Mark Phillips: Do riders realise the risk they take across country? [H&H VIP]

  • The past two weekends I’ve been lucky enough to be the course-designer for the CIC3* at Hopetoun and then for the novice, CIC2* and CIC3* at Barbury (above). I say lucky because at these big events it is a privilege to be responsible for the cross-country course.

    However, this did mean I spent four days out of eight sitting on a hill watching 200 horses a day crossing the country over fixed obstacles. At both events my heart was in my mouth more times than I care to admit watching the novice, CIC* and CIC2*, but happily less at CIC3*.

    I love watching cross-country. Seeing horses and riders at speed, jumping out of a balanced rhythm, has a majestic poetry that we can all admire — the horse has a four-wheel drive system that vehicle manufacturers will never match.

    Conversely, viewing people make bad moves in front of solid obstacles gives heart-stopping moments. I saw two of those moves at two-star and even more at one-star.
    It left me wondering why. Eventing is doing more than ever to try to make the sport “safer” yet we are seeing more “bad moves” than ever before. It is ironic that the “safer” the fences become, the less responsibility is taken by the riders.

    I’m not saying that competitors deliberately ride irresponsibly. Most “bad moves” come from a lack of knowledge — people don’t even appreciate the risk they are taking.

    Everybody who drives a car understands the risk if they overtake without quite enough space before a blind rise or a corner. I’m absolutely not convinced that many riders have the same understanding when they push a horse out of balance in front of a fence, so the horse is thinking more about the rider’s hand than the jump.

    Eventing has mushroomed with the introduction of BE80(T), BE90 and BE100. Forgive me, but these are truly point and kick levels. There is then a massive jump to the novice (1.10m) level that actually requires the rider to start riding.

    As a sport, we have a responsibility to now introduce the 1.05m level to help riders make that massive step. It should be a mandatory requirement for riders to do four or five 1.05m competitions if they are not qualified three- or four-star jockeys.

    After the Olympics in 2008 we talked with the FEI about making 1.05m competitions the one-star level and moving the star rating of the other levels up — so Badminton and Burghley become five-star events. That would give eventing an equivalent star rating to dressage and showjumping. The FEI did not care to do this. I felt it was the wrong decision then and feel even more strongly now.

    In America, where riders can start at levels even smaller than BE80(T), they are starting to draw up criteria for the 1.05m level. I’m convinced we need to do the same in this country and that, one day, the FEI risk management gurus will see the commonsense and follow suit.

    The jewels in the crown

    Having said all that, it was wonderful to see Stuart Buntine’s extravaganza at Hopetoun growing in stature just a stone’s throw from the airport on the outskirts of Edinburgh.

    As the event grows it has the inevitable associated pains, but wondering how to cope better with so many people is a nice problem. I’m sure this will increasingly become a destination event for the sport, just like Thirlestane in the old days.

    After 10 years Barbury has been through many of those growing pains and is now overrun with entries. Somehow the programme needs tweaking so we are not still running cross-country at 6pm.

    I appreciate the event is victim of its own success, but on Sunday there were massive crowds out on the course in the early afternoon, who had mostly drifted home by the time the big names were displaying their skills at speed as the reverse order of merit CIC3* came to an exciting end.

    We are so lucky in this country with special venues such as Hopetoun and Barbury. Now British Eventing’s fixtures people just need to help by not having these two jewels in the crown on back-to-back weekends!