Two days before cross country, Morven Park is holding its breath for the big event: the 4*L course. Designed by Derek di Grazia for the second year in a row, it clocks in at 5804 meters, or just over three and a half miles, and the optimum time for the 25-fence course is 10 minutes and 11 seconds.
We hope our riders have done their homework, because fitness is a must for this course. Since it’s a good mix of long galloping stretches, technical questions, and lots and lots of terrain, completing this course within the time is going to take a horse at the peak of their physical health. According to Derek, “No matter what, they’ve got to be fit to go up and down the hills here.”
Our day one leader after dressage, Sharon White, agrees. “Starting with fence four, from there on you’ve got terrain the rest of the way. So, it doesn’t let up at the end. You have to have a fit horse and they’re going to have to stay focused and on their feet the whole way around.”
This course does not pull punches, but is fair and proper. Sharon describes Derek as a “master of course design” and calls the course “really lovely.”
As he has said in past interviews, Derek strives to use his designs to educate first and foremost, and this course is no exception. Derek’s priority was to help prepare horses and riders for the next step. When asked what he wanted to teach riders through this course, he responded, “To be better prepared for championships and Olympic Games. And also to keep competing, whether it’s to go abroad and do a four-star or five-star, but you always want to have these events, be able to give them the experience that they need to be able to compete in those different situations.”
The course itself is fairly designed and very representative of what riders should be expected to complete at this level. The first few minutes of the course are filled with formidable tables that Ema Klugman described as, “classic Derek.” But Derek also gives horses and riders some time to get into a good rhythm with a nice galloping start before really getting into the terrain after fence 4, where the course moves into technical questions on difficult terrain.
According to Derek, in order to be successful on this course, “Riders have to know their horses and know how they’re going to deal with the terrain here.”
True to form, Derek has used the natural terrain provided by Morven Park to create a course that combines technical questions and a good flow. This was actually an important factor in Sharon’s decision to bring Claus 63 to this event. According to Sharon, “From fence 4 to the very end, you’re dealing with terrain, either up or down, and accuracy questions on terrain. And I think that is the best way to challenge a horse on cross country without putting them in danger.”
Derek uses the terrain expertly to elevate what could be simple questions. For example, combination 6AB goes through the woods and wraps around a unique rock formation that blocks the view of fence B, an upright and rather narrow coop. Without the rocks, this bending line may have been simple. With the rocks, it can be a real challenge.
Perhaps the best use of terrain on course is the Taylor Harris Leaf Pit. Regarded as one of the most difficult fences on course, the Leaf Pit is an homage to late course designer Tremaine Cooper who originally designed the combination.
According to Derek, “I think that the Leaf Pit is sort of Tremaine’s jump. He was the one that, I think, actually started using that many years ago. And it’s one of the feature fences of the course. I think we’ll always use it — it’s a great feature.”
According to Ema, the Leaf Pit is where the “heart palpitations start.” This formidable four-fence combination involves a steep drop. Fence A is a large brush fence that offers horses a few strides afterwards to prepare for the drop. Seen here is the drop at fence B with 6’3” Jeff Kibbie standing behind it. Riders have to stay organized after the drop to make it out over the brush fence and finish over the brush skinny.
Sharon describes the leaf pit as an “icon of Morven Park.”
“I think that’s a really good question early on,” she said. “You have to deal with a lot of terrain and stay on the line, which is a question that is asked a lot on this course. So, I’m not taking any of it for granted.”
Horses and riders will ride through three different water jumps on the Morven Park 4*L course. Combination 4AB features two small ponds with raised ground in the middle, providing a unique challenge as some horses may think it’s another ground line and try to jump it.
Two more water jumps later on in the course, the Smartpak Splash and the Devoucoux Frog Pond, will continue to challenge the horse’s fitness. The Smartpak Splash involves a tight turn where a tree acts almost like a second standard to an angled brush fence. The Devoucoux Frog Pond has a large log jump followed by a tight four strides that riders will have to bend in order to make it to fence B nicely.
Speaking of fitness, the steep climb up to the Taylor Harris Mansion Lawn followed by the downhill combination is perhaps the most fitness-challenging aspect of the course. 17A is an inviting ramp followed by a few short strides downhill towards a massive upright corner that blocks the view of the narrow, upright skinny that makes up the last aspect of the combination. Many horses will be starting to tire at this point in the course, and this challenging downhill triple combination will require them to sit back and stay organized. According to Ema, this triple combination may be, “in some ways, kind of the most technical job on course.”
The latter half of the course also has some unique features, such as fence 20 – the Sold by Sue Cottage. This coop is actually a lower level fence built up to make a formidable, if adorable, cottage. True to form, it’s jumped on a downhill turn before riders will gallop up another hill and jump over an angled log. The cottage is just one more example of how Derek uses what’s available to him in new and unique ways.
Coming through to the end of the course, riders are going to be hard pressed to make up any time lost. So close to the home stretch, riders may be tempted to put on the gas, but fences like 22ABC are asking technical questions that aren’t conducive to a flat-out gallop.
Finally, riders will have to contend with a curving triple brush combination made of a downhill brush fence filled with the scent of freshly cut pine and two brush skinnies put on a curving line. So close to the finish line, our riders will gallop over a small bridge, through the woods and out to a left hand turn to a welcoming ramp– the Erin Gilmore Photo Frame, aptly named for its large rectangular wooden arch.
All in all, to conquer Derek di Grazia’s formidable and masterfully designed Morven Park 4*L course, riders and horses will have to be fit to the gills, have cat-like reflexes, and remember to have their mental game well in hand before leaving the start box.
You can view a full fence-by-fence photo guide to the Morven Park 4*-L track on CrossCountryApp here.