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Life as a cross-country course designer

There are no academic qualifications needed to qualify as a cross-country course-designer.

Top designer Mike Etherington-Smith says: “I got into it by accident. I was too fat and old to ride. The British Horse Trials Association [now British Eventing] approached me to become a technical adviser while I was still competing, and this led to designing cross-country tracks.”

Mike has gone on to design hundreds of courses, including the Sydney Olympics,Rolex-Kentucky and the Adelaide CCI****.

Another who started via the technical adviser (TA) route is Eric Winter, who officiates at 11 events.

“It is useful being a TA, as you see so many horses jumping different types of obstacle. This gives a good insight into the design of jumps,” he says. “My first approach to becoming a designer was to ask Mike Etherington-Smith his advice. He let me shadow him for a year, starting with intro and pre-novice courses. His help was invaluable and I still consult him now.”

Both Mike and Eric evented at four-star level, and they insist this provides them with the insight required to create challenging yet safe courses.

“It’s not having ridden good horses that helps but having ridden lots of different horses, including some who really weren’t very talented,” says Mike. “Course-designing is knowing about how horses move and cover the ground.”

Eric adds: “You have to know what a horse can and can’t do. I also had to consider what you can build. The construction side was a hefty thing to learn. You are also constricted by budget, so I had to discover the costs of building a fence or adding a ditch. Most courses are usually developed along a three- or four-year plan. You also need to be good with people, as you work closely with the event organiser.”

British Eventing is keen to encourage budding designers. It is currently working with Hartpury College to develop an Academy of Course-Design, of which Mike Etherington-Smith is a director. It is also developing a mentoring programme, where new designers can learn from their more established counterparts.

Both Mike and Eric are passionate about their job. “You won’t get rich, but I have a good quality of life. I’ve met fantastic people and, although the travelling can be a pain, I’ve seen some great places,” says Mike.

Eric adds: “I love designing — apart from riding, it’s the most exciting thing I do. Five minutes before the start of cross-country my heart starts beating, but I relax once the first dozen horses have gone round. It’s quite an adrenalin rush.”

  • This careers focus was first published on Horse & Hound’s young rider pages (18 January, ’07)
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