Where are all the course-designers? [H&H VIP]

  • Course-designing at the top level has long been dominated by a handful of professionals. But what happens when they retire? Who will replace them?

    This is a question that has concerned the course-designing fraternity for some time — and one that, two years ago, prompted British Eventing (BE) to launch a scholarship to identify future talent.

    “It is an issue, and not just in this country — there is a real shortage of both people coming through and top-level course-designers worldwide,” Mike Etherington-Smith, who designed the Sydney and Hong Kong Olympic tracks, told H&H.

    Burghley and Luhmühlen designer Mark Phillips has raised similar concerns.

    He said: “I don’t think there is enough new blood coming through.

    “Course-designing is a vocation — it’s not something that can be learned in a few days’ training. It takes time to gain the experience to move up the levels and you need to learn on the job.”

    Too much responsibility?

    Mark has also pointed out that the burden of responsibility that rests on the course-designer’s shoulders — one that increases with every death in the sport — is not encouraging people to get involved. With two deaths in recent months, are the implications too much?

    “There is more pressure on designers nowadays,” said Mark. “It doesn’t matter how much you do, there’s always that possibility for accidents to happen.”

    In Italy a police investigation is currently ongoing with the course-designer, technical delegate and event director under scrutiny. This is “standard procedure for this type of accident in Italy,” according to the Italian Equestrian Federation.

    Although in Britain similar protocol does not apply, the pressure remains.

    “The world in which course-designers work is not an easy one,” said Mike.

    “The advent of rider reps several years ago was formalising the relationship between officials and riders and this relationship is very good. Riders can at any time approach officials with concerns that they may have about a fence, which is a positive development.

    “We are all in the sport because we enjoy it, we know what the risks are and have to accept them whatever our role.”

    From rider to designer

    Riders Helen West and Beanie Sturgis have both tried their hand at designing through running their own horse trials — Bicton and Dauntsey respectively. They were two of the three winners of last year’s BE course-design scholarship.

    “When I took on the job of organising Bicton, I thought I could save some money by designing courses for Pony Club and riding club events, and it went from there,” said Helen, who now has sole charge of the BE courses up to novice level and has had a significant input into the intermediate and CIC2* tracks, with mentoring from Blenheim and Hartpury designer Eric Winter.

    “It’s been a huge learning curve and, as a rider, it’s made me look at courses from a completely different perspective and appreciate why certain fences work — or don’t work,” she said.

    “I have also learned a lot about the pressures of working within the constraints of a tight budget. Riders wonder why, at the lower levels, there are so many logs and post and rails on a course, but sometimes it’s the only way to keep a course within budget. As a course-designer you are also responsible for the footing, and if you run out of money to prepare the ground then people aren’t going to run their horses anyway.”

    Helen also admits to having sleepless nights before competitions.

    “I go to sleep with fences spinning round in my head. You dread making a mistake,” she said.

    “Fortunately, the system is such that advice is only a phone call away. Often, though, an accident will happen not at a jump that you have lost sleep over, but at a straightforward one that you hadn’t thought twice about.

    “You have to have confidence in yourself and constantly strive to learn more.”

    Beanie, who is renowned for her brave and bold cross-country riding, has brought the same qualities to designing.

    “I love the buzz of it and being able to put my stamp on a track,” she said.

    “Two years ago I built a fence of the same type as Badminton’s Vicarage V on our intermediate track. It struck me that there was nothing like this to prepare riders and horses before they met it as a four-star question, so I built a double of corners over ditches and they jumped really well. It gave me a real buzz.”

    Mike Etherington-Smith has said that to be a good course-designer, it is advantageous, if not vital, to have competed at a reasonable level.

    “You need to have ridden all sorts of horses — not just the really talented ones — as it’s important to understand what an average horse is capable of and how his mind and body works,” he said.

    A viable career?

    But is course-designing really a viable career option, even for top riders who decide to hang up their boots?

    Ian Stark and Eric Winter are both in high demand, although both also have “sidelines” in the shape of training and running busy equestrian centres.

    Neither Helen nor Beanie can see themselves devoting all their time to course-designing in the future, although both are keen to further their skills.

    “It’s something I really enjoy,” said Beanie. “But I can’t see how you would make much money from it; course-designing is never going to make you rich.”

    Former Household Cavalry rider and now accredited course-designer and -builder, Joe Weller, set up an event on his home turf at Norton Disney. He also helps out at Burghley, Houghton and Burnham Market.

    He said: “The bulk of my income comes from farming and course-building. I think you need to have another job alongside designing.”

    Course-designing work can also be hard to come by.

    “It’s a double-edged sword because we need to increase the pool of designers in eventing, but often there’s not enough work to go around,” he said.

    Ref: Horse & Hound; 14 May 2015