Hot damn! The Kiwi King is back on top of the world. Not only that, he became the oldest winner in Badminton’s history, at 55. But you can read all that in the press releases and articles. I want to talk about my own visceral and emotional response to watching Badminton for the first time, thanks to the wonders of FEI TV live streaming (which, apart from failing to show all 20 top show jumping rounds, was pretty much flawless). Not everyone will agree with me or be pleased that I’m saying it, but I feel quite strongly – and the anticipation of criticism never stopped me before. 

Insomnia was my friend for once last weekend. I didn’t need an alarm to get up at 4 am and tuck into a solid six hours of cross country excitement. FEI TV is now high enough resolution that even full screen is quite good. I take my hat off to the folks at Mission Control for this wonderful worth-every-Europenny service. Almost as soon as I turned it on there was Ingrid Klimke getting nearly rolled on by her horse. She seemed to be going hell-bent-for-election and Butts Abraxxas slipped more times in the turns than I saw any other horses do. He finally tipped over at the very upright first element of the Huntsman’s Close. I have to say I do not like watching horses fall. And that’s where perhaps FEI TV is not the very best promotional tool for eventing – at least not when it comes to winning over the not-yet-converted. You see, thanks to the exceptionally thorough coverage, I witnessed almost all seven horse falls at this year’s Badminton. If the live coverage missed it, a replay of it would be played during a quiet moment, such as during one of the seemingly endless holds on course that were called to clear immobilized horses or riders. No one who knows horses likes seeing their legs twist like that or their large bodies hit the ground with such force. There were no serious injuries to horses or riders that I’m aware of (Badminton’s website is very careful to say as little as possible about mishaps – you have to go to Horse and Hound to find out anything meaningful). Mandiba broke a rib – more about that shortly – but apparently ribs heal just fine in horses, as with humans. 

Never having seen Badminton before, I had no reference point. I’ve seen two Olympics and three WEGs, but those were live and difficult to compare to watching video. But even on video, I could see that the Badminton course is IMPRESSIVE in a way that puts it in another sphere. Maybe it needs to be called a five star course. Or be given a double black diamond rating. Or something to warn would-be first time competitors that they are signing up for something unrivaled in the world. There were two features of the course that stood out to me. One was its relentlessness. Horses that had a sketchy moment at a fence had no time to get their confidence back before the next big complex loomed up. Out of 30 numbered obstacles, 20 of them were either a,b/a,b,c complexes or related to other numbered fences. That left just ten plain old single fences. The density of multiple efforts also increased later in the course. I saw a lot of tired horses hauling their asses around the Quarry at 25, 26 a,b and 27, which unsurprisingly saw the most problems, including falls. The other thing about Badminton is that, while there are plenty of modern things about it – skinnies, corners, tricky lines – there is still an old-school presence in the form of upright fences and the use (sometimes) of thin materials. 

I took a look at the fence and completion statistics (well, actually I did the counting and came up with the stats myself) over the past four years, and found that there is remarkable consistency. Badminton always has roughly 80-85 starters. This year 66% of starters completed, which is the same percentage as both 2008 and 2009 – it was 60% in 2010. Fence analysis was available only for the past three years. Seven horses fell in 2009 and 2011, and six in 2010. There were four rider falls all three years. I’m not sure if I’m reassured or distressed by those numbers. On the one hand, it shows that Badminton’s level of difficulty is something people can anticipate with accuracy year after year. On the other hand, I hate seeing horses fall. But I’ve already said that, haven’t I?

My experience of Badminton was inevitably coloured by what kind of day the Canadians had: it was not a good one. Hawley and Ginny looked so fantastic over the later part of the course (which was where the cameras first found them), and Ginny went through the finish so full of running (and with only seven time penalties, which was quite a good time for the course) that I couldn’t figure out why their score was showing at 77. It was only when I checked the score board that I could see Hawley had a stop somewhere. I am speculating wildly here because I didn’t see it or read any eye witness reports, but I would bet a dollar that this is what  happened: Ginny is a fire cracker. Fence six is a big rampy table landing downhill, followed by either a semi-controlled five or a point-and-pray four strides to a very skinny hog’s back. I can imagine Ginny all full of herself leaping over that ramp and blowing past the second element without even having noticed it. Big bummer for Hawley. But not as big a bummer as what happened to Selena and Steph. Colombo stopped twice at the first part of the Sunken Lane at 16. Good on Selena for finishing and not just calling it a day there, but hardly the performance she would have been looking for. Steph was one of many riders who was held on course part way through. She was actually just reaching that gritty later part of the course when she was held, and while a hold can give horses a bit of a breather, it can wreak havoc with the inner workings of a rider’s brain. Steph and Ollie never did seem to recover their usual wonderful rhythm and we-are-unstoppable attitude. After a steering-induced 20 penalties at the bounce brushes of the Huntsman’s Close, Steph opted for what she must have thought was an easier last element at the Quarry. Ollie had a very awkward scramble and she ended up with her feet on the ground instead of in the stirrups. Bummers all around. I have to say it makes me wonder if Badminton is really that bad-assed it can mess with the minds of riders who surely arrived with all the confidence in the world.

