Report from the 2023 Burghley course walk with Eric Smiley FBHS

10.20 am at fence two we all assembled, in eager readiness to walk this iconic five star track under the expert guidance of Eric.  The sun shone and pleasantries exchanged with fellow members from far and wide. Today’s group from all corners of the world making it a truly multi-national group. One of the joys of being an F&I member is the interesting like-minded people we encounter.

Eric has a manner which makes him a joy to listen to. His calm and down-to-earth approach to everything makes him a horseman we should all aspire to be. I left the day wishing I could be more like him, my lasting thought being that if I were a horse I would like him to be my rider and my coach.

He encouraged simplicity at every opportunity, and the two main things we need to focus on are pace and line. He asked us to assess what the course builder is asking at each fence, can we hold a curving line? Can we keep power through the turn? Can we maintain the line over undulating ground?

He then encouraged us to ask ourselves if we had trained our horse to achieve each question. If we aspire to achieve anything like this level then the answer to that question must be yes.

It was clear that his training methods would start this very early in the horse’s education. He advised he would divide his horse’s work into thirds. One third road work, one third in the school, and one third on the grass learning to cope with terrain and teaching the young horse to canter and gallop up and down hills.

His simple logical training methods showed when discussing distances, where he was clear that the ability to maintain line and pace outweighed any desire to “count strides”. He wants those of us who wear the coach hat to be careful of what we say and what we make apparent to our riders when walking courses with them – suggesting that we can sow the seed of doubt where it may not have been before. He expressed what a difficult line this is to tread.

The course builder has given the riders many choices throughout the course, often placing both a right handed option alongside a left handed one. We discussed that all horses even when young will have a preferred side. He suggested that good riders and trainers will have trained this out of their horse certainly up to four star but those being tested at this five star level for the first time may show that chink in their amour. The course builder giving great responsibility to the rider to really know their horse.

We looked at and spoke about the flowers and the dressing and sighting of the decorations to the fences and how the course builder uses them to encourage the right response from the horse at each question.

We were lucky enough, those that walked fast enough and didn’t need a pit stop, to catch up with the course designer himself Derik di Grazia on the furthest corner of the course.

He was congratulated by Eric on a beautifully presented true five star course.  Eric asked him about his use of the MIM clip and how he decided on its use. Was he using it to encourage the penalties? He was very clear and quick to respond that he decides on what fence he would like and it is the fence that dictates the MIM clip and not his desire to cause penalties for its use. Quite matter of fact about his response, he didn’t say it but you could hear his thoughts: ‘I build cross country courses not show jumping tracks. I want them to jump it not knock it down’.

Eric suggested that all course designers have their style and that often it will be a reflection of how they rode.

It was evident to those of us on two legs that this course is a test of stamina and we discussed the difference between the five star tracks, and which is easier, Badminton or Burghley. The answer to that is neither. Five star is five star and with it each one brings its own five star challenges. The job of the rider is to work out what those challenges are and to train their horse to achieve them.

On Saturday we will find out which of these riders have done their homework thoroughly enough to earn themselves a clear round – and those that have done it to perfection will also be inside the time!

Report by Lisa Spence BHSI