Walk the Carolina Course That’s Keeping Ian Stark Up at Night


Welcome back to the atmospheric and, let’s be real, just utterly beautiful Setters’ Run Farm Carolina International, where cross-country is just a couple of hours away from starting. Our primary focus for today? The Yanmar America CCI4*-S, which is arguably one of the toughest events of the level in the US, and provides a super preparation for long-formats to come. We caught up with designer Ian Stark to get to know the challenge to come.

“We’ve tweaked it a bit, but we kept the same flow to the course,” explains Ian, who considers Carolina’s spot in the calendar an enormous educational opportunity for horses and riders alike. “When I was asked to come here originally, the brief was and my thoughts have always been that it’s to give the horses a good run before Kentucky. There’s plenty of opportunities in different events, but when I was competing, I always liked to have a good, tough, attacking course for a horse before a big five-star, so that’s kind of what my aim has been here: to make it educational but make it a challenge, and have the riders riding their horses and the horses jumping big fences. I don’t go for a lot of twists and turns; it’s still challenging and they’re meeting fences off turns, but there’s not a lot of pulling horses around in the middle of them. I’m not a great fan of that. And, if you’re going to do that, then do that when it’s Championship or the five-star or the final run of the season, the big game for the horse for the season. I want it to be a good competition here. I want horses and riders to go away ready for the next one, is what I’m always thinking.”

And with that in mind, let’s head out on course!


Distance: 3728m

Optimum time: 6:33

Efforts: 36

Fence one starts you off nicely, with its wide, straightforward profile and relatively low jumpable height. Its function isn’t to test, nor to educate: it’s simply to get competitors going in a confident rhythm and help horses flow away from their pals in the warm-up across the road, so it’s really designed to be a bit of a ‘gimme’ fence. I mean, I still wouldn’t jump it, but for these guys, there shouldn’t be a second thought.

After clearing that, they’ll continue on the left-handed curving line they set out on right out of the startbox, abutting yesterday’s showjumping warm-up area. This one’s similar to the first in terms of its function, its straightforwardness, and its complete lack of appeal to me, a career Training level bumbler. In a really lovely touch, though, it’s been dedicated to the late, much-loved Richard Picken, who played such a significant part in so many riders’ lives — and I know that they’ll be sending a little bit of that buzz they get from the feeling of being airborne over a big table straight on to him.

You’d better hope your steering wheel turns well to the left early here on the Carolina course, because after crossing the dirt road, there’s yet another left-handed turn into a fence, this time the A element of the first combination on the track. After that, though, they’ll get to use the other rein for a second, which will probably feel quite novel. 3A is a decent-sized table set into the fence line of the showjumping arena, followed up by a fairly wide skinny question at B. This shouldn’t cause any issues, and if it does, that’ll be a sure sign that the horse and rider who’ve struggled need to fill a couple of gaps in their foundation before their spring long-format run.

Then, it’s a quick dash out the other side of the showjumping ring over this beefy timber boi at 4, which will have the picket fencing on its take-off side removed. There’s lots of other distractions around, though, so this is an early opportunity to really make sure horses are focused on the job at hand, and not on the fact that the Carolina Club does a really good Bloody Mary.

The next fence they’ll meet after galloping away from the hustle and bustle of the arena area is 5, this big, wide table out in the field. It’s a real attacking, straightforward fence, and will give a great feeling before the second combination on the course, which comes up after a wiggly route to the right back towards the arena.

That combination, when they meet it, is 6AB: a slim timber rolltop flanked by trees, followed by a left-handed dogleg turn to a right-handed brush corner. That’s a pretty chunky corner, all things considered, but the line is clear and the brush makes it feel a bit more forgiving — plus, the four stride distance comes up neatly. It’s not a challenging question, per se, but riders who haven’t yet got their horses focused could chance a drive-by at the B element. Most, though, will have a nice clear and a bit of a chance to remind their horses that there’ll be plenty more to come soon.

