The Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Grassroots Championship seems a distant memory but those competing in this prestigious championship the recollection of the experience will undoubtedly last a lifetime.
For countless grassroots riders getting to ‘little Badminton’ is an ultimate goal and many strive boundlessly to qualify via the regional final system. The qualification process is competitive and all credit to those who form the final start list. For a second year running the weather at Badminton didn’t play fair but, As Giuseppe della Chiesa reminded us at a big Badminton press conference; ‘This is an outdoor sport with many variables’.
Indeed, you can’t change the weather and this may have had an impact on the amount of problems cross country, predominantly in the BE100 section. However, was it just the weather or were there other variables that led to so few clear rounds cross country?
To begin it is worth looking at the facts. In the BE100 championship, where riders went cross country in the worst weather of the day, 45% of combinations went clear cross country, with 30% gaining clear rounds during the show jumping phase and 12% gaining a well deserved double clear. In the BE90 championship, 59% of combinations went clear cross country, with 28% going clear show jumping and 20% gaining a double clear. In the BE100 section there were 2 combination fences that were very influential. Fence 9ab, the World Horse Welfare Brushes had 22 refusals and fence 14abc the Shogun Hollow which amounted a whopping 27 refusals. With a smattering of refusals across the rest of the course it was clear that in the BE 100 section these more technical combination fences were very influential.
The grassroots championship is the pinnacle of many rider’s eventing careers. Each puts in hours of training, money and time to be there. So isn’t it fair that competitors are prepared fully so that they get the best possible chance to complete, ideally with a clear, but possibly slow round cross country? We are not part of the ‘everyone should be a winner’ culture, there should be competition and courses need to have a championship feel in technicality, scale and length. This was most certainly the case and the cross country looked incredibly well designed and presented by course builder James Willis. So if the course was spot on for a championship then what factors explain the score sheets with a large percentage of riders coming home with 20 penalties and some elimination. Surely these are some of the best grassroots riders in the country so it’s an important issue to reflect upon.
There is one consistent factor that all combinations will go through and that is the qualification process. Riders have to be placed in the top 10% of a BE90 or top 20% of a BE100 to qualify for a regional final. At that point the top 20% of riders at the regional final qualify for Grassroots. Having ridden in several regional finals I have always been surprised how lenient the jumping phases have been. Personally I expected more of a challenge to make all three phases competitive. Courses can be slightly more technical but on the whole course builders are restricted with what they can do at these levels, bearing in mind they may be using the course for a first round 90 or 100. In this connection, I’ve found regional finals to be very dressage centric with the mid 20’s, competent dressage combinations finding the straightforward jumping courses easier to manage. It would be easy and incorrect to generalise. There will always be horses qualifying that can produce great dressage and jumping performances. You only have to peruse the top five scores at the championships to see this. But there was also a percentage of horses at the championships who scored fantastic dressage scores and then came unstuck show jumping and more commonly during the cross country.
Our EWW reporter, observing the competition, mentioned that cross country riding was variable, from very experienced to novice. Some riders were seen having multiple refusals and eliminations at fences with alternatives, which was really unfortunate as this situation could have possibly been avoided. Understandably nerves can also play a part in performance and so should be added into the equation. At this point we ask what can be done to support riders to ensure that they are prepared for grassroots championships? The ‘issue’ could lie with the qualification process. At a regional final it would be useful to see a championship level dressage test so that combinations could be ranked with more differentiation between the excellent and the good. The ‘bunched up’ dressage scoring is highlighted further when show jumping courses are straightforward and cross country even more so. Possibly regional finals should be more of a challenge so BE90 regionals are run as a 90+ and 100’s as a 100+. By increasing the standards required at this point the qualifying horses would be ones with a consistent performance in all three phases and riders would also have had experience and a taste of larger, more technical tracks. This is as much a preparation for safe jumping riding as anything else and encourages consistent training and preparation way in advance of Grassroots. Indeed, if British Eventing could provide regional training for those heading to the Championship this could support those relatively new to the sport. With advice on fitness for horse and rider, schooling exercises to develop the cross country skills required and even some advice with how to deal with nerves this type of training would go a long way to support the qualifying combinations.
Grassroots eventing, like the levels above, should be about enjoyment, passion, professionalism and fun across all three phases. By preparing our riders for the Badminton challenge via a stronger regional final system and training we could help to support their progress and ensure that the experience is one that is a positive learning experience for both horse and rider.
Photographs courtesy of Dave Murray