On the first May Bank Holiday weekend every year, a sleepy Cotswold village plays host to scores of International Event Riders and their rising stars for one of the highest profile One Day Events around (us locals think so anyway)! Two weeks before Badminton, it is a great opportunity for the big names to test their fitness and local fans to “celeb spot” without the big event price tag. This year, I happen to be working at the livery yard attached to the ODE ground, so I was there for the insider’s view of all the hard work and preparation that goes into an event like this and to spot the opportunities available for local equestrians to get involved.
In the lead up to the big weekend, the staff at Withington Manor work flat out on the preparations. Tractors charging to and fro are preparing the ground and delivering giant cross country fences, tents and decorations. Course designer, Eric Winter, also designed the course it Badminton, this year, so standards have to be high. Obviously, the resident horses find all the activity a combination of exciting and terrifying that makes turning out a more hair-raising experience than usual in the mornings! “Exit” signs, fir trees and even new gravel appearing has all needed a thorough investigation in case of horse-eating-monsters by the 20+ residents of the Manor. For us grooms, the deliveries instil a sense of excitement, buzzing about the soon-to-be influx of “celebs” (confirmation that Mary King seems just as lovely in person as you’d hope) and excited plans about when is best to sneak up and watch the event in action between jobs.
When the big day arrives, the excitement begins with the arrival of the competitors and a spot of celeb lorry spotting. Every one arrives full of anticipation and the atmosphere is electric with last minute plaiting and preparations. For your more amateur rider, the first opportunity to be find at a local event of this scale is seeing how others warm up and get started on event day. Some people start with a hack around the grounds to help their horses relax and get used to the atmosphere; others can be seen lunging to get their horse focused and loosened up ready to go.
The dressage phase brings the next series of opportunities. Writing for the judge is a commonly cited option for the amateur rider. Of course, the quality of this opportunity varies depending on the judge. The best judges to write for are the friendly and are happy to chat through what they are looking for and give hints and pointers, there are others who are not as keen on coaching the amateur rider at the same time as focusing on judging. Obviously, try not to be too demanding of their time – judging requires focus and concentration, so you won’t be thanked for constantly interrupting with comments and questions! Another, perhaps lesser known, opportunity for the skilled amateur is the opportunity to be the guinea pig rider for the dressage phase, in order to set the judges up for the competitors. One of the liveries at our yard had the chance to take this opportunity for the 1* and jumped at the chance! After all, when else do you get the chance to ride for international standard judges and get feedback – all for free!
Next up is the showjumping, where there’s less opportunity to get involved – unless you fancy a work out restoring fallen poles between competitors! There is always a learning opportunity though. At your local show, you are much more likely to get up close and personal with the ring and be able to analyse the different riders styles and lines. After all, where else are you likely to be almost within touching distance of the legendary Mark Todd as he handles a tricky combination!
Last, but definitely not least: the challenge of the cross country course. The course at Withington is challenging to say the least! Eric Winter certainly knows how to design a bold and testing course. For your local rider, there are two main opportunities: fence judging and riding the course. Fence judging is potentially a great opportunity, hopefully you get an interesting fence and you get to watch, in detail, how every single rider approaches it. You can analyse for yourself the successes and pitfalls of these approaches and maybe apply some lessons to your own riding. It is a long day and full concentration is required, so maybe not for the fainthearted!
A number of local events hire the course out for local people to ride for a few days after the event. A few of us took the opportunity, so I can now say I’ve ridden on an Eric Winter course! Did I jump anything? Absolutely not! This dressage diva does not have the brave pants required for that level of course. We did trot through the water, pop up and down the much shorter sides of the bank and have a good blast around the field without spooking at any of the giant fences though. For Ginge and I, it was a great chance to ride around and have a look at a world class cross country course and face his worries about water. I feel like we succeeded. For those competing at a much higher level, it is an even greater opportunity to pop a few choice fences and practice the tricky ones without the pressure of competition and a ticking clock.
So what is stopping you? Get out there and get involved at your local event!