Fence 7, which follows a reasonably short but not insignificant gallop stretch, is a single fence, but it’s indubitably related to the combination that follows it at 8ABC. This smallish hanging log is followed swiftly by another of the same stamp, situated in the same fence line but effectively set on a 20m half circle. Once they jump the first, they’ll bounce themselves off that far fence line and find themselves a nice line to take them over the second hanging log and straight on over another at an offset angle at 8B, and then down to a triple brush at 8C. Finding the direct line will make this a gridwork exercise, though the undulating ground in the lead-up to C adds some extra interest.

Here’s a closer look at that C element, which is stacked with brush:

Next, they’ll head down to the far end of the field and jump another low, wide table at 9 — this one slightly inexplicably decorated to the hilt with baseball memorabilia.

Batter up and all that! No one should end up in the dugout here.

Fence 10 is the first question we’ll find in the wooded segment of the course, and it’s a familiar face: the keyhole of last year returns, and again, some riders have looked at it askance and wondered if that hole is just a little bit small. But, Ian assures us, it’s been expanded and fits into the FEI guidelines for a keyhole — if only just. It’s a relief to anyone who first walked it before it got a haircut, though.

“The builders re-brushed it but we left the old brush in, so it was the same size as last year,” Ian says. “As I explained to them carefully, in a year, a lot of that brush can sag so it was definitely a little bit tighter. So we’ve just opened it and it just looks rounder and easier now.”

His goal here isn’t to hinder anyone’s efforts, he points out: “I try and help them, the riders, sometimes — not always. I lie in bed and think of how I can get them,” he laughs, before turning serious for a moment. “No, I’m joking. I went to bed before seven o’clock last night with the idea of just lying in bed and watching the telly, and I fell asleep and I woke up thinking that I’d forgotten to put a tree in the ditch in the trakehner or on the mound last year, I put a tree in the ditch to stop anybody drifting left and landing in the ditch and I woke up and I had no idea that the telly was on. It was dark outside, I have no idea what time it was. I sent [course builder] Tyson a message saying ‘put the tree in, put the tree in in the morning!’ I don’t even remember doing it properly. In the morning, he said, ‘What were you on?’ I kind of get excited. I know the riders think I can be a bit of a pain in the ass and they ask me questions, but I spent a lot of time worrying about it as well. I don’t care if the riders are frightened, but I want to get it right for the horses. That’s my huge thing in my head: if the horses can’t read my questions, I need to give up. So I go through hell thinking about it.”

Speaking of things that might frighten riders — but that will also educate them — the next fence on the track is a serious enough coffin combination at 11ABCD. This follows a proper downhill approach, and so riders will need to really think about rebalancing for the hanging rail of the A element — especially because it’s MIM-clipped, and a sloppy effort could earn them an expensive 11 penalties for activating one of these safety devices. They’ll land still running downhill, put in a big stride, and then jump the ditch, landing uphill and then popping another clipped rail. Then, it’s down again to another triple brush. Lots of quick thinking to be done here, but this is a seriously useful question for anyone planning to head to Kentucky’s tough four-star with its hugely influential coffin complex.

There’s a let-up fence at 12 in the form of a wide timber table, which, if ridden positively, will help inject the attack back into horses before the first water.

13ABC might not be the main water, but it’s still a big enough question. The A element features a log drop into the drink, and then competitors will splash on through the pond, aiming for exit on the right hand side, where they’ll meet two big timber corners. The first, at B, is a right-handed effort, while the second, on a left-handed turn at C, is a left-handed one. The uphill trajectory to B will help get the horses sitting on their bums and powering through, which is a great aid, but riders will need to have planned a good line through these questions, otherwise it’ll be easy enough to take their horses’ eyes off the prize.

Not quite a throwaway fence, is it?

Next, they’ll hang a left and run downhill through the woods until they reach 14, an angled brush trakehner. This will be jumpable from a good, positive pace, though it’s not super tall so shouldn’t be keeping anyone awake at night.

Next up is fifteen, which, on its own, is a pretty unremarkable rolltop — so it’s the undulating ground beforehand that’s a bit more interesting. This is really just a question of balancing and deciding whether your horse needs a collected or an attacking ride through, and riding accordingly.

