There is no doubt that the weather posed some challenges for everyone involved in Badminton this year, particularly for the cross-country, so congratulations to Ros Canter. Heavy rain meant soft going. And soft going means horses have to work harder to cover the same distance at the same speed and also potential problems at some jumps, so it was great to see the organisers and officials make changes to the XC course (https://www.badminton-horse.co.uk/cross-country-course…/):
Fence 15 Lightsource BP Pond – hardcore stone footing placed behind the B element.
Fence 17 The Lemieux Mound – the B element is to be removed.
Fence 21 The Badminton Lake – the water level is to be lowered.
Fence 26 The Jubilee Clump Brush – some decoration around the fence will be removed to make it a smoother line on the approach.
Fence 27 The HorseQuest Quarry – A element to be removed.
The outcome was only 30 horses finished the XC, all with time penalties (average = 36.6 penalties), none inside the time, 11 retired on XC, 17 were eliminated and 6 withdrew before XC.
Compare this to 2022, where 59 horses finished the XC, 6 inside the time (average = 15.0 time penalties), 8 retired on XC, 13 were eliminated and 3 withdrew before XC.
But what other options could potentially have been considered given the heavy going? Previously, I’ve been involved with the FEI and course designers for a number of major championships to offer advice on adjusting cross-country courses to allow for hot weather, sharp turns, hills, etc. These are factors that all increase how hard horses have to work, and soft ground is no different. We know that heavy going would make the horses work around 15% harder compared with good-firm going at the same speed. So in heavy going, 6600 metres will ride like 7590 metres. Which means horses will tire (fatigue) earlier. The other options that could be considered are:
• Increase the optimum time so riders can go slower, which means the horses don’t work as hard
• Decrease the distance by 15%
• Decrease the number of jumping efforts by 15%
• Increase time and/or decrease distance and/or decrease jumping efforts
Increasing the optimum time
This has been a hot topic on social media with many people suggesting optimum time should have been increased. I’ll readily admit I’ve never jumped anything as big as a Badminton fence, but I can imagine that most riders would probably not choose to approach those fences at a slower speed than what they have trained for. This could potentially lead to horses “switching off” and an increased risk of faults. So I would suggest increasing the optimum time would not be a good option. [EDIT – Horses being out for longer could also increase fatigue due to increased body temperature which also leads to fatigue, even in cool weather].
Decreasing distance/jumping efforts
Reducing the overall distance and number of jumping efforts by ~15% would make a 6600-metre course on soft going ride like a 6600-metre course on good-firm going. This would allow riders to ride closer to their normal XC pace. Of course, this would require significant pre-planning to have sections that may or may not be used depending on the weather. There has actually been a precedent for this – the Atlanta 1996 XC course had two loops which in the end were not used.
We do now also have the tools to assess going – The Orono Biomechanical Surface Tester (OBST), which is used by the FEI surfaces expert Prof Lars Roepstorff for assessing surfaces at major championships, primarily of arena surfaces, but this has also been used for assessing XC tracks, for example Tokyo 2020.
I think this is a debate we need to have, as always, supporting horse sport but with horse welfare very much in mind!