Mark Phillips: With that move, no frangible can save you [H&H VIP]

  • This is a busy time of year for me as a course-designer. I still really enjoy the challenge and the thought of being retired by the FEI in four years when I reach 70 does not excite me, as I feel I still have a huge amount to offer the sport. But who knows what the future will bring — there is always the chance I’ll go into a serious decline!

    I have never worked under so much pressure as in Luhmühlen, where fatalities in recent years have put things on a knife edge. It was as if after more than 50 years, the whole future of the sport at this fabulous venue was hanging by a thread, dependent on a good cross-country day. Everybody felt it and the competitors rode very responsibly. The vet and doctor never moved all day.

    I agree with Mark Todd that the cross-country was big but not overly technical. But still 10 out of the 35 starters found trouble, including Michael Jung.

    This further emphasised the two divisions within four-star. The best horses in the world made it look easy — that’s how it has to be, if the remainder are to survive, let alone compete.

    Luhmühlen raised its qualifying requirements this year. This reduced entries but was a good move for risk management, and I hope the other four-stars follow suit.

    Rising standards

    Luhmühlen was also a showcase for the modern sport’s standard. Twenty-six of the 38 dressage starters scored under 50 and 14 hit 40 or below.

    Were we not saying just the other day that you need to break 50 to be competitive? In the future it’ll be 40.

    Quite how we balance this with the International Olympic Committee’s and FEI’s desire for universality is beyond me, unless we have two events, one to weed out the bottom half, the second for the medals. To allow the best horses to compete twice over an Olympic fortnight means using the CIC format, with its shorter course, thereby losing the identity the CCI classic format has held sacred for so long.

    A move you cannot make

    The CIC3* at Hopetoun was an educational track — Barbury will be much sterner — on excellent footing provided by Harry Williams’ crew. But one incident highlighted eventing’s risk management problems.

    All the star levels share one fence across the ha-ha into the garden. There were no incidents over the friendly ditch and brush until four from the end in the three-star, when Camilla Neil took off well away from the fence, landing in the ditch. The horse was OK, Camilla was taken into intensive care with head injuries but thankfully was released into a normal ward on Sunday night.

    When riders make that move, we cannot make the sport safe. I use the motoring analogy. If you overtake in your car coming to a blind corner, you may get away with it — and this may have been a one-off for Camilla — but for sure if you keep doing it eventually you’ll meet a vehicle coming the other way.

    It’s the same cross-country — you ask for the big stand-off and get away with it until ultimately you ask for one that is too big and the horse can’t help you out. There is no fence or frangible device that can help if riders keep making that move.

    Coaches, trainers, old fat people like me, keep saying that the real answer to safety is in the training and discipline of horse and rider. It’s not tangible, but it’s the truth. If riders take time to balance a horse and put it “on its feet” before a fence, riding cross-country is no more dangerous than driving your car.

    Ref: Horse & Hound; 2 July 2015