Gird your loins, chaps: the countdown is ON to the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials, and we, for one, couldn’t be more excited — not least because this year is a special one. 2019’s competition is the 70th anniversary of the inaugural Badminton, and since its first running in 1949 the sport, the venue, and the characters within this epic story have changed and evolved significantly. To celebrate 70 years of brilliant Badminton, we’ll be bringing you an extra-special inside look at the event and its rich and exciting history every week from now until the competition begins on May 1. Consider the archives your own personal Gringotts, and EN your loyal goblin sherpas.
Hot off the back of a flying visit to Badminton, where your loyal British correspondent got to check out the new course and only embarrassed herself in front of a duchess once, we’re bringing you a comprehensive look at the challenges set on this year’s course. We’re delighted to welcome Voltaire Design to the EN team, too — they’ll be partnering with us to bring you all the content you could want and need from this year’s event.
It’s nearly time, my friends: in just three weeks’ time, it’ll be Badminton cross-country eve. Dreams will come true, dreams will fall apart, and we’ll be preparing ourselves for a day chock full of thrills, spills, and terrific horsemanship. Excited? So are we.
This will be the third year of course designer Eric Winter‘s residency, and he’s certainly established his preferred style of design – his main aim across the course has been to test the adaptability of riders. This hearkens back to a rather more old-school way of riding – a type of cross-country manoeuvring that’s best learnt on the hunting field, where terrain can change in an instant, jumps can come up fast and without warning, and riders must be prepared to work with, rather than against, their horse’s natural inclinations. That formative education in the hunting field is reflected in some of his fence choices, too.
“There are no new ideas – some of these types of fences have been around for a very long time,” he laughed, citing the new combination at 17ABC and 18 as an example. Inspired by years of hunting with the harriers in Weston-Super-Mare, it features a sprawling, water-filled ditch with banked edges. It’s not a question we often see on five-star courses, but it’ll be a familiar site to anyone who’s ever ridden to hounds – and it’ll take the sort of gutsy, intuitive riding that Eric wants to promote to get the job done here.
“It all really comes back to that knowledge of your horse, and that’s what I’ve tried to do since I’ve been here – I try to look at those relationships between horses and riders, and their ability to train the horses,” he says. “Actually, I don’t build to a specific stride pattern so much – I do a lot of different things to disturb that stride pattern, so I can see how good the riders are at adjusting the stride, how good they are at utilising that intimate knowledge of their horse.”
The best cross country riders, he tells us, jump a few fences every day, rather than twenty once a week. “That builds up a relationship, and that takes time. But horses who come to Badminton should have that relationship.”
From beginning to end, this year’s rustic course puts that to the test. It’s not a course that’s all about rider control – instead, it reward instinctive reactions from both horse and rider, and encourages competitors to put more trust in their horse, affording them more responsibility.
This year the course will run clockwise, as it did in 2017 when Eric first designed the track. With a measured distance of 6,789 and a provisional optimum time of 11:55, it’s nothing to be scoffed at: this is a thinking man’s Badminton, but that thinking man had better be in possession of a rather indiscreet set of metaphorical you-know-whats, too.
Want a closer look at the challenge this year’s entrants will be facing in just three weeks? Let’s head out of the startbox…
Fence one, the ASX Starter, remains fundamentally unchanged – it’s still the big, colourful floral box in the main arena, which gives horses and riders a nice, straightforward pop (and an enormous cheer from the crowd) to start them on their way.
“This is the culmination of a lot of people’s dreams, to jump this first fence and start at Badminton, so there’s a lot of nerves riding down to this,” says Eric.
Once they’ve galloped out of the arena, riders will head to fence two, the Keepers Question, which is an imposing table and ditch. We saw this fence appear as the third on course two years ago, and now, with a new, slightly ascending profile, it should be reasonably straightforward. Well, as straightforward as a three foot, ten-inch table with a six-and-a-half foot spread can be, anyway.
