Bicton course-designer Helen West on Saturday’s cross-country: ‘It was a good result for the sport’ *H&H Plus*

  • Read course-designer Helen West’s analysis of how the four-star long track at Bicton rode on Saturday – and which fences surprised her with how they rode

    Course-designer Helen West told H&H she was “very pleased” with how yesterday’s CCI4*-L cross-country went at Bicton Horse Trials yesterday (12 June).

    The track proved to be a strong test, with 60% of starters finishing and 37% of them going clear.

    “It was a good result for the sport – it was a strong four-star track, which is what it said on the tin,” said Helen. “It needed to be a proper track. We’re spoilt here with the terrain and I think that played a big part. I think the prep for a lot of people has not been as good as it would be in a normal year, with Covid-19, so I think some horses were not quite fit enough. And I think that contributed to the stats.

    “At the end of the day, this is an MER [minimum eligibility result or qualification] for Badminton and Burghley, and from a safety perspective I would rather at this point the riders know where they are and know they need to be secure at this level before they step up to five-star. Those that aren’t quite secure will know that they’ll need to go and do a little bit more work, and that makes the sport safer.

    “I was really pleased that the trouble was widespread – there was no one bogey fence. It was all over the track.

    “Those that rode it well made it look very easy. And even those with some of the less experienced horses found a way round, and all said to me, ‘Gosh Helen, they’ve learnt so much. It was a really really good experience for them and they’re coming out of this a better horse.’

    Helen is also the organiser at Bicton and she paid tribute to the team who have built the fences and prepared the ground: “The track looked stunning and the guys here have done masses of work on the ground, putting an awful lot of water on it, and that was very much appreciated by the riders.”

    Helen said to put together a four-star track in seven weeks when the venue took on the classes usually run at Bramham, was a “massive ask” for a venue that had not previously even run a national advanced.

    “The team have been amazing. We’ve sourced a lot of the timber from natural resources on the estate, trees that come down, and it had a real sort of authentic feel to the track,” said Helen, agreeing that the track had a good mix of fence styles from old-fashioned traditional tests to more modern looking obstacles. “I thought there was real variety and at the end of the day, that’s what cross country riding is about.”

    Bicton Horse Trials cross-country: Helen on the influential fences

    Helen said she was a little surprised by the number of problems at the stump to fallen corner at fence seven, where there was no black flag alternative (the stump is pictured above with the corner visible in the background to the left).

    “It was always going to need careful riding and I think people slightly underestimated the camber – it’s subtle, but the ground the fallen corner is does really slope away. So as you come around to it, the door opens and the ground just falls off to the right a bit.

    Bicton Horse Trials cross-country course – fence 7b on the CCI4*-S course

    “I watched that for quite a long time and it rode beautifully for those that popped the stump and had two closed strides, then used the tree to bounce off and kept the outside shoulder and punched forward up to the corner. But those that just slightly hauled around on the inside rein paid the price, because they just slipped out through the outside shoulder.”

    Helen expected most riders to take four strides here, but in the event around half the riders went on four strides and half on five.

    “I saw some really nice fours and some really nice fives; I think five was actually safer,” she said.

    Looking at the final HTSG combination, Helen expected the horses in the long format class to go on four and three strides and the short format horses, which go across country today, to go on five and three.

    Bicton Horse Trials cross-country

    “By that stage in the course in the long, obviously the horses are tired, the stride’s got very open, and it’s very difficult to adjust them. A few people said to me they wished they had gone for five instead of four and I said, ‘Yeah, but you’ve got to have enough petrol in the tank to be able to do that and make that adjustment’.

    “But for me, it did ride better and easier for those that had a little bit more of a curve and got the five to it. The horses then were able not to jump so far out over the corner to make the turn to the little skinny.”

    Helen said she was always confident that the Course Designer’s Conundrum, a rail-ditch-corner combination a fence 15abcd, would ride well although it had riders scratching their heads.

    “I was pleased it was very forgiving. I saw you know some really awkward jumps over the ditch and then they were able to put a little bit of a curve and pop two strides to the corner. I also saw people absolutely nail it on a straight line.

    “When people were saying there was no line, in my heart of hearts, I was really happy with it – I thought the horses would read it. When you looked from the take-off side of the rail,, the line looked tricky, but when you landed over the ditch, it opened up, you could see it was very obvious.”

    This was Helen’s second time designing at four-star after doing so once in Ireland in 2019. She was assisted by Mark Phillips acting as course advisor.

    “He’s been really helpful and it’s been a good experience. I’ve enjoyed the process,” she said.


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