One week ago I was arriving in Bristol airport, collecting our hire car and heading off into the Gloucestershire countryside for my first Badminton Horse Trials. This was a personal dream come true.
22 years ago I had never heard of Badminton or knew what Three Day Eventing even was. That was until I was given my first Horse & Pony Magazine and watched highlights of the cross-country phase from this thing called Badminton for the first time. Wasn’t Badminton played with a racket and a shuttlecock??? Watching the horses and riders tackle those enormous fences mesmerized me and I’ve been fascinated ever since.
I spent much of my youth imaging the day that I would ride that course. However, those daydreams didn’t quite turn into reality and these days I’m more than happy to watch in awe of those who are ballsier (and better skilled!!) than me tackle the mighty 4* fences. So for this year I decided to satisfy my eventing appetite I was going to be there in person.
And it was everything I had imagined it to be!
We had bought season tickets which allowed us access from Wednesday to Sunday. We flew in to Bristol from Dublin on Wednesday evening and after a short 40 minute journey we were settled into our hotel. Over dinner and a G&T I explained the general jist of how a three day event works to my non-horsey companion. We shared a knowing nod in the direction of our fellow residents, who by their Kingsland Equestrian jackets & Dublin River Boots were obvious Bandminton goers themselves.
On Thursday morning we headed off to explore the grounds and catch the first day of dressage tests. Driving through the countryside you get a sense of the history of the land. Well organised hedging and stone wall fences clearly mark boundaries hundreds of years old. Small cottages dotted in random clusters make you feel like you’re stepping back in time. Noticing the size of the windows and the height of the doors I imagined the people who first built these cottages must have been no bigger than a Tolkien hobbit – perfectly jockey sized people!
And then we were there! A massive sign reading “Welcome Mitsubishi Motors Bandminton Horse Trials” greated us at the entrance…
– ARGH We’re HERE!
We parked up and headed in towards the main arena. A nice size crowd was toing and froing between the grandstand and the country stalls. Everyone was dressed in their best tweed or their new equestrian sports gear.. Turning to my friend I said, “I think I might cry I’m so happy to be here…”
I was genuinely ecstatic to be there. The buzz, the smell, the SHOPPING. Horse Lover’s Heaven. We walked around for an hour to familiarize ourselves with the layout of the site. Where the food was (second most important thing on the agenda!), bathrooms, the start of the cross-country course and so on. We stumbled upon the warm up arenas and the press tent. I was amazed that everything was so close; so close that in a way you felt apart of the whole event, not just as a spectator.
The riders, grooms and horses came and went as I watched on. You could stand there by the side of the warm-up and watch them practice. You could over hear them talking through their tests with their grooms and trainers. Invaluable insights into the warm-up routines and preparation of those after eventing’s biggest prize.
We headed back into the main arena, found some seats with a decent view and watched the afternoon’s dressage tests. Friday was much the same. We headed in early to avoid any traffic or crowds and get a good seat. But this is what I loved most about Badminton – casually strolling around and walking into none other than 2 time Olympic Gold medalist Ingrid Klimke! I couldn’t believe that she was standing in front of me, laughing and joking with who I can only guess was her groom. Before I had even realized it I had squeaked in a high pitched voice “excuse me Ingrid, would you mind if I got a photo with you?!”
I even shocked myself. You’d think I had swallowed a small child – where did that voice come out of?! It was obvious I was nervous. Who wouldn’t be, it’s Ingrid bloody Klimke!! She was very kind and gracious and entertained my request. To think she was only a few hours away from riding her test!
After lunch and still bouncing on my high of meeting Eventing Royality that morning, I was delighted to watch Joseph Murphy (team Ireland) warm up. He and Sportsfield Othello rode past us and instantly recognizing the tri-colour on his lapel before recognizing who the rider was, I wished him luck. I had a bit of a swoooooon as Joseph thanked us and continued on his way… “That was Joseph Murphy!!” swoooooooon – I really am not cool in any way.
So by then I realized I really needed to get a grip. I was there – bucket list item ticked! So we took our seats and watched the dressage for the rest of the evening. I think everyone can agree the best dressage moment has to go to Jonty Evens and Cooley Rorkes Drift of Team Ireland. Scoring 37.2 left him in 3rd place before cross-country day and not only did all of Ireland feel the pride of his achievement, it was clear that he was the crowd’s champion.
Heading over to the pocket it was truly lovely to catch his reaction when he was reunited with his family and team. I’d like to say it would be hard to imagine how he was feeling but after watching and listening to a number of competitors and their teams I came to the realization that no matter what level you are at in our sport, the sense of achievement and the feelings of adoration and respect for our equine partners is no different from the child winning a rosette at their local pony club rally or an armature rider jumping a double clear in their first big class. We’re all horse lovers at the end of the day, otherwise we wouldn’t be into this sport.
