Mark Todd: Are natural fences now novel? [H&H VIP]

  • I’ve really enjoyed two end-of-season events, both of which have been organised by the same families for a long time.

    The Nolan family has run South of England for 40 years, doing great service to the sport. They continue to make improvements, and have good arenas for dressage and jumping, and an excellent cross-country course.

    The Sturgis family’s Dauntsey Park is another to have been going for a long time. I remember falling off Charisma at the final fence in the early 1980s when about to win the advanced!

    When I walked the Dauntsey course I thought, “great, it’s nice to have a track with lots of natural features — hedges, ditches, banks, water crossings — and a lovely, old-fashioned feel”.

    So I was somewhat surprised to hear a number of people grumbling.

    I guess you always look at a course through the eyes of the horse you are sitting on, and I did have two very experienced rides this time, but last year I took a first-time intermediate there and thought it was fair.

    The difficult fences did offer options to get horses round. Not all intermediate tracks can — or should — be easy ones, and I thought it encouraged horses to be bold and forward. The £1,000 first prize in the open intermediate was a great initiative and drew people to the competition. If you wanted to win it, you had to take the direct routes, which is right.

    I’m not sure why the bank didn’t ride very well. Perhaps a ditch in front would help horses get up in the air?

    But it does beg the question of course-design. Have we got so far away from natural obstacles that riders have forgotten how to ride them and horses aren’t trained to jump them? I understand that it is often more financially economical to use portable fences, particularly on a track which lacks natural undulations and features. However, boxes in the middle of fields aren’t cross-country as I think of it. Using the features the land offers helps slow people down without resorting to unnecessary twists and turns.

    Courses ask the same old questions over and over again now — the skinny fence in or out of water, the corner with a turn to a skinny, the use of brush on absolutely everything. And skinnies themselves: we are all used to them, so what’s next? Do designers make them ever narrower and to be jumped on even more of an angle?

    I’d like to see course-designers put their thinking-caps on and come up with new ideas — or at least keep the old principles of crossing the country, without tricking horses, in mind.

    Out with 2014; on to Rio…

    We are in the final furlong of the 2014 eventing season now. I personally haven’t had the greatest season. It started well with what I thought was the strongest team of horses I’ve had for a long time. I scored three CIC3* wins on three different rides, but it was all downhill from there.

    On a positive note, the trade in horses seems to have picked up. People still seem keen to invest and take part in the sport. The focus now switches to Rio 2016, and I’ve bought two eight-year-olds with that prospect in mind.

    With my other hat on — that of helping the Brazilian team — we have the Pan-Am Games next year.

    Only one team can qualify for Rio there — the Brazilians get to compete as host nation — and the Americans will be going all out for that spot. But we want to beat them, of course.

    The prize-money debate died down as people became busy, but it hasn’t gone away and there needs to be a more positive attitude to addressing this problem.

    Rider responsibility

    It’s been an interesting season in that most of the four-star events have taken place on soft ground, which has influenced how courses have ridden. No one likes to see horses struggle round, but riders have to become more aware of their own — and their horse’s — ability.

    Being qualified for a level does not mean you are automatically capable and competent to tackle it safely. Riders must take responsibility; we’ve seen that courses are not going to “dumb down”, which is as it should be.

    This comment was originally published in Horse & Hound magazine on Thurday 9 October, 2014