What makes a fantastic cross-country day? Well, I think we had one yesterday at the Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials.

For me, there’s rarely a bad cross-country day, except when there are serious accidents, of course. But most four-star or championship cross-country days are exciting, fun and full of interest.

However, if I was putting together a wishlist for the best ones, it would include:

  • Tight optimum time. For me, the 3 inside the time yesterday was perfect. A difficult time means plenty of movement in the leader board as time-faults re-shuffle the riders and it also makes for more exciting action, as competitors are tempted to the straight routes and are riding “on the edge” as they chase the clock.
  • Problems well spread around the course. The fence analysis from yesterday is spattered with problems in different places, which makes for interesting viewing and keeps everyone on their toes.
  • Exciting pictures. We hear a lot about “good pictures”, particularly in the nations where eventing is less popular and animal rights groups more actively anti the sport. By that we mean seeing horses and riders looking happy, tackling fences confidently in partnership. Of course, it’s wonderful to watch the top combinations in the world having perfect rounds. But watching one after another after another is a tiny bit, well, boring. While no one wants to see horses looking unhappy, exhausted or similar, the odd dodgy moment even in the good rounds is what makes the day really exciting. That two riders yesterday (Emily Llewellyn on Greenlawn Sky High and Sam Griffiths on Happy Times) were eliminated for jumping the wrong side of flags and then re-instated shows that there were those “on the edge” moments. I went “Oooh” plenty of times, even when there wasn’t a fault.
  • A few falls. Of course, no one wants serious injuries or the sickening, stomach-punching rotational falls that can herald a fatality, but ultimately, the spectators want to see some thrills and spills at a top-level horse trials. While it’s gutting for those riders and their connections, if no one falls off and everyone gets round, the achievement of those who finish is diminished. There were 9 falls yesterday, 6 of them unseated riders, and while 3 horse falls is perhaps still too many, they were all at different fences and it’s not a bad percentage, from 62 starters.
  • New stars. It’s great watching the old pros cruise round, but I love to see fresh faces come to the fore, too. Perhaps younger riders we’ve watched through juniors or young riders — such as H&H blogger Alex Postolowsky — or people who catch the eye. I thought Jonelle Richards was noteworthy yesterday, not only for her storming round on The Deputy, which put her sixth overnight, but also for jumping round with just 10 time-faults on her London team bronze medallist Flintstar, who was less fluent. Ludwig Svennerstal was great on his second horse, King Bob, having claimed a European team silver the previous week on top ride Shamwari 4, and Kerry Varley did a super job to jump clear on Bluestone Luke, who looks a tricky ride.
  • Rising equine talent. On a similar note, spotting younger horses who could be future team prospects is always fun. De Novo News (Tina Cook), Treason (Sarah Cohen) and Lets Dance (Jeanette Brakewell) are my predictions for championship horses.
  • Old favourites. Who doesn’t love watching Opposition Buzz (Nicola Wilson) and Twinkle Bee (Anna Warnecke) having a spin?

Coming to Burghley from the European Championships at Malmö, there have been plenty of opportunities to reflect on the similarities and differences. The course at Malmö was expected to be tricky and to have a tight optimum time, but ultimately nearly a third of the field were fault-free. Although it was in many ways a great competition (and yes, it was a 3-star not 4-star like Burghley), cross-country day didn’t have the edge of your seat quality that I felt yesterday supplied in abundance.

The fact predictions about Malmö were so wrong just shows how difficult it is to be right about a cross-country course in advance. Course-designers have an incredibly tough job, especially when you take into account that the conditions can make a huge difference to how a track rides.

And the line between hero and villain is hairline slim — one course can throw up exactly the same statistics as another but the designer receive terrible feedback because of one bad accident. Ultimately, that can come down to the luck of the draw in the way a horse falls and in a second, the course-designer is being castigated as a tyrant, rather than hailed as a brave man who has produced an appropriately influential track.

Yesterday, for me and many riders and spectators, Mark Phillips’ track brought it all together in a fantastic package. What a day we had — and what a competition we have to conclude this afternoon.

Join us for H&H Live from the final showjumping, from 2.20pm

Report on this morning’s first horse inspection

Report on yesterday’s cross-country action

Buy H&H next week for full 18-page Burghley report, with full analysis, pictures of every cross-country fence and comments from Sally O’Connor, Lucinda Green and course-designer Mark Phillips.

Picture by Kit Houghton/FEI