Then it’s on to the Normandy Bank at 16ABC, which is a great question and a good footwork test. There’s a huge groundline in front of the ditch and bank, so horses should get a great leap up there with plenty of power to negotiate the bounce distance to the hanging log on top. Then, they’ll run on down to the C element, a left-handed shoulder brush which comes up on a positive four. That positivity will be aided by the downhill slop on the landing side of the log at B, which will open up the stride.

Once safely through the challenge of the Normandy bank, competitors can take a deep breath, and their horses can let their lungs fill with air, too: they’ll now meet the longest galloping stretch on the whole course.

Once they’ve pulled up from their long canter stretch, they’ll take a right-handed turn, which will set them up for 17 — a classic galloping ditch and brush fence. Once they get here, though, they’ll know it’s all about to become a real degree-level bit of cross-country.

“It’s quite an intense field. We’ve got a long gallop from the Normandy bank to the big ditch brush — which is a jump I love, but this year, I asked if we could trim off the bottom of the trees and all around the trees, so it’s much brighter and it’s easier to see. But if there’s a horse with a ditch issue, they might see the ditch a bit more. There’s a long gallop and then that, and then from there until they get out of the Montrose field and over the gate, you know, it’s all boom, boom, boom  it’s happening quite quickly.”

That means that competitors need to manage that long galloping stretch well, using it to move it a consistently swift pace, but not going hell-bent for leather and draining their horses in the process: “I think our riders have to be careful that they haven’t tried to do the time and get to the Montrose field on a horse that’s feeling a little bit like, ‘wow, I’ve worked quite hard here.’ They need to save a bit of energy so that the horses are still jumping,” Ian says. 

Ian’s philosophy for these short-format courses has shifted more and more towards moving the intensity to the latter half of the course as a way to teach riders to moderate their horses’ energy use — a dogma he subscribed to while designing at England’s Chatsworth during the run of Event Rider Masters competitions a few years ago.

“At the Event Riders Masters, when they did the cross country last, I hated that because it put pressure on everybody to go fast,” he remembers. “There was a lot of people galloping the legs off their horses, and I saw one or two falls at the end of the courses. So I made the one I did at Chatsworth combination-heavy at the end, so the riders had to save the energy. And actually, it meant them getting home better, because the questions were at the end, so they had to save the energy and they had to ride at the end — they weren’t just trying to push for the clock. So I’m letting my head get into a bit more of that, and I think it’s quite a good idea.

“Also at the three-day events, you haven’t got the phase B at the steeplechase now, so I like to let the riders have a bit of a gallop at the beginning, a bit of a kick on, and get the horses thinking forward, and then bring in the big questions. So the beginning of the course is kind of like the steeplechase and it’s kind of encouraging, and galloping, and opening up and jumping, and then I ask the questions. It’s kind of how my thought process has been evolving over the years, as well.” He laughs to himself here, and then adds, “He says ‘evolving’ — next year is my last year. I’m retired after next year, so I don’t have to worry about it after that. But I’ve still got a lot of work to do in the meantime.”

Once they’ve popped that ditch and brush, it’s going to get really serious — and first up to bat is the huge brush drop into the Yanmar America water at 18.

“I’ve always put fences in this water, but I decided this year not to — to have a big drop in, yes, but I wanted more of a question coming out,” he explains. That question is not at all insignificant: after crossing through the water, they’ll canter uphill to a brush fence situated in a ditch, which is two compact strides from an angled shoulder brush with a downhill landing at 19AB. Then, 20ABC comes up so quick it’s practically a related distance, and features two big angled trakehners on a bending left-handed line — with a serious drop on the second of them — to a brush-topped timber skinny rolltop on a right-handed line.

That’s one of the questions that has had competitors scratching their heads and collaring the seasoned designer for a chat: “There’s one or two riders that have asked, ‘do you want us to go across there [19AB] in one?’ And I said, ‘No, I don’t.’ I’m expecting them to jump up and round over the first one, land, and then kind of press them into the base, get the two strides — it’s a big drop, and if they were to go for one there, they would probably crumble and fall over on landing.” 