Cross Country day
Friday morning we had planned to do a course walk with Lucinda Greene – unfortunately so did roughly 100 other people so we decided we’d walk it ourselves. The course is huge – not so much in height but my God the width of some of those fences is unreal. And the drops – I’d rather not! It was clear that it was a fairly technical course and that you would really want to have your homework done. Hats off to any first timers attempting it… you can have a look at the fences here.
Cross country day itself was complete and utter chaos. We started the day stuck in traffic. In fairness to the organizers they had it very well run and we eventually got into the site. The crowds were immense and it was a waiting game for other spectators to move on in order to get a good view of any of the fences. We waited down by the KBIS Bridge, the former site of Vicarage Vee, for nearly 45 minutes at one stage expecting to see some spectacular leaps. Unfortunately the course was proving as tough as they predicted and when no one came through for some time we decided if we were to see any action we needed to head back to the lake.
Here we managed to get the best seats available, right in front of the brush fence exiting the lake. Plenty thrills and spills! Most interesting was watching the different horse and rider combinations and their approaches. Some steadied their horses and set themselves up – either nailing it or over checking and losing impulsion, having to make quick decisions to take alternative routes. Others decided to jump off their strides and fly through the lake – clearly sticking to the game plan and knowing their horses. I managed to capture Danielle Dunn’s stumble and fall here.
Disappointingly we heard Jonty had a run out at the Jules corners. I felt tremendously disappointed for him. We watched Andrew Nicholson and Nereo last to go – cool, calm and clearly focused – and then we headed for home. Exhausted. Those crowds really zap the energy out of you!
Sunday… Final day. Oh nooooo… it’s nearly over…
We had been very smart and purchased grand stand tickets for Sunday’s showjumping phase. Ingrid Klimke was now in the top spot, with the legendary Michael Jung in 2nd and Andrew Nicholson and the wonderful Nereo in 3rd. Less than a point separated the top 3 and the sense of anticipation was electric.
We got some coffees and a bit of breakfast to go and made our way towards the grandstand. And then he appeared….. Andrew Nicholson stood before me…. cool and calm, dressed in his normal every day clothing. There was an air of quiet confidence about him. What do I do?! Speak to him?! Ahh… I considered approaching him but thought otherwise – showjumping day and you’re in the top 3. The last thing I imaged he’d want to do is entertain a 30-something-starstruck-eventing-fan with a nervous voice only dogs and certain high-tech sonar can decipher.
Completely starstruck yet again, I decided to leave him be to watch the morning’s showjumping rounds. He was clearing sussing the course. As we walked away I did get the urge to tell him I hoped that he knocks the two Germans off the top… After all, he deserved it. 35 previous runs over this course and yet to win it and the 5th attempt for him and the 17 year old Nereo. Not to mention a broken neck in 2014 – I really wanted to see him do it.
Our seats were just in front of the water jump and we had a clear view of the entire course. You cannot beat being there in person. We cheered on Joseph Murphy and Sportsfield Othello – who jumped a clear round, jumping 62 places from 75th after dressage to finish in 13th place after showjumping. An achievement worthy of the Glentrool Trophy. Ireland’s Clare Abbot and the little chestnut Euro Prince were next. Two poles down moved them from 11th to finish in 14th overall.
And then there were 3. Andrew was in. A clear round – he couldn’t do any worse than 3rd! Michael Jung was next and no one could believe it when the lovely Sam rolled a pole over the water fence. Andrew was now in 2nd… I whispered “if Ingrid has one, he’s got it…”
I couldn’t help but wonder what her frame of mind would be after Michael knocking a fence. The pressure was truly on her now, she couldn’t afford a pole. As she came round to the water fence I couldn’t believe my eyes when the back bar fell.
HE’S DONE IT HE’S DONE IT HE’S DONE IT!
It was on the 3rd desperate whisper of “He’s done it” that I realised I was slapping my friend’s leg every time I said it. Whoops.. sorry!!
The crowd was still gasping and frantically whispering when it all completely un-raveled for poor Ingrid at the last line of fences. I felt awful for her, she held the top spot for two days. But that’s the beauty of the sport – there are 3 disciplines to overcome – and on the day Nereo and Andrew pulled it out of the bag. What a fantastic Badminton to witness!
After the prize giving we took a final walk around the grounds and stalls. I then felt very sad. It was over. The exhibitors were packing up, filling boxes and loading their vans. The final scores went up and I snapped one last pic as a momento – vowing to be back next year!
So I’ve been home for a few days and still having extreme Badminton withdrawal symptoms. I spend most of last night watching the cross country on the Badminton YouTube channel and have an extreme desire to get out and do some cross country schooling with Miss G.
If you’ve ever wanted to go – just do it. Don’t wait – just book it and go. It was worth every penny and more than fulfilled any and all expectations I had. Walking past your idols and the greats – Lucinda Greene, Mary King William Fox-Pitt and Mark Todd, doesn’t happen every day. I’ll be back again… and again and again no doubt!
Now I must go and ride my mare. We’re planning on competing in an ODE in 2 weeks – our own mini Badminton!! The dream lives on..