But the worst – absolute worst – moment of the day in my mind (and unfortunately I can’t get the image out of my head) was when Mandiba fell off the Outlander Bank and into the shallow ditch at its base. As with other pairs that had had a confidence shaking moment, recovery was made difficult by the course’s constant pressures. Mandiba had stopped twice at the third flower box at 10, a complex that caused no other problems that day. It’s pretty obvious Mandiba was not mentally on his game, and the very next fence was one that demanded A LOT of confidence. He jumped up the bank and stopped at the log on top, popping Karen right onto it in a sitting position. As Karen reached to get the reins, Mandiba stepped back. The space between the bank and the bounce log is less than 10 feet. A horse is about that long. Mandiba’s left hind leg met air, and off he went, crashing down on his side onto the rail that marks the ground line of the ditch in front of the bank. It’s astonishing he broke only one rib. What made the accident even more horrifying – if that’s possible – is that David O’C was with the TV commentators when it happened. They had been bringing in various famous folks throughout the day to give their commentary, and David was the unlucky guest of the moment. Needless to say, he excused himself immediately. I hope Mandiba will be okay and that he is allowed to find a career that will let him be a happy horse for the rest of his days.

On the shiny side of the coin, there were some outstanding performances too. I hate to think I’m being sexist here, but to me the very best cross country riders were women. Britain does have a long line of kick-ass female cross country role models, after all. Two stand outs were Piggy French and Polly Stockton, and of course what’s not to love about Mary King finishing third in her 21st Badminton completion? I loved Nicola Wilson’s horse Opposition Buzz, who looked downright scary to ride on the first half of the course – he jumps a  bit like a deer when he’s really on the muscle – but he got into a terrific rhythm once the edge had worn off. Mark Todd certainly showed his great skill with the young and yuckily named NZB Land Vision. He almost literally carried the horse over the last part of the lake complex. It wasn’t pretty, but he got ‘er done. The horse looked sufficiently fresh in the show jumping the next day to indicate Mark knows where the line is between getting every ounce the horse can safely give and pushing too far.

Ok, back to the tarnished side. There was some pretty lousy riding out there too. The sloppiness prize winner was Andreas Ostholt, who rides nothing like his brother Frank. Even the commentators felt compelled to say something about the way Andreas not only wasn’t helping his horse, but was actually making the horse’s job tougher. He wisely retired near the end of the course. 

If you have been reading this blog over the past year, you might recall that a year ago my BIG TOPIC was the Michael Morrissey ‘thirteen lashes’ incident at WEF. Well, today I’m going to write about another case of excessive use of the whip. On a galloping stretch late in the course, last year’s Badminton winner, Aussie Paul Tapner, decided he needed to make up some time. He was on Kilfinnie II, not his 2010 horse Inonothing. Kilfinnie looked pretty tired to me. But Paul apparently thought the horse was holding back so he gave him a series of hard belts with the stick.The word ‘flogging’ comes to mind. I’m not exaggerating.  It looked just like the way jockeys whip their horses in the home stretch. Difference is, jockeys are running to a finish line. Kilfinnie still had at least one complex and a couple of single fences to jump, but it looked to me like Paul was getting every last drop of energy out of the horse to gain a bit of speed on the galloping stretch. Paul had a few time penalties and finished 24th, up from 36th after dressage. He was not a contender this year (not that it would be an excuse if he were). I believe he did not need to do that to his horse. I am not intimately acquainted with the abuse rules in eventing, but I’m pretty sure beating a horse like that is not allowed. And of course we must never forget the saying “there are the rules, and then there is what is right”. I don’t question Paul’s great ability as a rider, but I do question his behaviour. 

I am still an avid fan of eventing, but watching Badminton might be off my to-do list for next year. It reminded me of one of the reasons I stopped pushing for the next rung as a competitor when I was in my early twenties (and yes, I did compete successfully to at least a middling level – check the results from the 1985 NAYRC if you don’t believe me). I don’t have the stomach for those moments when a horse’s wellbeing is put in jeopardy so that a rider can win a prize. 

Before you good people at Eventing Nation let me have it, please remember one thing: I am not Robert Dover.