Though the feature CCI5* at Badminton Horse Trials commands most of the public’s attention this week, it’s far from the only eventing competition taking place on the grounds of the estate. Badminton has also long been the home of British Eventing’s crown jewel for lower-level competitors, the Voltaire Design Grassroots Championship. Held at BE90 (US Novice) and BE100 (US Training), this championship competition requires riders to qualify by finishing within a top percentage at the level in an affiliated event, earning themselves a place at the Regional Finals. Then, they need a competitive finish in order to secure one of the coveted spots here, where they compete over Tuesday and Wednesday of Badminton week.
While some of the world’s top horses and riders hack around the estate, hand graze in front of the house, and prepare for their first horse inspection later on this afternoon, this year’s intrepid line-up of grassroots competitors is hard at work tackling a big, bold course created by the Willis Brothers. There’s no doubt, even upon the first walk around, that this is a real championship effort: most of the fences are built at the maximum dimensions, and there’s plenty of technical questions for these very capable grassroots competitors to answer. In many places, a real effort has been made to build an appropriate approximation of questions on the CCI5* course — so while many of these riders may never aim for the very uppermost echelons of the sport, they can still enjoy a serious competition and earn an invaluable education in true cross-country riding, too.
Let’s take a look at what they’re facing today…
Fence 1 is straightforward enough, and right away, we see how much the team here has committed to safety across the levels. The rail is fixed with MIMclips, so it’ll fall if a horse hits it too hard to prevent an accident. The wide planter at the base of the fence gives horses plenty of groundline to help them suss out their take-off point, and the reasonably meaty size of the fence ensures competitors will leave the start box positively and in a forward, attacking pace. If they’re worried about the size, they need only look to the right to see the five-star’s colossal Huntsman’s Close, which should cheer them up a bit.
Fence 2 certainly doesn’t mess about, does it? If it looks bigger than the allowable dimensions for the level, that’s because it’s been cleverly built: fence height is measured from the take-off point, and because it’s on a slight downhill, that gave the designers some leeway to add a little extra height for a really fun bit of airtime. This will read well for horses, and riders will take confidence from having a big jump behind them as they gallop towards the first real questions on course.
A couple of fallen trees, which toppled during storms Eunice and Franklin, act as nice single fences at 3, which are set on a right-handed turn. That turn will do a nice job of putting horses back onto their hind ends, and they should get a really super pop over this.
This is a great opportunity to make up some ground and get up on the clock: the steeplechase-style question at 4 is plenty big, but can be jumped out of stride — and after they land, competitors will gallop past the house, where many of their heroes will be watching on as they graze their horses.
As they turn away from the house, they’ll pop the chunky saddles at 5, ensuring they have a photo to display on their mantle for basically the rest of time. Bonus points if you end up with a five-star winner in the background of your action shot.
The first combination comes up at 6ABC, and while there are separate fences for each class, the question remains the same: they’ll pop a double of airy rails on a four-stride line, then splash through the lake on an arching left-handed turn before popping the C element, an arrowhead. It’s going to require a good coffin canter and plenty of commitment to the line, but if they get a sticky jump over the second rail, our competitors will have plenty of space to negotiate the turn back to that arrowhead. They won’t be able to circle, though, because it’s not separately numbered.
There’s a jolly gallop and a breather after that tricky combination: the tables at 7 are dimensionally big, but friendly and straightforward to jump, and will get horses back into the rhythm of running and jumping.
Like fence 7, fence 8 is designed just to get horses off the ground and bowling along across the park — and because this is another ‘chase fence, they can take it at speed. But they probably won’t want to go too fast: 9AB comes up fast, as you can see in the background.
At first glance, 9AB looks pretty confusing, but it’s not as complicated as you might think: BE90 competitors will jump the first and third brushes, while BE100 competitors get the second and fourth. They’ll be flagged so they’re jumpable in either direction, so riders can decide whether to ride an arcing route on a right-handed or left-handed turn. Jumping on a right-handed turn will save time, as it puts riders on a quick, direct line to…
…the Haywain at 10, which is brightly coloured, but straightforward. It might look a little spooky, but this isn’t unintentional: encouraging riders to ride positively now will help them at the next fence.
On the approach to the broken bridge at 11, competitors will be glad they put their legs on for the Haywain. This fun flyer fence is very similar — though much smaller! — to a fence on the five-star track, and it’s a classic rider frightener that’ll jump really well if riders commit and kick on. They’ll get some super photos here and a real feeling of flying.
There’s a nice big gallop after the broken bridge as competitors make their way to the highest point on the course, up past the Savills Staircase that we’ve seen on many previous Badminton five-star courses. They’ll then turn back on themselves at the top of the hill, pop through an owl hill to get their horses listening again after the long canter, and then hang a left-handed circle to the next big question.
BE90 competitors will just jump a decent-sized ditch-and-brush here, but BE100 competitors get a slightly more technical question, because the ditch is slightly angled. The shoulder of the brush will push them naturally towards that angled segment of ditch, so they’ll need to know their line and commit to it, rather than wing it on the approach. It’s tempting to angle the hedge to keep the ditch straighter, but that opens the door for a runout to the right. This exciting question is a variation of the Vicarage Vee ditch that’s been modified to make it appropriate for the lower levels.
Then, they’ll tackle the open corner at 14. Both fences are much the same, but for their size — and the fact that the BE90 fence is a left-handed corner, and the BE100 fence is a right-handed corner. They’ve since been filled with plenty of Christmas trees and decorations to create groundlines and make the jumps more visually inviting.
Next they’ll pop over the solid beam at 15, which isn’t a complicated question, but does call for a neat jump. Riders will need to adjust the canter on the approach to ensure their horses are sitting on their bottoms, ready to almost showjump this fence. That’s another clever bit of prep, because it’ll help them incrementally set up their coffin canter for the next significant combination.
The rail-ditch-rail at 16ABC is a real test of adjusting the canter, because coming in too fast and flat could lead to knocking the MIM-clipped rail or running out of space before the ditch. Clever competitors will have changed their canter before the rail and then shorten it again afterwards so their horse’s stride is compact, bouncy, and powerful.
Another canter stretch beckons, followed by an airy trakehner for the BE100 competitors and a timber rolltop for the BE90s, which are simple, straightforward efforts.
We don’t see many stone walls in action these days, but this is a classic hunting-style question, and shouldn’t cause any issues for competitors who create a powerful, positive, engaged canter on the approach.
The penultimate combination is a three-parter for the BE100 rides, who’ll jump rolltop to a downlink, then head back up a slope to another rolltop. For the 90s, the question consists of a step up to a rolltop, as pictured above.
The final combination is made up of two houses on a curving line: the 90 has a five-stride line, while the BE100 has a four-stride line to tackle. Because it’s set on a curve, riders can choose how much they swing it and how straight they tackle the slightly narrower second element.
And then they’re home! It’ll be an incredible feeling for these championship competitors to jump the final fence and gallop towards the finish line and the distinctive red-and-white livery of the Badminton arena in the near distance.
You can check out the full BE90 course and the full BE100 course, with commentary and guidance from Helen West and Yogi Breisner, via the CrossCountry App. Go Eventing, and Go Badminton Grassroots competitors! You are a ballsy bunch, frankly, and we applaud you.