The issue of whether four-year-old horses should event is again a topic of debate, brought to the fore by event rider Oliver Townend. The subject is a regular debate at the championship ringside, although I don’t recall anyone, other than Oliver, calling for it to be “banned”.

The Burghley young event horse (BYEH) class was initiated in 1987, and the British Eventing (BE) young horse championships, a full one-day event, introduced in 2003.

At that time, the four-year-old championship was a standard combined training — dressage plus showjumping — competition. Cross-country was added three years later as many thought a potential event horse should show ability and aptitude over cross-country fences. More recently, BYEH introduced cross-country fences to the jumping test at the finals for the same reason.

Having watched many BYEH classes, reported on all of the BE championships and owned a BYEH and BE finalist, I am well-versed in the whys and wherefores.

I have reached a number of conclusions on the matter.

Some horses will be ready for a four-year-old class and some won’t.
In general, a four-year-old thoroughbred is less likely to shine than a four-year-old warmblood. They all, however, need a proficient producer to get them there. Producing a horse for a four-year-old final is not for the inexperienced.

• Some good four-year-olds will, due to their growth, go off the boil as five-year-olds, or a funny four-year-old will blossom at five. Rarely is a horse good at both ages.

• Both championships are welcome shop windows. The BYEH is as much a part of Burghley as the main event, and the BE championships are an important part of the international at Osberton.

• They bring in spectators who enjoy seeing young horses and who also enjoy judging for themselves — the BYEH in particular, as it has a subjective marking system — even if they don’t agree with the outcome. We have all seen horses do well that we don’t think will be event horses, and horses we like end up down the line. BYEH has recently introduced a mark for type, although the spectrum of marks needs to used more boldly and perhaps judges need to agree on a type. Ha. Although we know what it means, the response is “what is the type?” as we see so many types all the way to four-star now.

• They offer the chance to assess offspring of stallions, which is particularly useful to breeders who have little opportunity to see potential event horses otherwise. Statistically, the outcome of the BE four-year-old class is rarely influenced by the cross-country as it is not timed and is also relatively straightforward (deliberately so, due to the age of the horses). In this championship it is usually showjumping that dictates the final result, bringing us back full circle to the combined training competition it was when the BE championships were first introduced.

• Ultimately, the outcome of either championship has little bearing on the future of an event horse. There is so much more involved, not least who rides, trains and produces the horse.

So should four-year-old classes should be banned? Heavens, no. There is an awful lot that could be banned before we get round to four-year-old event horse classes.

Riders can always vote with their feet — as it is, these classes are increasingly well supported.

Whether you agree with the types taking part, the format and the outcome is another matter, and has been debated for as long as the classes have been held.

Ref: H&H 28 April, 2015