Mark Phillips: ‘Riding standards and horsemanship is in decline’


  • Mark Phillips asks where eventing goes now, after a bruising cross-country day at Badminton

    Badminton Horse Trials has been part of my life since 1960 when my parents moved locally. I first rode there in 1968 and the traditions of the “Great Event” are in my blood.

    I enjoyed being course adviser to Eric Winter for three years, so was sad that Mike Etherington-Smith took over the role this year.

    This year I left cross-country day feeling the sport had been bruised. Fifty-eight pairs started, 30 finished and 11 retired. Seventeen were eliminated, which included six horse falls and nine rider falls – 25% of the field, which is too many mishaps and not great entertainment, especially for spectators on the second half of the course.

    It would be easy to point the finger at course-designer Eric or Mike, but that would not be fair. There were questions I wouldn’t have asked, but the picture would have been very different without the rain and the drying, soft, energy-sapping footing.

    To alleviate the severity of the track because of the ground, the first part of the HorseQuest Quarry and the dressing that created the acute angle at the fence before, the Jubilee Clump Brush, were removed. Both of these were essential, but I saw no reason to remove the second part of the LeMieux Mound other than that Mike has never liked this fence!

    Where is the sport going? What is the answer? I certainly don’t have it, which troubles me. Five-star is still the pinnacle of eventing, seen nowhere better than at Badminton and Burghley. But when ground conditions get tough, big technical fences don’t produce an acceptable picture for the sport.

    At Kentucky Three-Day Event the week before, designer Derek Di Grazia had wet conditions, but the ground was not as soft as at Badminton. There we had some big fences, but 50% of the questions were either a skinny or an angled fence. The fences were smaller, but the angles and turns were more severe and there was only one horse fall.

    At Badminton, the percentage of technical questions was closer to 25%. So is smaller, more technical fences the answer? I hope not as this flies against so many of the sport’s traditions.

    At Badminton you have to add in that this year there was no waitlist, so there was no filtering of the less talented combinations. This has been a luxury in years gone by that only Badminton has enjoyed at five-star level.

    An elite minority

    The FEI is going headlong down the avenue of frangible technology, ground lines and anything else that could help stop horse falls, but the success of this policy is questionable.

    Nothing is being done to make riders more responsible for helping their horses jump every fence. From the lower levels up, the general standard of riding and horsemanship is in decline, so it’s difficult to see how things will improve.

    The top echelon of riders are the obvious exception, but I don’t think anybody can argue that the skill of riding a tiring horse is anything but on the wane. At Badminton, Ros Canter, William Fox-Pitt, Tim Price and Tom Jackson stood out as examples of how to ride forward across country on soft ground.

    I was sad, though, to see William Fox-Pitt suggest a boycott of The Lake direct route in the media. William is one of the most successful riders ever and a leader of the sport as a former rider representative on the FEI three-day event committee. He has other avenues of influence without having a cheap shot in public over a fence that was, in my opinion, reasonable and fair.

    The troubles of cross-country day behind us, Tom Jackson climbed the order on showjumping day, as at Burghley, to fifth this time. Toledo De Kerser jumped his normal clear for fourth, Austin O’Connor dropped to third and Oliver Townend conjured a good round from Ballaghmor Class for second.

    How privileged we were to watch Ros Canter give one of the best pillar-to-post displays with Lordships Graffalo. What a future they have and how lucky Britain is to have them as we prepare for the Europeans and Paris 2024.

    ● Where do you think eventing courses should go from here? Write to hhletters@futurenet.com, including your name, nearest town and county for the chance to have your views published in a future magazine.

    • This exclusive column will also be available to read in Horse & Hound magazine, on sale Thursday 11 May, alongside our full 22-page in-depth analysis of all the Badminton action

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