Badminton’s backstage heroes: The people who make the horse trials happen *H&H Plus*

  • Running Badminton requires the time, energy and skill of thousands of people every year. Catherine Austen speaks to a few of the key players about their roles and favourite memories

    Margaret Hopkins, stable manager

    Margaret’s role as stud groom at Badminton encapsulates anything equestrian that happens on the estate, which means she is stable manager during the event.

    “We have 110 stables spread over various yards, and as soon as hunting finishes all the boxes are cleaned out, pressure washed and disinfected, and any maintenance done,” says Margaret, who has been at Badminton since 2009. “The competitors start arriving from Monday. We supply straw and shavings – if riders want anything else, they can order it through me and we will try to supply anything within reason.”

    Margaret does the stabling plan, and tries to accommodate everyone’s wishes.

    “The Club Yard is the furthest away, and therefore the quietest. The main yard, where the stable manager’s office is located, is very busy,” she says.

    “The stables are the hub of everything and I enjoy the interaction with the competitors and grooms. The horses come in all shapes and sizes, and every year I learn something new.”

    She and her team do their best to ensure that everything runs as smoothly and efficiently as possible – but not everything always goes to plan.

    “I remember one year a Spanish rider had a stallion who was very good at letting himself out, despite us using all sorts of different clips to keep his door bolted,” she says. “We found him in the indoor school, admiring himself in the mirrors – and visibly excited by how handsome he looked!”

    Sue Ansell, event administrator

    “We’re a very close team, and I think that’s what makes Badminton brilliant,” says Sue Ansell, who has worked in the horse trials office since 1991. “We all know and understand each other’s job, and probably me more than anyone, because I’ve been here so long and I’ve done everyone’s job!”

    She has seen enormous change – “we started on typewriters” – and now much of her time is taken up with managing the hospitality, editing the Badminton website and acting as the office contact for the social media team. She deals with contractors, and does any mass mail-outs – it was Sue who sent out the official cancellation email on 20 March this year.

    “As Jane [Tuckwell, event director] has taken on more in the past couple of years, I’ve ended up managing a lot of the ‘nuts and bolts’ during event week,” she says.

    The office team move on-site on the Sunday before the event (“a day from hell”), and their marquee acts as “the nerve centre” for the event.

    “Our step count during the week is impressive!” she says. “But it’s what we live for; the buzz is incredible. You look around you and think, ‘Wow, we did this.’ Everyone gets on fantastically well with each other and works so hard for the common cause. Laughter is what keeps us going.”

    Sue has been at the forefront of Badminton’s sustainability push.

    “I’m very anti-plastic, and I thought we were lagging behind on that front,” she says.

    Harry Verney, site manager

    “Plan for the worst and hope for the best,” says Harry Verney, who has been site manager since 1990.

    His role at Badminton, which takes up about four months of his year, involves “all the boring bits of an event” – the logistics. Car parks, entry systems, health and safety, loos, water, rubbish and so on.

    “Simple stuff, but you have to keep your eye on the ball,” he says with great understatement. “I am blessed with some exceptional assistants.

    “The special thing about Badminton is the people, all of whom work exceptionally hard for the glory of the event.”

    A very dry year creates even more work than a very wet year – in 2007, when the weather had been exceptionally dry in the build-up, the team ended up spreading 700 tonnes of topsoil in one night.

    “There are times when you have to be tough and to be thick-skinned; you are working with a lot of people under many different pressures, and you have to be realistic with them about how many of their demands you can satisfy.

    “But I love it, and get a huge amount of satisfaction out of it. And I never get tired of looking at that house and park; it’s a real joy.”

    Paul Brokenshire, maintenance manager

    “It’s a real shock to the system when the event’s over,” says Paul Brokenshire, who has headed up the maintenance team since 2004. “You are a bit deflated, but elated at the same time – it’s a manic week, but good fun.”

    Paul’s team is seven-strong, and consists of farmers, builders, electricians and mechanics: “We’ve all got to be able to turn our hands to anything, and everyone brings a different skill to the party.”

