Mark Phillips: What’s the future for the four-stars? [H&H VIP]

  • This year has been a dramatic one, with the cross-country the dominant factor in determining the result at many of the four-stars. The old and bold would celebrate this return to the “good old days”.

    Unfortunately times have changed and many of the pictures we saw this year are becoming increasingly unacceptable.

    That produces a real dilemma for the four-star designer. How do you set a four-star test and still produce a picture that is acceptable in countries such as Germany, Holland and Sweden where animal rights activists are vociferous?

    We have had the introduction of frangible fences with the British pin systems and the Swedish MIM Clip. Designers are using more brush fences as they, too, are forgiving if a rider makes a mistake. But some say the bigger effort required to jump so many brushes is making horses more tired.

    There have been papers circulating among senior designers this autumn asking whether we are mentally asking too much of the horses, with so many combinations and skinny fences.

    As ever, we seem to have more questions than answers.

    Why horses are tiring more

    One common factor this year was the ground conditions, which made the time unattainable at Badminton, Burghley — where one softer section meant riders could not make up time — and the World Equestrian Games. In all three cases we underestimated the conditions underfoot.

    When the time is difficult, horses become more tired and the resulting pictures are less pretty. The shorter format doesn’t have the endurance element we had from a 5min 13sec steeplechase followed by a 14min cross-country. In those days, we settled into a rhythm like the long-distance runner in order to finish.

    In the long format, we had a jumping effort every 175 or 180m — now it’s every 140 or 145m. The number of fences has not changed, nor has the speed at which water, a coffin, a sunken road and so on can be tackled. That means horses now go much faster between the jumps and they therefore get winded, more than tired, from the intensity of the effort.

    In addition, many riders aspire to ride at four-star and indeed meet the minimum requirements. However, in life, experience is what you get just after you discovered you needed it. So my heart sank when I heard there were 18 first-timers at Burghley this year, because I knew there would be a percentage that were not up to it.

    Where do we go now?

    I go to Burghley this week to start the 2015 course. It’s been agreed that we can turn the track around so that the Lion Bridge, Lake Crossing, Capabilities Cutting and Cottesmore Leap will all come in the first 4min. The highest point on the course will come at 4min instead of 8min.

    Will this be an improvement? I don’t know, as it will put the challenges of Discovery Valley, the Leaf Pit and the Arena in the last 3min.

    It will be fascinating to see what Giuseppe de la Chiesa comes up with at Badminton. He’ll be praying for better weather.

    Even more interesting will be Ian Stark’s Bramham after his wet one this time and how he deals with the mountain at Blair Castle for the Europeans in September.

    Talking of Blair, Alec Lochore assures me that the dressage arena erected in the main ring this year to protect the virgin grass was in the wrong place and I’ve now seen pictures of it correctly sited. Happily, the boards looked laser-beam level.

    I apologise for inferring otherwise (comment, 28 August) but I was not the only one scratching my head. Anyway, I’m excited about returning to Scotland next year for what should be a great European Championship.

    It was disappointing to see so few runners at Pau last week. Was this because of the attrition at WEG, Badminton, Burghley or the lack of HSBC funding for the FEI Classics — or a combination? I don’t know, but it was a sad way for 2014 to peter out.

    Let’s look forward to 2015. I’m hoping we can make it a golden year for the sport and leave the soggy memories of 2014 behind.