Legends of the sport: British three-day eventing star, Kilbarry *H&H Plus*

  • Kilbarry’s story marks the start of Britain’s success in three-day eventing. Julian Seaman tracks the history of the horse and his pilot, Col Frank Weldon


    Kilbarry (1947–1957), by Malbrook out of Heligoland
    Owner/rider: Col Frank Weldon

    Kilbarry’s influence on the equestrian world is inextricably linked to the life and times of his rider Col Frank Weldon. With Kilbarry dead for 63 years, I wish I could have talked again to the late Colonel – who died in 1993 – about his star horse, and how the gelding shaped his later career as a Badminton course-designer.

    Thirty-two years ago I had the honour as a freelance Horse & Hound contributor of interviewing Frank when he retired from Badminton, so I had somewhere to start. I also called upon his son George, a recent retiree, like myself, from the Badminton admin team.

    Before World War II, Frank’s first love was racing. He was successful in hunter chases and between the flags, but he suffered a major disappointment when qualification changes prevented him from achieving his ambition of riding in the Grand National. Subsequently he had little sympathy for riders who just failed to make the cut at Badminton.

    He served in the Royal Horse Artillery, was mentioned in despatches and awarded the Military Cross, but was captured early on in the war and spent the duration as a prisoner of war in Germany. After three escape attempts he was sent to the impregnable bad boy officer prison of Colditz.

    Although three-day eventing had existed since the 1912 Olympic Games, the first time anyone in Britain had come across it was at the London post-war Games of 1948. This country was more into hunting, racing and polo. The concept of dressage seemed something of a Continental aberration. As Colonel Hope wrote in The Horse Trials Story (1969): “The prevalent notions of the Continental horseman was somebody who spent his time bumming around an arena teasing his horse.” I’m sure at the time a feeling shared by Frank.

    Although on home ground, with the competition based around the military garrisons of Camberley and Aldershot, the British contingent performed disappointingly. But one spectator was the 10th Duke of Beaufort, who offered Badminton Park in 1949 to arrange a competition to raise the game of potential competitors for the next Olympics.

    Frank returned at the cessation of hostilities to become Commanding Officer of the Kings Troop, Royal Horse Artillery, based at St. John’s Wood, London from 1949 to 1954. He was introduced to the “new-fangled” sport of eventing almost by chance. He felt that his officers needed some sort of equestrian competition, but racing was financially out of the question: “They wouldn’t have had the price of a thirty-bob theatre ticket between them”, so something else was needed.

    At a dinner party his general suggested the horse trials at Badminton. A subaltern was dispatched to get a schedule and in 1952 four of them entered. Frank spent a week in Tetbury Cottage Hospital with cracked ribs as a result, having parted company with Liza Mandy.

    A redirection

    Frank bought Kilbarry, by Malbrook out of Heligoland, as a five-year-old for £750 from a farmer, Roland Farrow. Frank’s then ambition was to win the Gunner’s Gold Cup, and Kilbarry duly won his first point-to-point, but the horse subsequently suffered equine flu and had to be Hobdayed, a breathing operation, which put an end to his racing career. This resulted in a redirection to three-day eventing.

    Kilbarry, though stabled at St Johns Wood, was not Frank’s ceremonial charger, but he was ridden on salutes and other parades.

    Badminton 1953 hosted the European Championships and Frank rode Kilbarry. The pair were in the triumphant British team and achieved individual silver (earning £100 prize money) below Major Laurence Rook on Starlight XV. Frank and Kilbarry repeated the exact same feat (this time individually behind team-mate Bertie Hill on Crispin) at the Basel Europeans in 1954. The British were getting the hang of this new sport.

    At Badminton 1954 they were also second again, this time to Margaret Gough and Bambi V, the first female winner, though Frank and Kilbarry were robbed of victory by faulty timing technology on the steeplechase. He might yet have won as Bambi rattled a couple of showjumps, but Kilbarry kicked out two.

    On that year’s cross-country course, designed by Trevor Horn, there was a fence called Trevor’s Treble, which was from an idea devised by Frank. This proved an early foray into fence design. In the early days of Badminton, Trevor would construct an obstacle and the 10th Duke would test its jumpability on a trusted hunter. The sport was gradually getting more sophisticated.

    The European Championships were renewed in 1955 – there were no World Championships until the 1960s. The Queen, a keen Badminton attendee, offered Windsor Great Park as a special one-off “Badminton away from Badminton”. The foresight of the 10th Duke of Beaufort in 1949 had certainly changed the fortunes of British Eventing.

