‘You Feel the Heat from the Horse & Your Heart is Pounding’: How it Feels to Ride Around Burghley

Joseph Murphy’s Burghley helmet cam presented by Cambox Horse has racked up 200,000 views and counting! EN asked Joseph to discuss his strategy for taking on the Burghley course with Sportsfield Othello, a 17-year-old Irish Sport Horse (Ricardo Z X Moy View Lady, by Ring of Forde) owned by Alison Schmutz, Andrew Tinkler and Jill Andrews.

When I was young I never thought I would ride. Then I got the bug when I started hunting in Ireland, and now I have progressed to the top level of eventing with some great equine partners. This week it was Sportsfield Othello at the Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials. I’ve had “Franky” since he was a 6-year-old. This was his 11th CCI4*, and at 17 years old this year he was the oldest horse in the field to complete Burghley.

I feel Burghley is the biggest cross country of them all, and from my hunting background it really helps you on the truly tough days. You need quick reactions — reading the ground conditions, understanding how your horse is feeling at different stages of the course, making time to listen to your horse, and most of all getting the balance right of being competitive and fair to your horse.

I felt fairly confident after walking the course. I walked it five times, and the more I walked it became clear to me what I needed to do with the horse and how I needed to conserve his energy. Riding a long cross country course like this is about planning between the fences. It’s about saving time but also being economical through the course. I had a good plan and it worked well.

The feeling on cross country day at Burghley is like no other, and being second last to go was an anxious wait! I walked out to the course and watched some of the combinations being jumped by some of the riders that I respect, and also some of the types of horses that are similar to Franky. I have trained all the different types of fences through the horse’s career to get to CCI4* level, so that makes you relaxed on cross country day. 

I set out with fire in my belly, and Franky knew this. I communicate with him through my riding aids. As I ride, it all comes from feel. I use my voice to get a reaction from the horse, whether I want him to go forward or back, and I use my hand down the side of his neck as a reward. You don’t see this so much in the head cam, but Franky feels it and responds to it.

In the head cam you can see all the different tracks in the galloping lanes from the horses and riders that went before me, and you can see I took the shortest route everywhere I possibly could. Franky is always on the inside of the track, or I crossed over early to the new track on the inside line again for the next fence.

The Leaf Pit at fences 7 and 8 was really the first opportunity on the course where you had an alternative route. For me, if you’re starting to take an indirect route early on the course, I think it sets the tone for the horse and rider for the whole course. That’s one of the reasons I went straight.

The other reason was I was very confident that if I rode the drop down at the right speed and kept my eyes up and balance correct, then it’s just an exercise I’ve practiced over and over. It mirrors through to your training. If you ride the fence at the right speed and the right position with your body and with your eyes on the line, then it follows through for you to jump it successfully.

At the Trout Hatchery, fences 11 and 12, it was about taking it fence by fence and riding a controlled, forward horse. It was really important there that you had your plan of what you were going to do. I jumped in and I had my mind made up. My horse’s stride is short, so I knew I would be able to get three strides across the water, jump up the bank in a nice balance and move to the skinny. That’s a real question there of knowing your horse.

Joseph Murphy and Sportsfield Othello at fence 14AB, Joules at the Maltings. Photo by EquusPix Photography.

After jumping the Trout Hatchery and Joules at the Maltings, which had an open oxer to two open corners at fence 14, I felt that was all a big effort for the horse. When I came to the Rolex Combinations at fence 15, I thought I would stay quicker on the outside route but jump the smaller fences. Although it was one effort more to jump, it was in a way more horse-friendly, because once you jumped the first oxer then you were on the correct line for the rest of the combination. I felt it was an easier way through for the horse.

The other route was a jump over a bigger oxer and then moving up on the four strides after a big jumping effort. When you landed, it was a tight four strides, and I thought horses jumped that oxer very awkwardly. I didn’t want to punish my horse if it didn’t ride well.

Clarence Court at fences 21 and 22 was the first time I felt Franky getting tired. I could feel it when he left the ground to jump the first egg box. When I felt that, I pipped down through the two boxes on five strides rather than four, and when I landed I actually took an inside line to the last part of the combination, because then I knew that striding was going to work better.

You can see in the head cam that the tree branch hit me in the head, but when I landed after the second box, I felt this was the better line to take when Franky was getting tired. On that line, I could do an easy three strides to the final element at fence 22 and carry on. That came from a feeling and reaction in the moment.

Joseph Murphy and Sportsfield Othello at fence 16, the Pardubice. Photo by Louise O’Brien Photography.

Riding a course like Burghley is about knowing your horse and being able to react. As you go around you feel the heat from the horse, your heart is pounding, and as you meet big fence after big fence, you tick them off in your head.

Turning for home, you don’t want to let yourself believe you’re going to jump clear around Burghley, and as you jump the last, the feeling is amazing. At that moment, a huge weight is lifted off your shoulders.

Good education to horse and rider is vital to perform at any level, and Joseph coaches this at his cross country clinics around the world. He returns to the States on Nov. 5-7 for a cross country clinic at Boyd Martin’s top facility Windurra USA in Cochranville, Pennsylvania. Click here for details on the clinic. Follow Joseph on his website www.josephmurphyeventing.com.