The third fence is Little Badminton Gate, and if the idea of anything about Badminton being ‘little’ makes you do one of those choked sob-laughs, then you can take comfort(?) in knowing that this is actually one of the many nods to the event’s history that we’ll see throughout the week. By 1959, the event had become so enormously popular that the organisers were swamped with entries, and so they opted to host two sections – Great Badminton and Little Badminton. Though both sections jumped the same course, they were grouped with similarly experienced horses based on points accumulated. In 1966, this format was abandoned, and instead, the two-day dressage phase, as seen today, was introduced. Little Badminton is also the name of the chocolate box village the estate sits in – go for a walk in the sunshine during the event and you’ll see perfect Cotswold stone cottages, rambling herbaceous borders, and your childhood heroes, casually hacking out as though they’re on a break at Pony Club camp.
Anyway, for all that, the Little Badminton Gate is about the size of the whole village – it’s a very upright 1.20m (3’11), though its bright red and white rails make it easy for both horse and rider to read. Upright gates like this are prevalent on top-level cross-country courses, but they, too, are a hunting remnant – when hounds are in full cry, you either jump the five-bar gate or face the long walk home. There’s no time to fuss about with opening and closing the bloody things.
There’s a pretty significant undulation on the approach to this question, which certainly ups the difficulty of it – it’s not a galloping fence, like we’d expect to see this early on. Instead, riders will have to push forward up the slope without letting their horses lengthen. They’ll want to be sitting and pushing from behind to pop this cleanly.
After a jolly gallop away from the gate, our competitors will head to the first combination on course, and it’s a significant one. The Savills Staircase at 4ABC/5 tests boldness and accuracy, and though we’ve seen it make use of skinny questions in the past, this year it’s all about big, Burghley-esque timber.
The first element at 4A is a table with obvious front and back elements. It’s 1.20m (3’11) tall, with a top spread of 1.70m (5’10) and a base spread of 2.10m (6’10), but it should read well – with its chunky timbers, it presents an easy-to-read question to the horses. The trouble here is that they won’t see what’s to come – just a couple of strides later, there are two 1m (3’3) drops to tackle, so riders will need to make sure they have sufficient power to jump the A element, but that it’s contained enough that they can land and arrange themselves for the B and C. Then, upon landing, there’s a curving line to another whopping great big oxer at 5 – though there is an alternative here for those who lose too much power negotiating the steps.
After tackling their first combination, competitors will be glad to see fence six, the Worcester Avenue Table. I mean, we wouldn’t be glad to see it, but then, we’re not leaping around Badminton. This 1.17m (3’10) timber table is imposing and just as wide as the oxers at the Staircase, but it’s been built with a very helpful groundline and a couple of options for riders to choose from on the approach.
There’s a straight shot over, followed by a reasonably sharp left-handed turn, or there’s the option to angle the approach and gallop straight away from it on landing – with its straightforward profile and groundline, this is one of those seemingly innocuous fences that can allow for a crucial second or two to be gained or lost.
We’re heading past the house now, but there’s no time for sightseeing: the Joules Corners at 7 and 8 come up reasonably quickly, and this question is one that we’ve seen break hearts in the past. There’s a beefy 1.45m (4’9) left-handed brush corner, and then a curving left-handed turn takes you down to another one, this time right-handed. They’re big, they’re wide, and we’ll see more than one horse glance off at the second – particularly because there’ll be an unjumpable element between the two, which will affect the line and could cause a momentary lapse in focus. Interestingly, though, this is the first time we’ve seen the Joules Corners as separately numbered questions – usually, this is an ABC+ combination.
Just shy of the three-minute marker, we reach fence 9AB – the Countryside Log Piles. This can either be a single jump or a two-fence question, if the long option is taken – the single fence is a whopper, at 1.20m (3’11) and with a 2.60m (8’6) base spread, but it’s not a trappy or tricky question.
The alternative route features two smaller fences, but setting up for a combination will cost valuable seconds, and most riders will likely prefer to preserve their horses’ energy for the tough tasks ahead.
The redesigned Shogun Sport Hollow at 10AB is an interesting question for a couple of reasons – firstly, there’s an unjumpable pagoda element to canter through, which could back horses off, and secondly, it’s likely going to bring the flag rule conversation to the fore once again.
This combination comes after a long gallop and, indeed, a pretty open first section of the course – we’ve seen a much more forward staircase than usual, and those separately numbered corners. So far, the horses have been encouraged to seek and maintain a forward rhythm. Now, they’ll need to really change their way of going to negotiate this question.
The first – unmarked – element is the barn pagoda, which is designed to keep horses straight and to stop them from angling the question and making it easier.
