safety, we need to minimise subjectivity as much as possible.

It’s all about the horses, at the end of the day. Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

And relax…

One of the most fascinating takeaways of the week was how many elite-level riders have made a conscious decision to back off their horses’ schooling regime. Laura Collett told us that she didn’t school at all at Badminton ahead of her dressage test, choosing instead to focus on hacking, lunging, and pole work, which kept her horse relaxed and happy ahead of his impressive test.

Ros Canter, too, has scaled back the workload of her World Champion, Allstar B, who now spends most of his time out hacking and will only school during those hacking sessions. Ros told us she’d found out an enormous amount about her longtime partner through this regime change, and the difference showed in how he worked, too –- he’s come out this season looking fresh and obviously relishing his work at the ripe age of seventeen. This emphasis on doing a bit less was repeated in different ways by a number of riders through the week, and I’ve heard it from several of the riders I’ve chatted to at Pratoni this week, too.

It feels, in a way, like a natural progression of the pandemic: for two years, the ‘goal’ events have been limited, and so there’s been so much time to work on the marginal gains in the ring at home, particularly in 2020. The line between putting in the hours required and overtraining is very fine, though, and horses can suffer burnout just as people can. We’ve come to a bit of a universal reckoning with ourselves in terms of how much we pile on our own plates, and often, it feels like the ‘boss babe’ burnout culture is on its way out, well beyond the scope of the equestrian industry. It’s interesting — and heartening — to see it reach our little world, too, and I think all of us could learn a lot from the riders who are brave enough to trust in the foundations they’ve laid and take a major step back. At the end of the day, a horse-first approach can never go too far wrong.

Ariel Grald and Leamore Master Plan. Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

Striking the balance in course design

Captain Mark Phillips made a salient point in his column in Horse&Hound this week: one of the great wonders of eventing,’ he wrote, ‘is that its courses are so different.’ Badminton and Burghley are often roundly praised for being the most ‘proper’ of the seven five-star events in the world, though it’s not a designation I’m wholly in agreement with.

Each event has its own flavour, and its own challenge: Burghley is dimensionally enormous, with tough terrain that suits a blood horse with endless gallop; Luhmühlen is smaller — though it wasn’t always — but delivers an optical challenge through its winding forested lanes that makes it immensely difficult to find the right rhythm and catch the time. Pau, with its twisty track and achingly skinny narrow fences, is a real test of line and control, while Kentucky plays with technicality in a clever way, interspersing fiddly lines with long gallops that dare you to let your horse switch his brain off. Maryland, as a new event, is still finding its identity and Adelaide, which is a city event with an often relatively inexperienced field, serves rather a different purpose, but each is its own unique entity.

Badminton sits in a sweet spot that veers towards the Burghley trend in some ways, though historically it hasn’t been a site blessed with much terrain. This year, Eric veered away from the colt pond –- or ‘Guiseppe’s pond’ –- area of the course and worked on further developing the Vicarage ditch line, finding sneaky little mounds and hills that he could site his fences on to up the ante around the course. That Vicarage ditch area, which effectively stretched from the broken bridge at 13 to the solar panels at 24ABCD, walked and rode quite similarly to Pierre Michelet’s Pau tracks: you needed to come into the heart of the questions already up on the clock, because those middle minutes would be slow ones, punctuated by an almost constant set-up and without any chance to simply run and jump and cover the ground at upwards of 700mpm. Elsewhere on course, Eric allowed for those kinds of questions, using max-dimension fences to get horses well up in the air.

One thing I heard and saw repeated often through the week was delight, largely from social media commentors, that Eric hadn’t relied on skinnies and a glut of accuracy questions to add influence to his course. This is hardly a new line of conversation: every time I publish course previews, I see a handful of people – or more – in the comments, despairing at what they perceive as the overuse of these fences and the loss of ‘real’ cross-country courses.

But herein lies the course designer’s conundrum. Use skinnies and technical lines and you’re accused of creating a go-kart track that tricks horses; use big fences and natural terrain and you’re more likely to see very tired horses at the end of the course. Following Badminton’s cross-country, many commenters complained that they had seen too many horse falls and not enough of the ‘right’ kind of penalties — that is, run-outs, refusals, and harmless rider falls. Indeed, Badminton’s 62.5% clear rate and 74% completion rate was significantly higher than in previous years, while its horse fall rate — 9% — was on a par with tough 2014 and 2017.

We saw a lot of horses on the floor on Saturday –- more than you, I, or Eric Winter would have liked –- and whether that’s a result of a lack of preparation, a course that overwrought tired or horses, or simply bad luck or rider error, is by the by. The crux of the matter is this: skinnies largely exert influence through run-outs, and big, straightforward fences exert influence through falls, at worst, or through time lost in the set-up, at best. Of course, that’s an enormous oversimplification –- course design, particularly at the top levels, is far more technical and complex than simply sticking some fences in a field and deliberating over whether to shave a few feet off their width -– and credit must be given to Eric for a track that hit the mark in a lot of ways.

