Badminton, Anyone?

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By Nicole Landreneau

Editor’s Note: This article won first place for a GMO newsletter award for general-interest for GMOs with 75-174 members. It appeared in the July 21, 2016 issue of the Southern Eventing and Dressage Association newsletter, Bleeps.

In early May, I had a wonderful opportunity to visit some friends in England. They are an equestrian-friendly lot, and so part of that experience included a trip to the Badminton Horse Trials. Actually, it was the first thing we did after I got there: nothing like hitting the ground running on jet lag! I was quite eager to visit this famous competition both for the thrill of the event itself, and to see how it compared to my experiences at Rolex and Burghley a few years earlier. (Not a bad track record for a dressage rider!) We only went for the cross country day of the competition, but that certainly made the trip worthwhile.

As with any trip, part of the fun is getting there. The competition is held on the grounds of the Manor of Badminton. It’s a vast expanse of land with rolling hills, ponds, and beautiful vistas. Oh, and a really big house (think Downton Abbey). The road going into the grounds isn’t exactly a major highway. (Note: get there early.) I would call it about a car and a half wide, but it’s turned into a two-lane thoroughfare that is bumper-to-bumper from the main highway to the parking fields. In several places, you had better hope you don’t have a breakdown as there is no shoulder: it’s pretty much stone wall, road, stone wall or thick hedge, road, thick hedge. It didn’t seem to be a problem for anyone, though, other than one little chap whose father had to, er, point him toward the hedges to prevent an ‘accident’ and then run half a mile up the line of cars to catch up to their ride. It made for some good comic relief while sitting in the traffic.

Knowing the slow pace of entry, show organizers do offer some entertainment for your drive, in the form of Badminton Radio, which you can catch on your car radio. They have interviews with the riders, commentaries, and chats with some of the spectators. My friend and I were vastly humored with an interview they did with a gal who was having her ‘hen party’ at the competition. (For those of you who don’t know what that is, it’s a bachelorette party. I myself had a vastly different mental picture of a ‘hen party’ – something akin to blue haired ladies playing bridge–prior to the explanation. That whole ‘English language barrier’ thing, I guess.) We wondered if we would be able to spot these gals over the course of the day, and as it turned out, we couldn’t get away from them! It seemed that everywhere we looked, we spotted their pink Stetsons.

Once you finally get there, you park your car in one of several enormous fields. (Note: make a note of WHERE you parked. All the fields look the same.) And then you start walking. The place is huge! I was amazed at the turnout: there were thousands of people there, and it was a family-and-dog crowd which made for some interesting people and pet watching. For the shopping inclined, there’s a fabulous selection of vendors: if you cannot find what you are looking for there, then I’d say there is little hope for you! I am not kidding when I say we saw everything from stock pins and socks to washing machines and stoves. It was amazing. It was also packed. If you’re not a fan of large crowds, you may want to stay away from the vendor area. Finding a souvenir that says ‘Badminton’ is a challenge, though. The selection consists of baseball caps, a couple styles of shirts in small sizes, a shopping bag, and a couple of mugs. Marketing, apparently, is not their forte. Or I’m an American used to all manner of excessive merchandising. But, I digress.

After you get in, you develop a plan for the day. Basically, you make your way around the course and watch a couple of rides at each obstacle. To think that it takes you the entire day to walk the course and the horses finish in something like 11 minutes…it’s amazing! It’s so exciting to watch these world class competitors in person, galloping past and hurling themselves over these enormous jumps! All I can say is it takes a lot of courage and skill on the part of the rider, and a huge amount of trust on the part of the horse, to make it over these obstacles. Wow!

We totally lucked out with the weather. For the most part, it was warm and dry, which is apparently unseasonable for any season in England. There were a few sprinkles, and at one point there was a downpour on one part of the course, but we managed to miss that. I was glad for the good weather because I really didn’t want to see any spills. But, alas, even in a competition of this caliber, there are going to be a few refusals and mishaps. Thankfully, we didn’t see anyone get seriously injured, but there were some scary moments. One fence in particular, the Vicarage Vee, was very difficult. It was a very narrow fence with a tricky approach, a very tricky landing, and not much room for error. I didn’t see anyone ride that fence well. One pair slid in the front ditch, one pair fell in the ditch on the far side, several nearly fell on the landing … it was very unnerving. If I’d been riding, I’d have taken the alternate jump. But, realistically, I’ll never be riding that, so I won’t criticize…

It was just fantastic watching these athletes. I was humbled by the trust these horses have in their riders to jump over things so high and so wide, often they can’t see the far side and have no idea what they are landing in. What a testimony to the partnership between horses and riders! What was even more humbling was watching the warm-up area. Warm-up my foot! Good grief! The size of those warm-up jumps was intimidating; I just can’t even imagine putting myself over them!

Overall, it was a great experience. I loved seeing the competition live rather than as a televised event – the entire atmosphere is just so much more exciting in person! It was great to be so close to these world class riders, many of whom may likely be representing their countries in the Olympics in Rio. And I’d have to say that, simply because you’re an equestrian, if you get the opportunity – even if you’re not an eventing rider – it is definitely worth the effort to attend an international level horse trials. It’s an experience unlike any other.

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