And so there it is – the news that Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials 2021 is cancelled. Gone, like so many events in these Covid-stricken times.
Last year, each announcement felt like a body blow, although as time went on, there was a sort of grinding inevitability about it all.
This time, I feel slightly numb. Badminton Horse Trials’ cancellation was a shock, because the organisers had been so certain they could run behind closed doors. But as Bramham Horse Trials, Chatsworth Horse Trials, the Festival of British Eventing at Gatcombe and more followed, my brain sort of shut down and stopped processing each individual loss.
Burghley though? To lose our second British five-star, for the second year running, is really tough.
Of course worse things happen in a pandemic. I’m not blind to what’s happening in India, to all sorts of hardship in this country; I’m not unaware that many people who have horses have had better lockdowns than many. I didn’t ride for four months this winter, not living “local” to my shared horse, but I still consider I had a “good lockdown”.
But my colleague Lucy Elder got it right when she said earlier this year that people are allowed to feel disappointed. It’s possible to feel more than one emotion at once. There’s nothing wrong with being aware of the bigger picture, but still grieving the loss of our fantastic events, the gems in our equestrian sporting year.
For British five-star riders, to lose Burghley is a disaster. Horses only have so many years at five-star. Not everyone can afford to go abroad – and fantastic as the foreign five-stars are, they will never hold quite the same romantic allure as Badminton and Burghley for those raised on British soil.
For horses who might win a five-star, there are only so many years that they are at their peak. There are horses who were in the later stages of their careers at Burghley 2019 who we will never see again – their riders have been denied those years when their mounts are established and know their trade and become a true pleasure to ride, after many years of graft and heartache to produce them to this point.
The young five-star horses from 2019 will be middle-aged by 2022. A 10-year-old will be 13. A young 13, sure, with fewer miles on the clock than after two normal seasons – and maybe these horses will have long careers in their teens – but time as well as work causes attrition on a horse’s body. They will never have as many five-star chances as other horses.
And then there are the amateur riders, or the lower-level professionals, who have battled for a lifetime to produce one horse to five-star. Some of these horses will be too old to go to Badminton or Burghley next year or they might be injured. These riders might never have another five-star partner, might never find that horse, be able to afford it, be able to work through its quirks to get it to the very top level, be able to keep it sound long enough to get that far.
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I worry too about the long-term life of the sport in Britain. How many of the owners and managers of these great estates will want eventing back? To lose one event is one thing… to lose two feels like getting out of the habit. Might they start asking if they need the hoof marks, the cross-country fences, the public churning their wellies through muddy tradestand walkways? Based on Burghley’s statement, it’s good to see that isn’t looking likely to be the case there.
New fixtures can be great and eventing must change and move on, now more than ever. But to lose any of these great events permanently would be beyond a disaster for our sport. Badminton and Burghley are our history, our heritage, the dreams of thousands of horsey Pony Club children on coach trips. Somehow, we must ensure we never let them go.
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