“The barn is a little bit just to set the horses up, but you’ll have to feel what they do when they come through it,” explains Eric. “It’s not often that you go underneath a roof without a fence under it. Some horses might slow up a bit or trot a bit, so it’ll be interesting to see what they do. Then they’ve got a little narrow ditch [1.40m or 4’8] at the bottom – the barn stops you coming diagonally across the ditch, which would give you much more space. Because they land onto quite a steep bank, it’ll kill their stride a bit – their first stride will probably only be about three yards long.”
Once they’ve landed from the ditch, they’ll have a choice of two perpendicular logs to tackle. The route they take will have no effect on their time, but it’s designed to test how well they know their horse – the left-handed route is very slightly more obvious, but a bigger 1.20m (3’11) effort, while the right is smaller (1.16m or 3’9) but will come up fast on a directional turn. It’s a serious accuracy question, and one that will inspire a few glances off – and, we fear, many confounding, on-again, off-again judgements of the flag ruling.
“They’ll have to jump within where the flags were originally placed,” says Eric. “There won’t be that ability that riders have had within the last, well, forever, where they can lean on the flag and shift it out as they jump it. They’re going to use camera technology to say, actually, that’s where the line was placed. If the horse’s shoulder is slightly outside of that, they’ll get 15 penalties. Technically, you can collect as many 15 penalties as you want to on the course. It wouldn’t surprise me to see horses have three, four, or five fifteens on the way round. It adds a different level to this question.”
If this sounds like the worst game ever to you, take heart in knowing that both Eric and director Hugh Thomas agree.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if I, as event organiser and technical delegate, spend hours into the evening reviewing the footage. I’m not a fan of the new rule, as you might gather,” quips Hugh.
The new flag ruling is something we’ll be discussing in more depth soon, and it’s a rule that top-level riders are working hard to see amended. We saw it cause controversy at Belton – particularly as 15s were taken off and re-added multiple times throughout the day – but this will be a very public-facing competition, and one which is shown live to homes around the country. The decisions will have to be quick, and they’ll have to be clear, or we risk – at best – alienating the casual viewer.
Next up, we meet vintage Badminton in the form of the imposing KBIS Footbridge at 11/12. This whopping great angled oxer and ditch combo always takes committed riding but this year, the approach is slightly downhill, so riders will need to know their line and stick to it. Taken directly, it’s a single element question, but there is a long route here too, which consists of two elements – a ditch and an upright rail, on a long and circuitous route.
Then, it’s on to a new-look Outlander PHEV Bank at 13AB. Again, there are two options: the first is a big 1.18m (3’10) step up with a small ditch in front of it, then a couple of strides down to a skinny but small brush. On the take-off side, this measures about 1.10m (3’7) – but there’s a bit of a drop on landing, and it’s skinny enough that it’ll certainly take some riding. As Eric puts it, “they’ll have to be careful with their feet … they’ll need to sneak up to the brush.”
Again, this is a very Eric test of adjustability, and here, he’s also looking for a bit of a fifth leg.
“It’ll go to a clever horse that can think for itself and a sympathetic rider that allows it to adjust its stride pattern before the fence.”
The long route will see horses and riders jump a step up on the right-hand side of the bank before arcing back around to another brush.
There’s no time to think before our competitors will meet another rider frightener, the Rolex Grand Slam Trakehner at 14. This shouldn’t cause problems, but it might cause a few sleepless nights – the ditch beneath it is capacious enough that Genghis Khan would probably try to conquer it, if he was alive and, you know, into eventing.
The first aquatic question on course comes at 15AB, where we find the Hildon Water Pond. This has had a bit of a redesign – last year, it was a three-part question with a log pile, a water trough in the pond, and a steeply angled brush out. This year, 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, the trough we saw last year. 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.
Fence 16, James’s Brush, is one of those fences that’s hilariously considered a ‘let-up’ and a ‘confidence-builder’, despite being one of the biggest on course. But with its sloping roll-top profile and its smattering of brush along the top, it’s an easy read and will give competitors the chance to find a forward rhythm again. This is a chance, Eric says, for horses to be able to just run and jump without anything mentally taxing to work out.
After the confidence-boost of fence 16, we head straight back into the thick of it – and this time, it’s to a completely redesigned Mirage Water at 17ABC and 18. This incredibly tricky question could easily end up being one of the most influential questions on course this year, and it’s a great example of Eric using his hunting roots to bring old-school eventing questions back to relevance.