Here’s a side-on look at 19AB:

As with the rest of the course, Ian is looking to test and progress essential skills here, and fast thinking is one of them.

“I’m kind of looking for them to be quick with their footwork and reacting, and they don’t get to see the second brush till they’re taking off for the first one,” he says. “The riders have got to make the plan and the horse has got to just respond.”

That serious question at 20ABC looks a little familiar to riders and spectators who were here last year – but Ian is keen to always learn from his own courses, too, and as such, he’s made some crucial adjustments based off how it rode then.

Last year, we had the same trakehner to the drop to the skinny, but the skinny last year was tiny, and I felt they were almost tripping over it. I only put it there again this year I put a slightly bigger fence and put brush on the top of that final element to get the horses eye up because it’s right at the end of the course; it’s the third to last fence, and they come off that drop into the landing a little bit dead, and then they were on their forehand.”

Here’s a look at 20B from the landing side, so you can get a sense of the drop that horses and riders will need to navigate. From the take-off side, it looks like much the same question as the trakehner on flat ground just before it — so it’s up to the riders to manage the pace and balance so their mounts can assess the question on the go. Beefing up the C element slightly will, Ian hopes, help with that task.

What I want to do is have a big enough fence so they could land, and the horse and rider had a reason to sit up and pick up for the next element,” says Ian. “It’s not a difficult fence, but it’s just to make the recovery better, so that they go to the last few fences and they’re not galloping on their head.”

It’s certainly no throwaway question, but after that, there’s just a bit of box-ticking to do: our competitors will now get to skedaddle out of that high-intensity field (I’m checking my notes app on my phone here, where I quickly jotted down ‘this is one busy ass field, man’ while zooming away on my golf cart, so that’s good, I guess) and across a little track to an upright gate, the penultimate fence at 21.

Cute, this! It’s not very high, which could mean that horses don’t pick up well over it, but it’s got two things going for it: it’s super easy to see, with that bright white paint, friendly approach, and straw groundline, and it’s MIM-clipped, so even if a tired horse hangs a leg, there shouldn’t be a thing to worry about. The decision to put a MIM-clipped fence there isn’t an accident, either.

We had some of the five-star course designer at what we call Mark Phillips’s Amsterdam meeting every January — it used to be in Amsterdam, but not now, it’s at Heathrow Airport, but we still call it the Amsterdam meeting and there were comments from riders and from Dickie Waygood, who helps Chris Bartle with the British riders. A lot of them were saying that they actually would quite like us to use the frangible fences near the end to make sure the horses are still jumping,” Ian explains. “What the riders hate is a frangible fence going into a coffin. I mean, they all hate that, because  and I don’t blame them they’re frightened that the hind legs are going to give them 11 penalties. So they were saying, ‘give us a question to slow us down and make sure the horses are still jumping at the end.’ That’s why I moved the gates there.”

Then, it’s a quick check of the stopwatch, down the track, back into a little copse of trees…

…and then a left-handed turn to fence 22, an inviting timber table and every rider’s favourite fence: the last one. That left-handed turn will do two useful things here: it’ll help to set horses up, and it’ll force riders to be considered in their approach, rather than giving them a straight shot to gun down towards the finish and risk a silly mistake en route.

“Provided you’re not being a complete yahoo, it’s just a bit of a gimme,” says Ian with a smile. 

It’s one final, subtle bit of sensible, smart design from Ian, and it should give both horses and riders a really nice, confidence-boosting feeling to finish their weekend on. Big pats all around and a sugar cube for the course designer.

Twenty-one pairs will go up against Ian Stark’s four-star course, beginning at 11:48 a.m. You can follow along live with the action on Horse & Country’s live stream. You’ll need an H&C+ subscription (you can save 15% off an annual subscription here using code EVENTINGNATION15 – the code is case-sensitive – this weekend only!), or you can also purchase a one-time viewing pass for this event for $19.99. Click here to access the live stream — and Go Eventing!

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