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Andrew Nicholson: Gatcombe is a serious studying alternative that shouldn’t be skipped

  • Five-time Burghley winner Andrew Nicholson wonders why more younger riders don’t attend the Festival of British Eventing

    WHY are so many of our supposedly ambitious, up-and-coming riders avoiding the Festival of British Eventing at Gatcombe? I imagine they might say they expected the ground to be hard, that they don’t like the terrain… They need to think again.

    In all the years I was riding there, I thought that when it was dry, the going was some of the better ground that we have in those conditions, because it is old turf. The couple of fields in which the turf was newer are no longer used.

    Sure enough, when I was there last weekend, I thought what the organisers had done with the ground was very good, and when I looked at it after the horses had run on it, you could see their hoofprints very nicely, even in the cross-country warm-up area. Yet the main championship classes had far fewer competitors than they deserved.

    I understand that not everyone will have a horse for the open championship, but what about the novice and intermediate championships? All of my best horses would have competed in a championship class at Gatcombe at least once in their career; they might not have won them, but it was a major part of their learning – and mine.

    There are a bunch of riders who I feel should have been there to gain experience, for themselves and for their horses, from riding round Gatcombe’s undulating courses in front of a good crowd. They’d have learnt more there than at half a dozen other events put together.

    I remember the first time I rode there, on a horse called Spit-Teak in 1983. I was seventh, and I felt like I’d made it in life! And my owners always loved being there. Surely owners haven’t changed, so it must be the riders. And it’s interesting that a first prize of £10,000 in the open – with good money down the line – isn’t an incentive, either.

    Ideal Burghley prep

    I’M surprised more of the Burghley entries don’t use Gatcombe as a prep. If Pippa Funnell is doing so, isn’t that a bit of a clue? They don’t have to go flat out and try to win it, necessarily, but there are obvious comparisons between the hilly cross-country courses, and showjumping in Gatcombe’s main arena is ideal practice for Burghley, too.

    It was certainly where my Burghley horses had their apprenticeship and later their preparation. Mr Smiffy, who won Burghley in 2000 and was second in 2001, always had his final prep run at Gatcombe.

    It wasn’t necessarily that much fun and quite hard work for both of us, as he would be pretty wound up and would pull like a train going to the downhill fences, but when we got to Burghley, things felt much easier as a result and off he’d go, inside the time.

    It’s disappointing that some – not all, but too many – of the younger set of riders aren’t supporting our national championships, which draws a great crowd and would teach them so much that they really need to absorb if they are going to get to the top of the sport.

    Parental nerves

    I WAS at Hartpury for the junior and young rider Europeans, and I thought the ground was unbelievably good and that Eric Winter’s cross-country tracks were excellent – up to height and technical enough without being over the top for the age groups.

    It was fun to observe the individual gold and silver medallists – Mathies Rüder and Isabelle Cook – being watched by their parents, German rider Kai Rüder and Tina Cook. Both are pretty cool customers, but they were fairly nervy for once – even though the parental advice was of the sensible, “just go quietly” sort, neither could help the continuous glances at their watches… It made me smile. Once a competitor, always a competitor.

    ● Are you a competitive parent? Write to to share your stories

    • This exclusive column will also be available to read in Horse & Hound magazine, on sale Thursday 18 August

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