When will the British eventing team win gold again? This has been niggling at me for some while and, it seems, worrying the elder statesmen of our sport, for whom it was quite a topic during Burghley.
Rio was the first time since 1996 that Britain has returned from the Olympics without a team or individual medal in eventing, so the home side needed the boost of good Burghley results. But we fielded just four of the top 20 finishers, from a starting field of 70 containing 36 British combinations: Oliver Townend (seventh with Samuel Thomas, one of three he started), Tina Cook (Star Witness,10th, not the horse with which she was shortlisted for Rio,) Sarah Cohen (Treason, 12th, a former elite squad member who has scaled down to balance her equestrian life with parenting) and four-star first-timer Becky Woolven (17th, Charlton Down Riverdance).
Woolven, 27, is something of a self-starter, and she plucked up courage to approach the legendary Lucinda Green about walking the course. Naturally, Lucinda agreed to help.
Only three Brits – William Fox-Pitt, Pippa Funnell and Oliver Townend – have won Burghley since the Millennium.
Historically, Brits who did not make the selectors’ cut have tended to run at Burghley as if to say “Look at what you missed!” But, save for Cook who has nothing to prove, where was the rest of our long-list? I gather some Rio-nominated horses are off the road with what official-speak likes to call minor “training setbacks,” but that then poses questions about the management of horses who were presumably being saved/peaked for the Olympic call-up. Either that or their riders are aiming this fall for something lower-key than Burghley, which maybe isn’t a surprise after our strange decision to send to Rio three horses and a travelling reserve with only three-star form.
Last year was also the first time since 1965 that Britain has failed to win team gold at one of the many European championships we have hosted over the decades (they are staged alternate years).
Our national federation puts emphasis on the funding British equestrianism enjoys from UK Sport, which we refer to as the “Lottery money.”
But that only began in 1997 and would not have taken effect immediately. It has put a structured management, coaching and talent-spotting system in place and provided, among other things, opportunities to compete abroad, but what difference has it really has made?
We won eight consecutive European golds from 1995–2009, 21 golds in all since 1953.
Since the Lottery we have won five world eventing team medals, of which only one (Lexington 2010) was gold – the last time our eventers won gold anything.
In the equivalent period before the Lottery money we won five world team medals, four of them gold.
We have won just two more eventing Olympic medals of any colour (team and individual) since the advent of funding compared with the same period before. Poor Leslie Law only won individual gold in hindsight after Bettina Hoy’s disqualification in Athens 2004; with his move to Canada, he tends to be our forgotten champion.
Britain also won four consecutive European team golds from 1985-1991, two of which were staged at Burghley. The last two Europeans here were at Blenheim (2005) and Blair Castle (2015). If the Europeans were staged at Burghley again, home advantage wouldn’t count for much; the only people endlessly keen to test their horses over Burghley’s special terrain are the Kiwis and Aussies who are ineligible for the Europeans anyway!
Burghley course designer Mark Phillips discussed this state of affairs in a Horse & Hound column entitled Have We Lost Essential Riding Skills? He laboured a similar point to the media during the event; many riders simply “were not there” for their horses at the combinations, notably the Trout Hatchery, pitching forward on landing which suggested riders were not overly fit.
It’s not just we old fogeys who are bothered about it. Also in H&H, Harry Meade, very much a “current” rider, took a pop at British selectors, and lamented the absence of a “going to war” mentality. His late father Richard, of course, knew all about riding under extreme pressure, winning his first Olympic team gold (Mexico 1968) in conditions so diabolical that nowadays the cross-country would be called off.
No nation can win all the time (unless you are Germany.) The Kiwis, Aussies and French have all had mini-eras of weakness. But when your country is the spiritual home of eventing and everyone else comes here to train and beat you at your own game, it’s pretty demoralising.
Some people tell me the down-turn will sort itself out, that these things usually do. I am not so sure it isn’t endemic. Perhaps the Brits have amazing foresight about the Olympic/world championship format in five to 10 years’ time and are practising for that, though the younger generation’s preference for CICs can expose their shortcomings when tackling the three and four-star three-day tracks as we know them at the moment.
Of course, riders are under pressure from owners to run as often as possible, and it’s not easy to explain to whomsoever pays the bills why some outings must have an educational rather than a winning purpose. British riders are not the only nationalities having to juggle owner expectations, though – and that is a factor no amount of central funding and strategy can control.
Of course, the format and technical demands have changed radically, and are continuing to change, but that challenge is the same for everyone else as well…
This slow downward turn for the Brits also coincides with the scrapping of the steeplechase in the mid-noughties and loss of skills in jumping at higher speed. The Brits’ cross-country prowess also used to be linked to our foxhunting background. I don’t suppose many competition riders hunt these days; anyway, the Kiwis, Germans and Aussies have dash and flair without that long tradition.
There are opportunities to study Aussies and Kiwis at competitions in the UK every week from March to October; what do they do differently that we are failing to spot?
Like Becky Woolven, I asked the great Lucinda. She observed that the Brits over-train for the arena disciplines and nowadays are inclined to talk all the time in terms of strides – is this spilling into the cross-country to the point horses cannot think for themselves when they arrive wrong at a fence?
Lucinda has also lobbied without success for our hugely popular young event horses classes to adopt a later age-range; when a three-year-old should be enjoying himself in the park and gaining strength naturally for the career ahead, he is being drilled in the manège ready for the four-year-old season.
The unrivalled training ground provided by Britain attracts foreign nationals in droves and once they have lived here a couple of years, their owners will mostly be British.
I don’t need to spell out how many ways overseas riders enhance the British scene, but not everyone is happy about it. I remember a proposal (luckily never progressed, if nothing else it was racist) to charge foreign nationals a premium for competing here, even if they were permanently resident.
Another time I was commissioned to interview British owners on why they supported foreign riders. Some wanted the travel to continental Europe – events in France, Holland and Ireland are notable for hospitality – and your horse is more likely to be selected to compete abroad if ridden by a non-Brit.
More worrying was the suggestion that owners were unsure how seriously the younger generation took their sport, and that they would end up subsiding a lifestyle choice rather than a single-minded professional. They inferred that a rider with the gumption to relocate from the other side of the world must be hungry, and thus more likely to work hard and place greater value on everyone who helped him.
When Dan Hughes succeeded Will Connell as UK equestrian performance director, one of his first tasks was to court owners. The success of London 2012 did not deliver a legacy in that regard. To be fair, Britain has so few four-star horses right now, the Rio squad probably picked itself.
I am sure Team GB will take initiatives to secure horses through to 2020. Organised schemes require immense inward investment and for the owners to remain strictly “hands off” when it comes to planning a long-term campaign; stepping away from your horse will not come easily to the British psyche, so it will be a tough one to crack in the short term.
Owning the best horses is one thing; we have then got to be able to ride them flawlessly at medal occasions. At the moment, that’s the bit we find trickier.