Mark Phillips: A major wake-up call for Oliver Townend *H&H VIP*

  • Opinion

    Jonelle Price scored a popular win at the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials, coming up from 22nd after dressage, which is nearly unheard of in modern day eventing.

    You have to feel sorry for Oliver Townend, but when Pippa Funnell and Michael Jung won the Rolex Grand Slam, it was a huge story focused on love of the horse and horsemanship. Had Oliver won, his official warning for overuse of the whip would have tainted the victory.

    I felt sorry for the ground jury, as this was a hard incident to handle with the pressure of the grand slam. Riders have been given yellow cards for a lot less and, in a different situation, he would have been in significant trouble. It’s absolutely unacceptable in modern equestrian sport to hit the horse multiple times. Oliver needs to take this as a major wake-up call.

    The sport is under enough scrutiny without this or the incident of blood in the mouth on Marilyn Little’s horse at Kentucky the previous weekend.

    Big changes

    As expected, the removal of the dressage co-efficient has reduced that phase’s influence, probably for the good.

    But there are unintended consequences. Thirty riders were within 10 marks of the leader after the first phase and they will all have thought they were in with a shout of winning, rather than just the top 10. That’s a big change.

    Here, time-faults spread the field a little. Under normal conditions, 10 people might have made the time, which would make one rail in the showjumping horrendously expensive. On the flip side, it makes the last day unbelievably exciting, but is it right that one rail might cost you 15 places?

    The type of horses riders seek will change. The likes of Classic Moet and Arctic Soul — really good cross-country horses who have never been quite close enough after dressage — suddenly become competitive. The emphasis flicks from acquiring a good dressage horse to finding one who can finish on his first-phase score.

    We are locked into a three to a team with all scores to count format for the Olympics. Combining this with the new scoring will revolutionise team selection. Selectors must prioritise superb cross-country and showjumping horses, who have a good sound record.

    I wonder whether the FEI has gone too far too soon and should have taken the co-efficient halfway — perhaps from 1.5 to 1.25 or 1.2 — rather than removing it completely.

    Where to next?

    This year’s cross-country was more horse-friendly, but seven was still too many horse falls. Two fell at the friendly log into The Lake — had it been a more frightening fence, competitors might have ridden differently.

    Kentucky was technically difficult, although with more than a third of the fences made of forgiving brush. With perfect conditions, it proved quite easy.

    I spoke to Kentucky designer Derek di Grazia about the future of course-design — it’s a dilemma to know where we go. The modern horse is so good at technicality; we cannot make the angles any greater and still be fair. And where is the line between rider responsibility and respect for fences and making the obstacles horse-friendly?

    I am designing the World Equestrian Games track, a three-star to be tackled by a field of mostly four-star horses. They are bound to respect the smaller fences even less; it’s a difficult one.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 10 May 2018