For those brave souls who go straight, the first element is a left-handed, right-angled timber corner with a height of 1.20m (3’11), a top spread of 1.80m (5’10), and a base spread of 2.10m (6’10). This is marked as an AB element, which means that once a rider has committed to it, they can only change their plan and go long if they have a stop or run-out at the C element, the water-filled ditch. This colossal effort is 2m (6’6) wide, with banking on both the take-off and landing side.
“It’s not something you often see in eventing,” says Eric. “What makes it tricky is that the more you accept the angle of the first corner, and come over it diagonally, is the more you have to arc over the second fence to find a line to the third. These are unpredictable fences to jump – you never know where they’ll land. You’ll have nothing, or there’s a chance you’ll land with your horse flying and running through the bridle.”
The tough line from 17C to 18 can be walked a couple of ways – for a horse who’s landed in trot, it walks as five on a curving line, but for a horse that’s running away a bit, it can be ridden as four. Many riders, posits Eric, won’t have jumped anything like this before, and so they’ll struggle to make a concrete plan – here, we see him at his best (or, perhaps, most devious), testing that ability to make and re-make a plan based on the raw elements they’re given to work with in the moment.
“There are no new ideas,” says Eric. “Forty years ago, this is what you did all the time.”
The corners here are fitted with swinging MIMS clips, allowing for an additional degree of safety. Unjumpable decorative elements will be installed after the ditch to prevent riders from turning back on themselves to get an easier line to the separately-number corner at 18.
For those who prefer to take the long option here, there’s another corner, an upright rail into the pond, and then the final corner at 18 to pop. Though it’s a longer loop, it won’t necessarily be that much slower – and the arc to the final corner is considerably kinder.
After the second water there’s an opportunity for another good gallop before 19AB, the Nyetimber Heights. The first element is an airy, upright brush of 1.20m (3’11), set atop a mound. The horses won’t be able to see what’s to come until after they’ve launched themselves into space – then, as they canter down into the hollow, they’ll be presented with four more brushes, each set nearly perpendicular to the A element. Three of these are left-handed options while the fourth – ostensibly the long option, but with no conceivable difference in time – is right-handed. This is another test of commitment to a line – riders will need to establish where they’re going while they’re still in the air, or they won’t have time to get their horses’ eyes on the fence they’ve chosen, nor to create a more jumpable corridor. This could be another place in which we see the influence of the flag rule.
Just after the seven-minute marker is another breather fencer, the traditional Feedmark Haywain at 20. It’s wide and welcoming, and allows for a run-and-jump after the intensity of the last section of the course. Our competitors will need it – there are some big questions to come.
Fences 21, 22, and 23 are a trio of brushes set on related distances. The YoungMinds Brushes, named for this year’s chosen charity, are a bit of a mental primer for tiring horses and riders before they head to the Lake. There are two options here – a straight line through, which will require forward riding and a commitment to the line, or a slower, snaking route, which allows horses to meet each question more directly. At 1.45m (4’9), they’re certainly not small fences – but they’re not overly technical, either.
From the brushes, our competitors will skirt alongside the infamous Lake, popping a brand new table at 24 along the way. The World Horse Welfare Lakeside is 1.20m (3’11) tall with a base spread of 2.30m (7’6), but the most interesting thing about it is that it’s a water feature, too. Water is pumped across the table from a small hut alongside, and it flows along the top before dropping off into the lake.
Eric tells us that he was inspired to create this fence after a romantic meal out in Oxford with his wife, Lizzel – there, he was obviously fully focused on the romance, because he spotted a similar (though one would presume smaller) water feature in the restaurant, and decided it would make a marvellous fence. It’s straightforward, and shouldn’t be particularly spooky, but it’s at maximum width, so won’t be a total let-up fence.
Nor should it be, really – the next question, after all, is the Lake proper. 25ABCD, The Lake with L200s, is an absolutely iconic fence – and this, of course, is the last time we’ll see our competitors leap the trucks in front of a roaring crowd. There’s a lot to look at and an awful lot to do here, so horses and riders both will need to be on their game. The first element sees the return of last year’s beefy log, although it’s been moved back a jot, so horses will land just before the water. Then, they canter through on a curving right-handed line to one of two steps up – if they take the left, they then flow down to a big, wide brush mound at C and around to a D element. If they take the right, they only have one fence to jump, and much less ground to cover to get back on track – but this mound comes up much sharper and sooner.