But following any major competition, we all must learn something useful that helps to hone the themes for next time, though I suspect Eric will be scratching his head trying to find something more technically complex to do with the Vicarage ditch area of the course. The answer, insofar as I can see it, is to look at those fences that caused horse falls — almost all of which came at the tail end of the course — and replace them with questions such as shoulder brushes, which will open the door for safe influence. The leaderboard can still be changed dramatically on cross-country day by a late 20 penalties — we don’t need to see a potentially catastrophic fall for that to happen, and I hope we see a ratio shift between run-outs and refusals vs horse falls next year.

Bubby Upton pilots Cola III around Thoresby’s new spring CCI4*-S fixture. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Is it time to beef up our spring events?

Let’s talk about preparedness for a moment, because this year’s Badminton was unique in that respect. Though we have had plenty of good eventing throughout the pandemic, helped along by the heroic efforts of ‘pop-up’ fixtures such as Bicton’s Bramham and Burghley replacements, we haven’t really seen anything quite like this since Burghley in 2019. The five-stars that have run have been a very different kind -– dimensionally smaller, more technical, or simply not as intense, while our championships are run at least half a level below five-star anyway. That meant that the jumps at Badminton really did look colossal, and it meant that horses and riders alike had to work jolly hard to get their eye in to jump them.

To that end, we really need to take a closer look at our spring season of prep events in the UK. The last time Badminton ran we still had the CCI4*-S fixture at Belton, which was traditionally the season opener for the level and neatly interspersed good galloping stretches with big, wide jumps and just the right amount of technical questions. A good run there often meant that riders could nurse their horses through the rest of their lead-up, without feeling like they’d be forced to get in a late run at Burnham Market, where the tricky Norfolk ground can really drill horses’ legs in a dry spring.

This year’s inaugural replacement fixture at Thoresby Park brought many things to like to the table: it was quite technical from early on in the course, which was a useful exercise for many fresh horses, and its atmosphere, layout, and rather exciting country manor made it a wonderful spot for spectators. It’s slightly more limited on space than Belton, and so it’s important that we all keep our expectations realistic, but I do hope we see it return next year with a slightly new-look course that takes into account how much horses and riders need to knock the rust off over some really dimensionally imposing jumps. Otherwise, Badminton starts to look like very hard work indeed, and I’m not sure that’s the straight path to safety.

We also need to be conscious of the difference between being qualified and being ready for the step up to five-star, though I was continually impressed by the efforts of debutants through the week: 20-year-old Alice Casburn, who stepped up to five-star at Pau last year, looked a picture all week, and I thought Libby Seed did a superb job piloting her first-timer, Heartbreaker Star Quality, around a tough track for a move-up. Ros Canter delivered a masterclass in piloting a first-time five-star horse with second-placed Lordships Graffalo, and we all fell a little bit in love with Ugo Provasi’s tiny, gutsy Shadd’OC, whose little legs found very French forward distances through all the lines.

But that doesn’t negate the need for a sensible look at the events riders use for qualifications. The more seasoned top-level riders know that they need to target bigger four-star tracks, such as Bramham or last year’s pop-up CCI4*-L at Bicton, in order to adequately prepare for this level, but it’s all too easy to fall into an easy qualification route — and a rider who qualified at, say, Burnham Market’s pop-up CCI4*-L in 2020 would have been in for a shock when tackling a subsequent move-up. In my head, I’ve begun to classify four-stars as ‘A-grade’ — the Bramhams, for example, which are top-end four-stars that would be a great assessment of ability ahead of a five-star — and ‘B-grade’, which are slightly softer and ideal for early, educational runs. I wonder if the time has come for such a system to be considered on the qualification pathway.

The mixed zone in action. Photo courtesy of Catherine Austen.

The magic of the mixed zone

I’ve never felt competitive as a journalist, perhaps to my own detriment — I’m always very keen to improve upon my own previous work, and I try to make every day a learning opportunity in some capacity, but I’ve never felt that being a successful equestrian journalist means bumping off the competition in any way. There’s room for everyone at the table, and I hope that anyone who has any interest in equestrian media feels they’re welcome to come and join our little family — whether they’re a journalist, a photographer, a podcaster, a broadcaster, or however they choose to document the sport, we can only benefit from further exposure and, most crucially, different perspectives.

A lot of the time, equestrian journalism is an oddly solitary activity: most events don’t have a mixed zone area, wherein riders are ferried to chat to journalists en masse after their rides, so we’re usually left to our own devices to grab them after they dismount, or track them down in the lorry park (my own personal hell, for what it’s worth, is when a rider texts me that their lorry is ‘the grey one’, and I then accidentally stumble into 35 grey lorries before finding the right one).

Through the pandemic, social distancing made mixed zones a relic of the past, and so returning to one at Badminton was a tonic — not just because it’s considerably easier for us all when the riders are brought to us, but because our work starts to feel collaborative in a unique way. We’re all part of the same conversation, and working with the same quotes, and one of my favourite parts of a big event like Badminton is taking the time on the Monday after to read, watch, and listen to, all the different angles that my colleagues have chosen to tell the same story. The creativity and breadth of knowledge and experience is always inspiring, and there’s nothing that beats the laughs we have while crammed together in a tent, providing our own commentary for what we see on screen and swapping facts and intel about horses and riders. I think it’s been hard for us all to relight our fire after a couple of tricky years, but I’ve come out of Badminton a bit battered, a bit bruised, but newly reinvigorated for getting to work alongside the people I admire so much each day. So thanks for that, chaps.

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