The spectator’s guide to eventing

By Julie Harding on |

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Louisa Lockwood at the Badminton Horse Trials
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Horse trials make great days out. Being at one with the great outdoors, often with a stately home thrown into the mix, while watching galloping horses and expert riders, you are guaranteed a feeling of well-being and a healthy glow.

Start as you mean to go on

Maybe you want to begin big and visit Badminton or Burghley? These are the UK’s two premier CCI4* (international) equestrian events; one running in May and the other in September. The star system doesn’t correspond to how good each event is, but to the size of the fences and the technicality of the dressage test. Burghley and Badminton’s cross-country courses are big and not for the faint-hearted — thus you’ll be able to watch the best riders and horses in the world vying for a prestigious trophy and a large prize pot.

Badminton and Burghley are three-day events, although they run over four days — confused yet? That’s because there are generally so many horses entered that the first dressage phase requires the luxury of two days. The dressage test is a little like ‘Strictly‘ for horses, minus the music. Walk, trot, canter, rein back and other movements are performed in front of the three-member ground jury (aka judges) and simply cannot be rushed.

When the going gets tough

Whoever performs the best dressage test scores the lowest mark; this is carried forward to Saturday’s cross country phase, where they will begin in the lead position. At top level, there are generally only a handful of competitors capable of wowing the judges sufficiently to lead after day one and two. William Fox-Pitt, Andrew Nicholson and reigning Olympic Champion Michael Jung (who just won the 2015 edition of Burghley) are perhaps the best known.

With 30-plus solid fences to negotiate over several miles of fields and woodland on Saturday, anything can happen. You accrue 20 penalties for your first run out or refusal, where the horse refuses to jump a fence. Three refusals mean you’re out and a fall of either rider or horse at an international event means elimination. It takes a great horse and rider combination, often with several years’ experience, to complete the course free of faults and also within the optimum time. Cross the finish line late and you will accrue a 0.4 second penalty for every second over. This can prove costly and competitions have been won and lost on mere seconds of time.

On the final day at any three-day event — from CCI 1* all the way through to four-star — comes the show jumping. Horses jump over a course of fences in an arena. Four penalties are accrued for each fence down. But first the horse must pass the nerve-jangling trot-up in the morning, where the ground jury and vets scrutinizse every equine competitor, and fail any that are lame.

All in a day’s work

Boasting just as much action as a four-star event, but with slightly smaller fences and often younger horses are the three-star CCI events, which include Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, Bramham in West Yorkshire and Blair Castle for those who fancy a trip to bonny Scotland.

If all you want is a quick trip down the road, though, chances are you will be able to find a local one-day event. There are around 170 one-day events run under the British Eventing umbrella, the main difference with a CCI being that the proceedings are completed between dawn and dusk and horses show jump before they run across country.

You may even see eventing legends like Mark Todd and Mary King in action on their younger horses at a ‘grassroots’ event, where the classes start off at BE80 level, which means the fences are, as the name suggests, a more manageable 80cm high.

One-day events also have their blue riband competitions which attract the riding stars and even members of the royal family. One prestige fixture is the Festival of British Eventing at Gatcombe Park. It takes place in the Princess Royal’s ‘back garden’, so you can indulge in a bit of royal watching, alongside the horse spotting.

Throughout the world there are few other sports where you can rub shoulders at such close quarters with so many famous faces, experience nail-biting action and shop until you drop. These events are also suitable for your children, many allow dogs and you are rewarded with hours of fun for little more than the cost of a round of drinks at your local pub. What’s not to like?

Image: Louisa Lockwood at Badminton’s Outlander Bank in 2014, by Ross Elliott via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

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