The Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials cross-country course is one of the toughest in the world.
Horses and riders have to tackle approximately 45 jumping efforts. The course includes banks, steps up and down, ditches, water and all sorts of different fences. There are around 30 numbered fences, but many of these will have several differents (labelled by letter) parts, with jumps grouped together on set numbers of strides and on lines and angles which increase the degree of difficulty. A number of the fences are narrow, which makes it more likely the horse will run-out. These fences are known as arrowheads.
The current designer of the course is Eric Winter, who took over the job in 2017. The course generally follows the same route, alternating whether it goes clockwise or anti-clockwise each year. Some fences will be changed on the course every year, so the challenge is always different.
The Badminton Horse Trials cross-country course has a number of iconic fences which usually appear on the track. The Lake is the main water fence which always attracts a large crowd hoping to see a rider take an early bath. There are also two other water fences on the course. The Vicarage Vee is another famous challenge. Consisting of a set of angled rails over a huge ditch, it always makes impressive pictures.
Horses and riders aim to clear all the fences at their first attempt in order to record a clear round, which receives no penalties. If the horse runs out or refuses to go over the jump, the pair receive 20 penalties. A second refusal at the same fence incurs 40 penalties. A third refusal or run-out anywhere on the course means elimination. If the rider falls off or the horse falls, the combination are eliminated.
The fences on a cross-country course are solid and not designed to knock down, but “frangible” technology will be used on some jumps. These fences will fall or collapse if a horse hits them with a certain amount of force, a safety measure to try to reduce horse falls. If a horse activates a frangible device, he will receive 11 penalties, although these can be removed if the ground jury — who judge the competition — rule that this was an unexpected activation from insignificant contact.
The course is approximately 6500m long and horses and riders have to aim to complete it within a set optimum time, which is between 11 and 12 minutes long. Each second over that time incurs 0.4 of a penalty.