    At Windsor, British riders took all three individual medals. Bertie Hill on Countryman landed bronze; unusually (as this was more of an army pursuit) a naval commander John Oram, riding as an individual, in silver on Radar; and gold and the European title went to Frank and Kilbarry.

    The British team also included Laurence Rook and Diana Mason, and won team gold.

    Badminton came back to Gloucestershire in 1956. Frank and Kilbarry won the title event on home territory from his great emerging rival Sheila Willcox on High And Mighty.

    The Stockholm Olympics were held in 1956. It had been eight years since the disappointment of Aldershot and things hadn’t quite gelled in Helsinki in 1952, but now the British team had learnt the benefits of having what had become the world’s premier event on their doorstep. The team of Laurence Rook, Bertie Hill and – by now the mainstay of British efforts – Frank won team gold, with Kilbarry taking individual bronze.

    Hitting the doldrums

    A tragic event in 1957 proved to have a massive influence on Frank’s course-designing future. At an ordinary prep event at Cottesbrooke, Kilbarry took off at the first fence, a seemingly innocuous brush, which he had been used to when racing and during the steeplechase phase of three-day events.

    He naturally took some inches off his parabola and crashed to the ground, breaking his neck. Behind the benign brush there was a telegraph pole. Frank realised that in course-design and course-building, nothing should ever be built that could trick a horse.

    After the successes of the 1950s, British eventing again hit the doldrums. The final straw was at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 when Japan, Korea and Great Britain were the only teams not to complete. Home riders were coming across obstacles abroad that they had no idea how to tackle.

    David Somerset, the Duke’s heir, who had been second at Badminton on Countryman in 1959, had moved to the estate. In 1965 he asked Frank, with his wealth of international knowledge, to design the course. Two years later, the Colonel became Badminton director.

    Almost immediately he started introducing “foreign” jumps which he had either experienced on Kilbarry or seen in a distinguished career as an international technical delegate.

    Tribute act fences appeared in Badminton Park, such as the Normandy Bank – “they thought I would kill the lot of them with that”; the Horsens Bridge; the Pardubice Taxis; the Stockholm fence; the Fairbanks Bounce; the Frauenfeld Platform. He modified his borrowed ideas to the Gloucestershire countryside, and added many of his own.

    He found his riding experience, mainly with Kilbarry, essential and he became a master of knowing “just what a horse can do”.

    Badminton was televised from an early stage and he would watch replays over and over. One year a horse deposited his rider at the Quarry, turned round and escaped up what had been the steep drop from the wall above. Next year this seemingly impossible route featured in the course, and it jumped very well.

    His courses became more technical as horsemanship improved, but he always stuck to his mantra of “frightening the life out of the riders without hurting the horses”. He was rather good at that. The legal dimensions of jumps hadn’t changed since the 1912 Olympics, but as the old joke goes, it is not the size that matters, but what you do with it. Modern earth-moving helped him build the Normandy Bank with rubble from the construction of the M4.

    ‘The battle-winning factor’

    For a seemingly bluff Colditz veteran, Frank was a very cerebral course-designer. Each year in the Badminton programme he would write: “The psychology behind this year’s cross-country course”. This was aimed at the paying customers, but was very useful to us lambs to the slaughter who had decided to ride there.

    The 1978 edition included the following: “The first few fences in any cross-country ought to be undemanding to allow horses to warm up. Badminton traditionally demands more skilful riding than anywhere else in the world. This year should be no exception but wherever possible, at the tricky obstacles, less difficult alternatives have been offered to avoid overfacing up-and-coming younger horses or riders, although inevitably they will take longer, so speed will be the battle-winning factor.

    “The Fallen Tree as the first fence would be an ideal obstacle to school a four-year-old over on a Monday morning, but not even the stupidest horse could mistake it for another steeplechase fence, or be in any doubt that the cross-country had begun.”

    The roots of that sentiment clearly derive from Kilbarry’s final jumping effort.

    Kilbarry was the horse of a lifetime for Frank Weldon, winning races, Badminton, European gold, and Olympic gold, and as an army parade horse. But mostly as the equine guru and tragic example that turned Frank into the most respected, and as riders, feared cross-country course-designer of all time. To have ridden a Kilbarry-inspired, Weldon course was a badge of honour.

    Kilbarry in numbers

    £750 his purchase pric

    Won 1 point-to-point

    2 Badminton wins and 2 runner-up placings

    Won European team gold and individual silver in 1953 and ’54

    Ref Horse & Hound; 12 November 2020