Andrew Nicholson reviews the strong cross-country track at Bicton and warns it may be time for riders to rethink their training and competition plans
HELEN WEST and her team did a good job at Bicton; the facilities were great, and it was lovely to have spectators. There seemed to be a big crowd – certainly when we’ve been used to no one for the past year and a half.
As far as the cross-country course was concerned, I can see where Helen and her course-adviser Mark Phillips were coming from. The tracks all season at the lower levels have been strong; there appears to be a concerted effort to make the cross-country more dominant again and make us ride better in that phase.
However, to me, Bicton’s four-star track was too much for the level. Yes, there were a lot of CCI5* horses there, and it was effectively a final trial for the British Olympic hopefuls. But I thought when I walked it that if you had a proper four-star horse doing its first CCI4*-L, the course was going to be full-on for it, and it proved to be so.
On my first walk of the course, I couldn’t feel what the designer wanted. I think a good course is like reading a book – you want to keep turning the pages to see what happens next, and it has a beginning, a middle and an end.
The fences were big, and the terrain had been used to the maximum – and Bicton is a hilly place. The terrain between the fences was such that I thought there could have been more let-up fences for the new four-star rider or horse to allow them to take a breath and get themselves back together.
I had a horse doing its first long-format four-star there and when I first walked the track, I planned to take the long route at fence 10, a double of angled brushes out of the water (pictured top), because I thought it was a CCI5* question.
But then, two fences later, there was another difficult combination, and I asked myself, where do I draw the line? I’ve got to take the direct route somewhere. I’m not worried if a four-star first-timer makes a mistake somewhere, but it’s not part of their education to take long route after long route, and if you start taking alternatives early on, you end up losing the rhythm you want them to settle into.
So I thought, I’ll take the straight route at fence 10, and if that doesn’t work, I’ll turn around, pop it, put my hand up and walk home. And that’s exactly what happened.
Swallow Springs made the CCI4*-S course feel easy, but he’s a hardened CCI5* horse – and there were some of them that made it look like hard work.
‘Change is always painful’
On the positive side, the riders were all talking about the cross-country, and that gets you focused and riding properly, rather than taking it for granted. Riders need to be able to ride hills, to be able to feel what they’ve got underneath them towards the end of a course and adjust and ride accordingly – but that’s a big change from what we’ve had in recent years.
The way courses have been designed and built this season seem to be pointing in the direction of a serious change, which will require riders to realise that they need to train and campaign differently. For example, I often do little with my five-year-olds before they step up to novice, but if this trend continues, next season they are more likely to spend a whole season at BE100 level.
It’s ultimately good for the sport; cross-country has started to lose its influence and become too predictable. However, change is always painful – none of us enjoy it while we’re going through it – and a lot of riders will have to have a rethink and a reboot.
Andrew’s exclusive column will also be available to read in this Thursday’s H&H magazine, on sale 17 June
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