Badminton Horse Trials 2017: Courses for horses

Eric Winter & Flying Sun (c) Kit Houghton

Eric Winter & Flying Sun (c) Kit Houghton - Credit: Kit Houghton

It’s all change at the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials as there’s a new man in charge of the famous cross-country course, designer Eric Winter

Eric Winter (c) Kit Houghton

Eric Winter (c) Kit Houghton - Credit: Kit Houghton

The famous international Badminton Horse Trials first captured the imagination of Eric Winter in 1974 when he was just 12 years old. Taken there by his father to watch his childhood heroes, he never dreamt that one day he would be the man in charge, the man responsible for creating a cross-country course the world’s top event riders would do battle with.

This three-day event in Gloucestershire is an international four star (the sport’s highest level) of which there are just six in the world, and is the most illustrious of all. Its legendary, exacting cross-country course, which involves horses and riders tackling fences at speed, is one all event riders, young or old, aspire to ride round – and ride round clear. It asks questions and tests the nerves of the world’s very bravest and best horses and riders.

Thousands of spectators come in anticipation of watching the thrills and, more often than not, spills of cross-country day, with many choosing to watch the adrenaline-filled action at the infamous lake... all secretly hoping to see a ducking.

This year will be Eric’s debut at Badminton, following the previous designer Giuseppe Della Chiesa’s announcement that 2016 would be his last year.

“I was ecstatic. I couldn’t believe that I had been asked to take on the big job - it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. Being fairly local, [he lives about 35 minutes away in Chepstow], people always say ‘one day you will design the course at Badminton’ and you say ‘oh yes possibly,’ thinking ‘not a hope!’”

His horsey roots had a somewhat inauspicious start. Growing up in North Somerset his love of horses started when his father visited Bridgewater Fair, and “got a little bit tipsy at lunchtime, and came home with a pen of ponies,” said Eric. “We started out with a completely non-horsey background and bumbled along and learnt as we went. My dad was quite competitive and saw we quite enjoyed it, so it went on.”

Eric soon learnt to love the sport of eventing, which tests horse and rider over three disciplines; the elegant dressage, the thrill-seeking cross-country, and the nerve-biting showjumping that test the horse’s carefulness over easily-knocked down coloured poles.

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He reached the heights of competing at Badminton Horse Trials, along with his brother, turning to designing when he hung up his riding boots.

“Designing has always fascinated me; how one jump relates to another and how you use the terrain,” he says. “What happens at one fence will dictate how you ride the next.”

He got involved with his local event at Chepstow, joined the committee and then became the event’s designer.

“I thoroughly enjoyed it so I phoned Mike Etherington-Smith [top international course designer and former CEO of British Eventing] and asked if I could understudy him. He was really good with me, and said ‘come and walk every course you want.’”

From these beginnings he got involved with one of the other Cotswold eventing jewels, the three star Blenheim Horse Trials, ending up designing there for 10 years, until Badminton called.

“I will miss Blenheim but it’s only right that things move on,” he says. “I designed the 2017 Badminton course quickly and trusted my instincts. I just wanted to go out and follow my gut. If you stopped to think about the heritage you can get over-powered about the whole event, and there are so many different ways of doing things. Some real old-fashioned questions are back and hopefully the course has a traditional feel.”

The event’s famous historic fences read like a hallowed list of battle greats, the ski jump, Luckington Lane, Vicarage V, Beaufort Staircase, to name a few, with each battling the best, spitting out those found wanting.

It is the course designer’s job to not only design a course that divides the best from the rest, but also manage the risk to both horse and rider.

“Badminton’s the picture of the sport that gets beamed all over the world. You have a debt of honour to produce good pictures, beyond all else. I don’t want to produce images of horses struggling over the top of fences,” says Eric.

So how does he cope with being responsible for the welfare of the horse and rider?

“You do what you think is best. It’s a terrific responsibility. But safety is not just about the jumps. Its about the way you deliver horses to fences, it’s about the way people ride, and there’s a responsibility of owners not to press riders when they say ‘I am not going to ride that horse at that level.’

“We focus on deformable fences and ground lines, but safety starts with quality riders being good enough to do the job they are supposed to do on horses that are good enough to deliver. There’s no way, when you have two living animals working together, that this can be a safe sport. There’s always the unknown.”

And where will he be on the big day?

“I think I will be in a lavatory, going backwards and forwards,” he says with a laugh. “I have the living dread that there are 60 starters and 60 clears inside the time, or that I’m at the finish and no-one’s come through and it’s two o’clock in the afternoon.”

The Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials runs May 3-7, and cross-country day is on Saturday, May 6. For more information visit the website.