Mark Phillips: Have we lost essential riding skills?

  • The record books will only tell half the story of Chris Burton and Nobilis 18’s Burghley win. I can’t remember anyone having four showjumps down and still winning a four-star. However, he gave such a commanding performance in the dressage and cross-country, no one will begrudge him his victory.

    The New Zealand phenomemon continues — they may have missed a medal in Rio, but with Andrew Nicholson, Jonelle and Tim Price, Caroline Powell, Mark Todd and Blyth Tait all in the top 12, you wonder what would have happened if they had fielded their B team at the Olympics.

    It bothers me that these days there are so few Brits on the front line of the prize-giving. Team GBR were not threatening the leaders. However, performance manager Yogi Breisner tells me that there are some special horses in the eight- and nine-year-old class at Blenheim this week and that these will be the ones we’ll see at the top end next year.

    Solving the puzzle

    These days the cross-country track at Burghley has the reputation of setting the standard at four-star level. As course-designer, it gives me more grey hairs every year. I said at the riders’ briefing early in the week that I did not agree with William Fox-Pitt when he said that 2016 was a softer track (preview, 25 August).

    In fact, with a little help from the rain, it turned out to be one of the toughest Burghleys ever. But there were multiple alternatives, so if riders were in trouble they had plenty of opportunity to go to plan B. Just about every alternative was used and trouble was spread all around the course.

    Five horse falls was still five too many and the successive duckings in the Trout Hatchery are a complete mystery. Essentially all riders had to work really hard and I would have liked to see more make it look easy. The rain obviously made conditions harder, but there was also some very average riding.

    In the good old days, leaning back at drop fences and slipping the reins were essential skills. I don’t think I’ve ever seen more riders fall forward onto the horse’s neck on landing, with the result that they had no chance of making it to the next element with fluency and often had to resort to the scenic route.

    I know the sport is more technical these days and riders count strides more. I often tell the story of two horses I rode at Badminton in the 1970s. At the sunken road, one took two strides before the road, bounced in the bottom and bounced out. The other took four strides before, one in the road and one on the way out. Both horses solved the puzzle in the way they thought was correct. Allowing horses flexibility was largely missing last week.

    The Antipodean nations made the difficult cross-country look relatively easy. I hope the next generation of Brits will study the footage and take notes in their quest for future honours.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 8 September 2016