Remember the absolutely epic quad bar from last year? The one that made every photo look a bit like the bad Photoshop jobs that we all attempted when we were about eleven and wanted people to think we’d jumped a six-foot upright in our last lesson? This year’s final question at the Lake, the Wadworth Lower Lake at 26, sees a similar sort of question – but coming out of the water and with a jolly big drop on the landing side. This, says Eric, is a “let-up.” Ha. Ha. Ha.
As we head towards one of the last major questions on course, Eric has popped in a big, straightforward brush at 27, the Trade Stands Hedge. Again, this serves a dual purpose: it gives both horse and rider a mental breather, and it keeps them both thinking forward and aiming for a good, clean jump.
The Voltaire Design Huntsman’s Close at 28AB might be near the end of the course, but it still poses a significant question. Though the big, airy oxers are relatively straightforward and the lines, comparatively speaking, aren’t enormously technical, the site itself appears through the trees like a veritable spiderweb of silver birch rails. Riders will need to make sure they have a solid plan of action, so they can show their horse what they’re jumping nice and early – otherwise, they could lock on to the wrong thing, and an otherwise good round could unravel here.
The long option at Huntsmans sees a slightly different, wider entry point into the trees – those looking to save valuable seconds will eschew this for the straight route. Located by the site of the new glamping area, we assume all the spectators here will be impossibly well-coiffed from using the beauty rooms, and also presumably inhaling champagne like it’s orange juice.
One of the final combinations on course is 29AB, the Eclipse Cross Chicane. These two whopping brushes stand at 1.45m (4’9) with a base spread of 1.80m (5’10), and they can be ridden in one of two ways: either straight through on acute angles, or by swinging wide and tackling both more directly. There’s a big ditch in front of each, but these should help, in a way – they’ll act as groundlines. But they’re also angled slightly differently to the hedges themselves, so some decisions will need to be made – is it more important to be straight to the ditch, or to the jump?
At 30AB, we come to the penultimate combination on course – but Eric hasn’t thrown in an easy one here. The HorseQuest Quarry features steep terrain and big stone walls on angles. There’s a significant drop on landing from the first of the two walls, and horses will be tired at this point, so it’ll be crucial not to try to angle the fence too much lest they leave a leg. Then, once they get to the bottom of the quarry, they’ll need to hook right and head back up the slope to the second wall. They’ll need plenty of engine to get it done.
For those horses who are really tiring, there’s a long route here: it also features two stone walls, but doesn’t use the terrain. This will be useful if there’s a risk of hanging a leg, but it adds another circuit on, so riders will need to weigh up which option is likely to expend less of the remaining petrol in the tank.
From the quarry we gallop on to 31AB, the final combination on course. The Hayracks are pretty straightforward and feature two wide sheep-feeder fences on a curving line. At the A element, there are two almost identical options to choose from, and at B there are three, with varying widths – this could come in handy if it’s a particularly wet week and the riders want to choose fresher tracks to travel along at this late stage of the course.
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 32, the Rolex Trunk, which is a big, straightforward hanging log. Then, it’s time to kick on and fly back into the arena, where the appreciative crowd will be waiting to welcome you home. All that’s left is fence 33, the Mitsubishi Final Mount – once you’re over that, you’ve jumped the fence that every eventer in the world most wants to get to the other side of. Welcome home.
If you want to learn even more about the course, hear insight from Eric Winter and eventing legend Lucinda Green, and enjoy drone flyovers of many of the combinations, check out the CrossCountry App’s comprehensive guide to Badminton 2019. We’ll be bringing you much more Badminton coverage over the next few days, including our infamous jam-packed form guide and another #BadmintonAt70 throwback piece. Stay tuned!
The 2019 Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials is brought to you in partnership with the team at Voltaire Design United Kingdom. Going to Badminton? Head to Voltaire Design on Stand 253 on Somerset Way and meet the team of Sports Saddle Specialists, arrange a free, totally no-obligation fitting for you and your horse, or indulge in the Deal of the Day. Looking for a bargain? Head to Voltaire Design’s sister stand, EquiTack, to check out their premium pre-loved saddles at rock-bottom prices.