Burghley Course Walk with Eric Smiley FBHS

Honesty, Energy, Time

Those that attended the course walk were in for a treat this year as we were lucky to get input not only from Eric but Captain Mark Phillips himself.

At the very beginning of the walk the first thing Eric explained was that as a rider you need to know your horse, your own style and clearly have an objective. Are you here to be competitive? Are you here just to complete or are you here to drink some beer and say you have ridden at Burghley! This divides the field into three clear groups. A four-star track will easily split the riders up but each group will think about the course in a slightly different way. Eric asked us to think of a specific horse we work with or train and imagine how we would deal with each fence riding that horse.

The next thing to think about is the course designer’s background; how did he ride cross country, was he brave, was he accurate? These kinds of questions will give you an incite into the mind of the designer and help you to understand his style and the type of questions he is asking you.

The designer has a tough job, because beside simply building a 4* course, he has external pressure from the FEI and media to try and prevent bad press. With this in mind Eric explained the course is fully up to height from the start. The reason for this is to try and eliminate combinations near the beginning which are not genuine 4* competitors. Eliminate them early before they get tired and present a bad image later on.


Eric’s theme for the walk was based around Honesty, Energy and Time. To complete inside the time, you need a good balance of all three and you can’t afford to run out of any. On this course it is difficult to maintain the speed due to the influence of the environment, there are lots of narrow ‘lanes’ where the horse has so much to look at they will be reluctant to keep moving fast enough, for example in and out of the main arena and this alone puts pressure on the time factor. This will mean it takes a canny rider to shave every turn and ride every line with true accuracy to be able to get close to the time.


Eric’s attention to every detail started to show more and more as we progressed through the course. He pointed out the innocuous log pile placed just after the part A log at fence 5. He explained Mark was beginning to challenge the horses in a subtle way and see if they could hold their line. The log pile is neatly stacked just to the side, but the horses won’t see it until they are in the air and if they are not ready for the level it will make them spook away and off their line.

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At fence 6 you need to make a moving rebalance 1/4 25m circle, keep coming and use as a confidence fence. Eric explained that there will be a lot of people who interfere too much with the canter and will struggle to find a stride- expect some expletives!

The first proper Burghley question comes at fence 7 with the famous Leaf pit. To a certain extent a test of courage, Eric said it rides better than you think but it comes up very fast! His main comments here were around basic rider skills. Knot your reins so you don’t go to buckle, then you will still be able to steer to the skinnies and make sure you swap your whip into the appropriate hand for your horse! He said it is very surprising to him how many riders at this level keep their whip in the same hand for the whole course!


Back at the Discovery Valley we met Mark Phillips. He was kind enough to spend a few minutes discussing the course and gave some insight into his methods. If you look at a fence 3 times change it, it’s not right, it isn’t the dimensions, it just isn’t right. We discussed leaf pit and he had heard a lot of riders discussing the longer alternative as they think they can go long but maintain a higher average speed. He felt that to make a good completion it is very much about risk management and knowing where you can take those risks, or not. He felt the trout hatchery was the most difficult combination on course. He described it as a high-risk area with so many opportunities to go wrong that the riders will need to have super-fast reactions and make good decisions according to their individual circumstances.

Mark didn’t think any rider will make time but would be delighted if all riders got round. In order to attempt it they need to be hitting their early minute markers exactly, too fast and they will have too much lactic acid and will falter later on. They will need to be very efficient with their lines to get close.

Mark’s final comments were around fence dressing. Everything you see is to enhance the course. For example, the flowers on the ends of the rails in the Rolex combination are there to help the horses read the rail as they go over it, not just to look pretty. He explained that horses see in contrast due to the composition of cones and rods in their eyes, so they are very careful with where they use certain jump colours. For example, don’t use dark rails in dark areas or shiny white rails into reflective water. Most fatalities come from the leading edge, so we do as much as possible to help the horse read the front rail of the fence.

After we parted with Mark we went onto the trout hatchery, so many choices so you really need to know your horse. This is where Eric’s ratio of Honesty:Energy:Time is so well illustrated. You need to train horses to be quick thinkers and honest, the fast ones will save lots of time here but will have dipped into honesty box. If they don’t it will become very tiring and they are going to pay for that over the next undulating bit of the course.


As always, the Rolex combination is big and tricky, you need to be bold in so you have options to be careful and hope you’ve put enough in the honesty box.

Capability cutting is very disruptive to the canter and almost becomes a related distance at the top, so this is a fence sapping energy. If you have trained your horse to look at the top rail 17 a & b shouldn’t be a problem. You need to keep coming forward, make a moving rebalance and not waste time and energy.

There is a long pull up hill to the inspiring Cottesmore leap, swinging right to an accuracy test of 2 shoulder brushes or two arrow heads before the last big test on course. The Clarence Court Egg box combinations is another place where you need to assess how much you have left of your reserves and once again trade honesty, speed and energy!

The final fences are fairly simple, you have answered the questions of the course, now the test is to see how fit your horse is and test the focus of the riders. 27 is disruptive to flow of getting home and need to ensure they see and don’t leave a leg and after that beware of ‘last fenceitis!’

Thank you, Eric for a thoroughly enjoyable and informative course walk and good luck to your horse!

Fred Hodges BHSI