Horse & Hound’s essential guide to Badminton Horse Trials cross-country

  • The Badminton Horse Trials cross-country is the second of three phases that horses and riders take part in during this annual competition, which takes place on the Badminton estate in Gloucestershire. The 2022 event, presented by Mars Equestrian, takes place from Wednesday 4 May to Sunday 8 May.

    When does the Badminton Horse Trials cross-country take place?

    The cross-country at Badminton usually takes place on the Saturday of the event. This year it is on Saturday 7 May 2022.

    Occasionally the event has finished on a Monday, to tie in with a bank holiday, and then the cross-country would take place on Sunday.

    What happens during the cross-country?

    Each horse and rider pair go round the cross-country course, in canter or gallop, jumping over solid obstacles. As well as regular jumps, the horses will have to jump in and out of water and over fences in the water, take on steps up and down and jump over ditches. There are also obstacles which are more “technical” – these fences will be narrow or at an angle or close together so that there are not many strides between them and how the horse jumps each fence is affected by how it jumped the one before.

    When fences are set close together, they are called combinations and the striding may be set to be difficult so the horse needs to take particularly long or short strides to clear the obstacles successfully.

    Is it a race? How many horses are on the course at once?

    Cross-country isn’t a race – each horse tackles the course separately.

    There will be more than one horse on the course at a time because the horses are set off at intervals of three to four minutes and it will take up to 13 minutes to complete the course. So it’s likely there will be three horses on the course most of the time, at different stages of the course. But there could be less than three horses on course if a pair are eliminated or retired so leave the course early. Or there might be more than three horses on course if one is particularly slow or has problems at the jumps so it takes them longer to get round.

    How big are the jumps on the Badminton Horse Trials cross-country?

    This is a CCI5*, the top level of international event, and the fences are up to 1.20m high (or up to 1.40m for a brush fence). They can be up to 1.80m wide.

    How many jumps are there?

    The course for Badminton 2022 has not yet been unveiled, but it will include 40 to 45 jumping efforts. The fences will be numbered up to around fence 30, because several of the fences will have more than one jumping effort, marked with letters (so a combination fence at fence 14 might include fences 14a, 14b and 14c, for example, which is three jumping efforts).

    Does everyone jump the same jumps?

    Not necessarily. At some of the more difficult jumps, there will be alternatives (also known as long routes) where horses and riders can take an easier option without penalty, but it will take them longer, so competitors have to weigh up whether to take the riskier route or potentially incur time-penalties.

    Who sets the course?

    The Badminton Horse Trials cross-country course is currently designed by Eric Winter, an experienced course-designer accredited by the FEI (international governing body for horse sport). The fences are built by the Willis brothers.

    How does the scoring work?

    The aim is to complete the course without refusing any jumps or falling, within a set time (the optimum time). Eventing penalties work on the basis of the lowest score being the best, so a horse and rider who go round clear over all the fences, inside the time, will add zero penalties to their dressage score.

    A horse who refuses a fence receives 20 penalties and horses clock up 0.4 of a penalty for each commenced second over the optimum time.

    If the rider falls off or the horse falls, the pair are eliminated and take no further part in the competition.

    A rider may also decide to pull up (or retire) their horse on course if things are not going well and they feel that the jumps are too much for their horse and he is losing confidence or if they have already added penalties and would prefer to save their horse for another competition.

    How far do the horses go?

    The exact distance of the 2022 course will be revealed nearer the time, but it will be between 6270m and 6840m long, with an optimum time of between 11 and 12 minutes. The horses have to travel at 570m per minute to make the optimum time.

    How do the riders train the horses to jump the fences?

    Horses have some initial training on the flat before they start jumping with a rider. During this training, they will be taught the signals (the aids) the riders give with the legs, reins and body weight to indicate that they want to go faster, slower or turn.

    The riders will start training the horses over small, easy fences and then build up to larger fences. A horse at Badminton will have been competing in eventing for a minimum of three years.

    Some horses are naturally better at cross-country – they are faster, braver and understand the challenge more quickly – riders will say the best horses “look for the flags” and want to go over the fences. The horses which excel in eventing and make it to Badminton Horse Trials are those who enjoy it and want to take part.

    Do the riders fall off often?

    Jumping a horse at speed over solid fences will always involve some risk and everyone who rides cross-country frequently will fall off sometimes. There will probably be five to 10 falls during the Badminton Horse Trials cross-country.

    Is Badminton Horse Trials cross-country dangerous?

    Many falls are not serious and horses and riders walk away with no injuries or minor injuries. Sometimes horses and riders are seriously injured and very occasionally there are fatalities in eventing.

    Officials, course-designers and others in eventing constantly strive to make the sport safer. This ways of doing this include better training and safety clothing, appropriate qualification procedures for horses and riders, plus technical innovations such as fences which are “frangible” and fall down if hit with a certain force.

    How can I watch the Badminton Horse Trials cross-country?

    You can buy a ticket to visit Badminton in-person and watch the cross-country. Or you can purchase a pass to watch the live streaming of the event.

    What happens before and after the cross-country?

    The cross-country is the second of three phases, so in the days before it all the horses and riders do a dressage test and the day after it, those who have not been eliminated or retired on course do a showjumping round.

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