Mark Phillips: Escaping France for British four-star efficiency [H&H VIP]

  • Although I am biased because I’m involved with the Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials, I don’t know anybody who wasn’t glad to get out of France after the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games (WEG) and into the polite, efficient atmosphere of Britain’s autumn four-star.

    Last week Mark Todd was eloquent on how “WEG failed to deliver”.

    Having been at championships as a competitor and coach for the past 40 years, it was not all bad. But as a spectator or owner it probably surpassed 1994 at The Hague as the worst ever WEG, with the problems with traffic, loos and food queues.

    I’ve been to many wonderful events in France and at Haras du Pin. I’m not sure what it is about WEG that makes the normal good organisation disintegrate. Maybe it has something to do with the FEI!

    Inconsistent rules

    The one thing the FEI should have learned at WEG is never to let your lawyers talk to the coaches.

    We were lectured about how athletes’ sponsors could not be on clothing nor could there be national flags on horse ear covers for dressage. When I showed a picture from grand prix dressage the day before with a flag, the answer was: “It’s not allowed”. So I said: “What are you doing about it?” Answer: “It’s not allowed”. My answer: “Well, if you are doing nothing about it, then it must be allowed.”

    We had riders taping over logo signs like a patchwork quilt, despite the word of the lawyer not matching the rules on the FEI website.

    Was the going acceptable?

    We knew there would be hills across country and it was no surprise that 18 of Pierre Michelet’s 42 fences were a skinny or an angle. The fact that nearly 50% of the fences had a brush component had many course-designers sucking their teeth. But the course had many great attributes.

    The only place Pierre totally missed was the last water. The step was too big and the skinny fish did not focus the horses’ attention.

    Like Mark Todd, I heard about the €1million spend on the footing, but you couldn’t see where it had gone, save a few causeways with a drainage pipe underneath them.

    After cross-country, many riders said for a four-star championship the ground was unacceptable.

    On a personal note, I was proud of my daughter Zara. She may not be 100% fit, but she sure showed up on the day.

    Also, I was sorry for William Fox-Pitt. His bronze was fantastic, but we have to admit that Sandra Auffarth’s Opgun Louvo was the class act and that Michael Jung is a genius, the likes of which we have not seen before in the sport.

    The Burghley time

    At Burghley, the big surprise was that the cross-country time was unachievable.

    Neither I nor technical delegate Philip Surl cheated on the measurement and no riders complained after wheeling it.

    Watching the TV, a typical percentage of riders were 15-20sec down at the Land Rover Dairy Farm. Normally riders are able to make the time up between the Land Rover Dairy Farm (7min) and the Anniversary Splash (10min).

    This year, that fastest part of the course was taking a 2in cut in the turf, so riders were not able to make that time back. Then they lost another 10sec at the Lion Bridge.

    For me, that put too much pressure on the clock and therefore on the riders. I’d like to see the best finishing with the horses’ ears pricked. As it was, everyone was under pressure and using hands and heels to get home as soon as possible. This year’s Burghley, Badminton and WEG have all emphasised the importance of good footing if the riders are to produce a good picture.

    So why was the time so impossible? The footing down from Cottesmore Leap to Capabilities was one factor, the “stop-go” riding from so many was another.

    Riders forget at the Land Rover Trout Hatchery and the Dairy Farm how tiring it is for the horse if you come back to zero and then have to accelerate back up to 600mpm.

    Finally, no one predicted that the arena fences (part B pictured top) would be the most influential test. They were not difficult if riders gave horses time to understand the question.

    Mark’s column was first published in Horse & Hound (11 September, 2014)