It’s Big. It’s Burghley.
That was the predominant phrase I heard while at the famed three-day event this past week. Every rider, when they were asked about the massive Mark Phillips designed course, had the same thing to say: It’s good! It’s big. It’s Burghley.
It was definitely big. I always say, with no disrespect at all intended, that the Land Rover Burghley CCI**** makes Rolex Kentucky look like Fisher Price My First Four Star.
The course is filled with giant jumps with names that have been burned into the minds of aspiring riders everywhere: The Leaf Pit, somewhat like jumping the equivalent of 22 feet down to the bottom. Discovery Valley, a simple enough looking ditch with upright angled brushes designed to catch out the unprepared. The Trout Hatchery, which sounds so deceivingly pleasant and like the kind of place you’d like to set down for a picnic, but in reality is like a roller coaster made of water, stone, Pteradactyl nests and civil war defense walls. Then we can talk about Capability’s Cutting North and South, which, in theory, you are expected to canter up and down and jump very large jumps at an angle, but when I look at the hill, I think I wouldn’t even go down it scooting on my butt. Of course the famed COTTESMORE LEAP, which I swear is a ditch and wall that when standing down in the bottom is approximately 45 feet to the top. It’s terrifying.
It was an interesting, amazing and mostly huge-grin inducing time, minus that moment when I realized that the early start we got on cross-country day was really, really awesome except for the fact that I drove 35 minutes to the event and parked smugly right up front only to realize that I had done all this without packing my camera. The two-hour trip it took me to get back to the grounds, and the 45 minutes I sat in standing, turn-your–car-off traffic were a minor inconvenience when you got down to it, but it’s definitely one of those lessons that you only need to learn once.
Subsequently, I’m taking applications for a professional minder to squash my constant passport anxiety (WHERE’S MY PASSPORT! Oh, there it is. WHERE’S MY PASSPoohh, there it is…) and ensure I never, ever, ever leave my gear at the hotel again, particularly when all of Great Britain has shown up to watch cross-country day, and you are driving a Fiat shaped like an egg with a very temperamental clutch.
The Good, The Bad And The Ugly
Rather than recap the event as many other more skilled writers have done in much more timely fashion, I thought I would touch on a few things that I heard behind the scenes.
The first thing I heard that made me go, “Wow! Didn’t know that!” was that the footing was impressively deceiving. Walking the course after it had rained most of the day on Thursday left it perfect to my amateur feel. I tend to judge footing on one basis—does it hurt my broken sesamoids after walking the course? No? GREAT FOOTING!! England, and particularly Burghley has this unreal turf that is old, untrampled by even the resident deer during the rest of the year, and has roots that have been nurtured by hundreds of years of skilled hands. It’s as close to perfect as you will find in the world. Reports from riders walking the course agreed with my sesamoids—Great footing! A bit dry in places, but the grounds folks were taking care of that with the aerator.
Turns out the horses felt otherwise. Apparently the footing we humans felt was great because we are not travelling over it at 30 miles an hour with 1500 pounds digging in at every step. With the extraordinary amount of rain they’ve gotten this year, the footing a few inches down was deep and had too much “give” and was sort of swampy, for lack of a better word.
I’m imagining that the soil beyond the turf roots was unstable, giving the horses an uneasy feeling when they galloped or jumped. As the horses were punching through to unstable footing, which was making them work harder, they were also balancing on the famous undulations of the Burghley cross-country course. Consequently, horses were pulling up early, jumping in a disorganized fashion, and really tiring in earlier spots than the riders expected. A few riders pulled up after their horses essentially spit the bit out and said “Not today!”
Lobbing show-jump course designer Richard Jeffery with questions over the years has put us on first-name acquaintance level, so I felt comfortable approaching him throughout the competition about what he was thinking about before Day 4 of the competition. I saw him out stalking the dressage ring to make sure they weren’t damaging the ground too much, and he was checking out the divots before and after the cross-country jumps in the ring to decide how he’d deal with those inconsistencies in footing for setting up his show jump course.
He had his course all mapped out (It needs to be done weeks in advance for the television stations to plan cameras etc.) but had a bit of play on where the lines would go. Looking at his little course map he showed me where all of these little indications were to mark the rise in the ring. Looking over the course from any corner, there were distinct humps and hills, with two distinct crowns that fall away in four directions.
He mentioned that this was entirely tolerable to event riders as they were used to terrain and are jumping a maximum of 1.25 meters, but would not be entirely suitable for the big jumper classes. He did tell me he tended to watch the cross-country to see how the horses were finishing, and when it showed that they were coming off the course extremely tired, he might scooch the oxers a bit closer together. Tell that to the competitors who were jumping almost all square, therefore unforgiving oxers. I’d hate to have seen the course if the horses were finishing easily!
Go Team USA!