*Exclusive* Course-designer responds to William Fox-Pitt saying riders should boycott Badminton fence

  • Former Badminton winner William Fox-Pitt shared strong opinions on one fence on the Badminton Horse Trials cross-country course, at the event presented by Mars Equestrian (4–8 May), and course-designer Eric Winter has responded, explaining he wants to prevent horse falls and mitigate risk.

    William spoke out about fence 21c, which is a set of rails into the Badminton Lake. The rails are built with a frangible device, a MIMclip, so anyone triggering it incurs 11 penalties.

    “Sadly, I think we should all boycott riding the direct rail into The Lake and jump the alternative rail in,” said William. “I think the direct rail is a horrendous fence for our sport. Why is that fence there? What’s the matter with a log with brush into The Lake? I think it’s very, very sad. And I think Eric has got that wrong for the sport.

    “Yes, he wants penalties. Yes, he wants to add 11 penalties for some riders who hit the pin. Yes, he wants it to be a cross-country competition. But to me that fence will be 50/50 whether the pin goes and it won’t be based on how riders will ride it. Some will knock it and I would hope my horse would rub her back legs over it, dropping into water – that’s what good horses do.”

    Badminton Horse Trials cross-country

    The drop on the direct route into The Lake. Credit Gemma Redrup

    Eric responded to William’s comment by saying: “I think the fence will jump well. It’s only 97cm high and we’ve done everything that we possibly can to help them jump it, for example there’s a 90 degree turn before it, that will help set them up.

    “This is where the sport is going. We are, as much as we possibly can, making the pictures of horses sprawling across the water at Badminton a thing of the past. The last time I had a log into that water, there were two horse falls at it.

    “If we want to maintain this sport for the future, we have to put it in a context that is acceptable for a wider audience, not just people that think that eventing used to be one way and that’s how it should remain. There were a lot of things that were acceptable 20 years ago, that nowadays we feel are not acceptable anymore. It’s a risk sport but as much as we possibly can, we need to mitigate that risk.

    “When there was a log into The Lake with two horse falls at it, that was a different time, but nowadays, I’m not comfortable with that, and if I can do something that prevents that, I will.”

    Eric stated that William was correct in saying a lot will depend on how the fence is ridden.

    “For sure William is right saying that – you cannot come round the corner and ignore that rail, float into it and drop your reins and fall all over the top of it, and because of that, people should ride it properly.”

    William shared his plans for tackling this part of the Badminton Horse Trials cross-country course after he had completed his dressage on Grafennacht, who is owned by Amanda Gould.

    “To me, it’s a bad fence and I’m going the long way in. It will take longer, but that’s too bad. Going the alternative route also makes it a tricky line to the corner in The Lake, and the water is deep enough, and the corner is quite big, so I’m more nervous about that,” he explained.“But at least we will have already jumped the corner at the first part of The Lake before the rail in, so hopefully my mare will jump it well.”

    Eric states that there is an alternative rail to jump in over, should riders not want to take the direct route on.

    “The alternative will only take about two or three seconds longer, so it’s not significantly different – that is a choice for riders.”

    Eric was also keen to point out that the frangible device on the rail into The Lake is a MIMclip.

    “So it doesn’t work off vertical pressure – it works off horizontal pressure. So if horses drop their legs on top of it, it will not break or it should not break. If they stifle it, then it will break. But is it acceptable nowadays to see horses gaining stifle injuries from those type of fences in our sport? When we have a mechanism to mitigate the risk in this sport and to make the sport better?

    “There are 14 deformable fences on this year’s Badminton track – it’s the most there has ever been on a five-star track. The scoreboard will look different tomorrow with less 20 penalties and more 11 penalties being awarded, but is that a bad thing?”

    William was frank in his opinion about the fence on the Badminton Horse Trials cross-country course.

    “I’m sad about the direct rail into The Lake and I’m very surprised they [FEI officials] let it appear on the course, to be honest,” he said.

    William was also strong in his views about protecting the future of eventing.

    “I think if we all have enough balls as riders we should all boycott the direct route and go the long way. Otherwise, we all know our sport is changing. We all know it’s getting shorter and easier and some people want combinations to be penalised for knocking flags and if we don’t fight this, what is it next?

    “Cross-country will be showjumping poles before we know it and I’ve always said cross-country will end up being solely in the arena. We have really got to try and preserve our sport and, although I’m being quite opinionated, as a group of riders we’ve really got to stand up and have a voice of unison – which generally we’re not good at.”

    Eric Winter and Mike Etherington-Smith on the future of the sport

    Eric said in response: “Actually, this is what the sport is going to be. And through Badminton, we have an ideal way of showing the public an acceptable vision of the sport. We’re working hard for this sport, we’re not burying our heads in the sand. That fence was not just chucked there – we’ve talked about it and talked about it. I’ve taken every piece of advice on it. But I wanted to use it.

    “It would have been very easy to put a log in there, to have put a roll top in there, to have done something that was less contentious. But actually, we have a much safer way to include these types of fences now that looks after horses more, that looks after riders more and that’s what we’re about. Eventing is about looking after horses. It’s a testing sport.”

    Eric said that the winner of Badminton has to be a “good cross-country rider” and that he set out to build an “old-fashioned track with modern technology” in 2023.

    “By using modern technology, we don’t have to lower the standard and dumb it down. We can stay at that level of riding where the competitor that wins here will be a top class cross-country rider – they will be brave, the horses will be athletic, all of those qualities that we look for in good horses and good riders but within portraying that in a modern way.”

    Mike Etherington-Smith, who is course advisor to Eric for the Badminton Horse Trials cross-country course, also responded to riders’ statements about the rail into The Lake.

    “I work with Eric and he was very keen to have a set of rails jumping into The Lake. We’ve gone through the logic and we have discussed it,” explained Mike. “It’s important to have a fence that’s not going to come down all the time – it’s not good for the sport – and so having had that discussion, we spent a lot of time looking through and addressing the height and so on.

    “When you design at five-star level, it’s rare air and you don’t get everything right. Everybody is going to be wiser after tomorrow. I hope that if Eric is proved right, the people who have spoken out about it have the decency to come and shake his hand and say well done because I think that’s important.”

    Mike continued by saying that as a course-designer, you have to “be brave sometimes”.

    “A lot depends on the shape a rider’s horse makes, and if you’ve got a horse that’s likely to drag its back end through a fence, then you would be as well to take [the long route] – it’s only an extra couple of seconds. They have the luxury of choice and that’s entirely their prerogative.”

    However, William praised Eric on the rest of the Badminton Horse Trials cross-country track he has designed in 2023.

    “Eric has built a good course with lots of variety and I like the ups and downs and the bending lines that can be ridden on three, four or five strides – nothing is very black and white and it will test riders.”

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