If you have never been to a horse trials before, you are in for a treat. By following a few simple ground rules, your day away will be simply perfect, but get the dress ‘code’ wrong, and disregard a few safety issues, and you could face some unpleasant surprises.
First, don’t assume that this is the same as a day at the races. Lovely ladies may wear figure-hugging dresses, stunning hats and high-heeled stilettos at Ascot, but at Badminton, Burghley, Blenheim or your local Bog in the Marsh Horse Trials, this attire will look and feel totally out of place. For the men, the advice also is to leave the dress suit and brogues at home.
On arrival, you will probably want to walk the cross-country course, so sturdy walking boots or comfortable wellies are the ideal footwear, especially when it is muddy, as horse trials often are. In the middle of a dry summer (if there is such a thing in the UK, these days), sports shoes will fit the bill, but even when the mercury is topping 30 degrees on the temperature gauge you should still leave your pumps in the wardrobe.
As the British weather is notoriously fickle, a good trick is to take an umbrella, a functional hat and a warm waterproof coat, even if they end up staying in the car. Some venues are notoriously exposed and windy, so even though it may be balmy when you leave home, there could be a force-nine gale blowing at the other end and the skies may cloud over in an instant, bringing a tropical-style downpour.
Watching horses jump around a cross-country course is exciting, but they are powerful animals and if you walk in front of one by mistake, you will know about it. The major three-day equestrian events have courses that are well roped and crossing points that are marshalled by stewards.
However, if you are attending a lower-level, one-day event, the stringing can be haphazard and you may be walking across a field unaware that you are on the course itself and in the path of a galloping horse. The advice here is to watch first from the sidelines to see where the horses run before crossing open fields, and pay close attention to fence judges blowing whistles. They aren’t doing this for their own entertainment, but to warn you of impending danger.
Away from the cross-country course, most equestrian events have a hub where you can eat, shop, socialise and watch the show jumping. The arena will be roped, so there’s less of the danger factor here, and there is often seating provided, so you can sit and eat your ice cream, while soaking up the atmosphere and the sun (hopefully).
In terms of the shops, at lower level one-day events you may get a small cluster of tack and knick-knack outlets, so don’t go expecting the equivalent of Oxford Street. For the non-horsey, your ‘shop-a-thon’ could be over in a matter of minutes.
However, at the major four-star CCIs (top level three-day events, such as Badminton and Burghley) the shopping villages are sensational and boast such a wide range of equestrian and non-equestrian goods that you may find you have spent an entire day indulging in retail therapy while missing all of the action. Prepare for a credit card blast!
Horse trials are wonderful venues for children (and dogs, but never leave yours in the car), not least because there are acres of grounds for them to run around in and let off steam. However, beware allowing noisy boys to play football anywhere near a horse, or especially close to the dressage arenas, where 100% quiet is required by every horse and rider.
Horse trials often come with a stately home attached, so you can educate the children while also ensuring that they have an active time. However, if you are expecting a mini Thorpe Park you will be disappointed. While many larger fixtures boast a fun fair, they aren’t on a theme-park scale.
You may find that any un-horsey partners or friends who come for a day out at one of the larger three-day events will gravitate towards the food court or the beer tent. No problem. You can meet them there at the end of the day — but be prepared to drive them home.
Treating them to a pass for the exclusive Members’ area could well make their weekend. They will be able to watch all the action on closed circuit TV from the comfort of a chair, plus enjoy fantastic food and drinks, albeit at somewhat overinflated prices.
Even a one-day event will boast some food offerings, but you may find that, with burgers, crepes and jacket potatoes the general staples, there are few things on the menu for allergy sufferers, who may be wise to take their own picnic.
You may also be wise to find out more about eventing before you attend your first equestrian event. The rules are fairly straightforward for the initiated, but not always that easy for the beginner to understand.
Parting with £5 for a programme will be a wise investment. This usually explains the proceedings, but don’t expect the riders and horses to run in their printed order. At one-day events, the sections are usually ‘scrambled’ — or jumbled if you prefer — and the action can take a bit of following. Go large — i.e. three- or four-star events — and you will find the best commentators in the business, who are brilliant at explaining both the rudiments of the sport and what is happening on the leaderboard.
Provided you wear the right clothing, take enough money and go with an open mind, you should enjoy your first horse trials experience. If you end up having an affable chat to the myriad officials and fence judges so much the better. Most are volunteers who don’t even claim expenses, so a friendly word and a ‘thank you’ will go a long way.