    They look after the likes of the arena fencing, the showjumps, the chestnut paling, the programme sheds, the judges’ boxes – and the scoreboard, which is over 50 years old.

    “That’s a work of art in itself,” laughs Paul. “We make sure everything looks immaculate and is in the right place at the right time – it has to work like clockwork once the event starts. We have to be able to think out of the box and cope with the unexpected. I have had my team for a very long time and we all click into gear and move in sync. It’s a manic week but very exciting.

    “I take my team out for dinner once the event has finished, to celebrate, and Jane [Tuckwell] organises a big party in the village hall for everyonewho has worked during the event, which is a great night.”

    Vicky Iddon, box office manager

    Vicky is Sue Ansell’s sister, and took over as box office manager in 2009. Before pursuing a career in property, she ran a livery yard – and groomed for Mark Todd at Badminton in 1981.

    “One of my happiest moments at the event was when Mark won in 2011. That brought back a lot of great memories,” she says.

    “This is my dream job – it’s hard work, but it doesn’t really feel like a job,” she confesses.

    By the time the box office opens in early January, all the varying tickets for entry, for camping and for the grandstand seating are put on to the system.

    “It’s crazy for a few weeks and it’s pretty stressful as a large proportion of our tickets are sold in the first three weeks, then it slows down a little and gets very busy again during April. We used to print out and post all the tickets, but now everything except the camping passes are e-tickets, which means that we can still sell tickets online right up until the Sunday morning of the event.

    “We’ve got customers who’ve been coming for 50 years; not all of them are totally au fait with buying tickets online, but we will always help and make sure their bookings are done.”

    Andrew Munro Seear, campsite manager

    “A unique type of person camps at Badminton – and they’re lovely,” says Andrew Munro Seear, the campsite manager. “The people who camped here as children 30 years ago are now camping here with their children, and we are telling those children off for doing the same naughty things their parents did.”

    Andrew became involved in 2004. “I was doing some forestry for Harry Verney [Badminton’s site manager] at the time, and he rang and asked if I wanted to come and help.

    “I just banged in pegs and drank beer, but at the end of the week Paul and Tim, who had been running the camping for years, said, ‘We’ve been wanting to retire for ages and now we can!’ I went back as understudy to them the following year, and then took over.”

    Andy and his team, which includes his wife Sasha, arrive on the Wednesday before event week and mark out all the pitches.

    The loos are put out and pits dug. On Sunday, the hired caravans start to arrive. There are just under 2,000 pitches, and people camp in a panoply of hired caravans, their own caravans, camper vans, horseboxes, trailers and tents.

    “You name it, people sleep in it,” he says. “It’s like setting up a small village on the edge of a small village [Badminton], and we are the council, the police force, the counsellors – we deal with it all. It’s great fun – wet or dry.”

    Giles Browne, chief timekeeper and starter

    “I didn’t move fast enough when Hugh [Thomas, former Badminton director] was looking for a victim,” says Giles when asked how he became involved. “I remember him saying, ‘It’s a piece of cake. Nothing to do…’” That was in 1998, and Hugh was fibbing.

    “But in a way it was more complicated back then, as we still had the roads and tracks and steeplechase, all of which required timing,” says Giles.

    His role starts in November, when the director contacts him asking him to confirm his team for the following year. There are 18 people on Giles’s list.

    The Sunday before the event starts is briefing day, and then Friday, the second day of dressage, is Giles’s reconnaissance day.

    He checks that everything is ready for cross-country and as part of that he goes to the stables and talks to as many competitors as possible, particularly the first-timers, to introduce himself and to brief them on the start procedures – and to check how to pronounce their names.

    Badminton, he thinks, is unique among British events in that the display clock in the main arena is linked to a computer, and the start is therefore computer-control.

    “That way there can be no dispute about the start time,” says Giles, who first saw the idea at Saumur and suggested it to Hugh.

    There is, however, a manual set of time-keepers acting as a back-up.

    “It’s intensive, and we do have our dramas – odd things you would never think of. You couldn’t do it if you didn’t have an ace team, and mine are the tops.”

    Ref Horse & Hound; 7 May 2020