Stop That Horse!

The first week in September doesn’t just herald the start of autumn it also heralds the start of the Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials.  Held each year in the grounds of Burghley House – a magnificent, Elizabethan stately home located just outside Stamford, Lincolnshire – it attracts the top names in equestrianism.  Also known as three day eventing, the trials combine different elements of horsemanship: dressage, cross-country and show jumping which tests the strength, stamina, skill and bravery of both horse and rider.  It is a popular and unique sport with crowds of over 160,000 coming to watch.

The cross-country course is very demanding with thirty-two fences over a distance of 6500 metres (four miles) to jump, ideally under twelve minutes.  The Cottesmore Leap is one of the largest and scariest looking of the fences although the horses rarely seem fazed by it.  

 
Eventing is a high risk sport and accidents do occur.  More often than not, this is when a fence is misjudged and the rider parts company with the horse or a fence is damaged during the jump, for they are designed to fall apart to reduce the risk of injury.   So what happens when something goes wrong?  On the course there are ‘stopping points’, placed for good visibility so that the next competitor has plenty of warning to apply the brakes if there is a hold-up further on.  A red flag is waved to tell the rider to stop and the time of stopping is recorded by a steward.If the stop is likely to be short the rider will continue to ride the horse at walk to allow it to cool gently; if longer they dismount, remove the saddle  and lead the horse at walk to keep active. 
If the delay is lengthy the horse will be washed down to cool it further and the rider also given the opportunity to take a drink of water.  Although this is frustrating for the rider, competitors understand the need for total safety to both themselves and their horse. 
Once the all-clear is given the horse is remounted and gently exercised to warm up its muscles before resuming the competition.  When the rider is satisfied the horse is ready the timing is restarted as they canter past the yellow marker post so that no competitor is disadvantaged.

Like all large events, sporting or otherwise, contingency plans are in place for all types of emergencies and spectators are rarely aware of these ‘behind the scenes’ procedures even when, as in this case, they happen on full view. Over many years the stopping point has proven its worth, and it is an interesting place to watch, for it shows a top performance horse go through the stages of change from full competitive action to rest and back again.The Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials 2014 take place from 4th – 7th September; visit the website for more details by clicking here.

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The Finest Stone Town in England

How often, when watching epics on the big screen or television, have you admired the scenery or buildings and wondered where they are or even if they exist in reality?   Those of you that have done this when watching Middlemarch or Pride and Prejudice can be reassured that, indeed, they do for they were filmed in the Lincolnshire town of Stamford, often described as the finest stone town in England.

Stamford has an ancient history.  The Romans constructed Ermine Street which passes through it only to be then pursued by Queen Boudica; almost a thousand years later it was the turn of the Anglo-Saxons against the Danish invaders.  The conquering Normans built a castle (to be demolished four hundred years later) but it was during the Middle Ages that Stamford really flourished due to the wool trade.  However, apart from its five medieval churches, the majority of the town’s buildings date from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  In the late 1960’s, it became Britain’s first conservation area and is now designated an area of outstanding architectural interest.  It is due to this early protection that has earned the town its accolade, seconded by the Sunday Times (national) newspaper describing it as the best place to live in the country.

Close to the bridge which crosses the River Welland  stands the church of St. Martin’s, built around 1150 and completely rebuilt three hundred years later.  It contains some fine memorials to the Cecil family, the earliest dating from 1598, and also medieval stained glass brought from a neighbouring village in the 1700’s.

 

For those interested in church timber, St. Martin’s has finely detailed box pews and a carved lectern.  It also has the more contemporary (1947) carved head of Christ – Consummatum Est by Alberdi – representing the moment of his death; an anti-war protest.


 

William Cecil, the first Lord Burghley, was chief advisor, Secretary of State and Lord High Treasurer to Queen Elizabeth I.  It was he who built Burghley House, considered to be the finest of its age and open to the public.  It is still lived in by descendants of the family and also home to the International Horse Trials held in the Park each September.  I have written of these before and these posts can be found by clicking on the link here.

More of my images of Stamford and Burghley can be found on Flickr by clicking on the link here.

Refs:
http://www.stamford.co.uk/index.shtml
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stamford,_Lincolnshire
http://www.stamfordchurches.co.uk/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Cecil,_1st_Baron_Burghley
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At the 2011 Burghley Horse Trials – part 2

To compete at the Burghley horse trials you have to be brave, for the size of the fences are not for the faint-hearted. However, to have reached the standard that is required, riders and their horses have had to overcome fear in plenty and have the necessary skill, stamina and strength to compete at this level – not just on the cross-country course but also in dressage and showjumping disciplines. It certainly draws the crowds with over 140,000 people attending.

In part 1 of these posts on the Trials – click here for link – the photograph below was also the first photograph shown, but before the trials began. It looked a huge, solid jump (and was) but the horses cleared it with ease. It is often the smaller jumps where a tired rider or horse come unstuck. Fortunately, this year, there were no major casualties although, sadly, these do occur from time to time.


Burghley, because of its status as one of the top eventing locations, not just in Britain but worldwide, attracts the superstars of the equestrian world, from both the UK and overseas. Ollie Townend won Burghley in 2009 and was a favourite to win this year. It wasn’t to be, with one of his horses being eliminated on the cross country, the other having to retire.

Mary King, is always enthusiastically applauded whenever she appears and is supposed to be the person most young ‘horsey’ girls want to be when they grow up! Not surprising really, for she gets results and is a charming person as well. She came third on her own homebred Kings Temptress.

The water jumps always attract the crowds and there is nothing more they like to see than a rider get a good ducking! This year their were few such moments. Apart from small ponds to jump in and out of, the Capability Brown lake also featured as an obstacle. There can be few more magnificent views than this with Burghley House, one of the greatest Elizabethan buildings in England, in the distance.


Another photograph that appeared in the first post was the one below. This image has a horse clearing what is the biggest jump on the course. To guage the height look at the press photographers being dwarfed by it ….. This jump was another that the horses took with ease – it is more of a frightener for the rider. The press and the television crews all help to create the atmosphere at Burghley which is , to my mind anyaway, the greatest horse show of them all.

Zara Phillips, daughter of the Princess Royal and grand-daughter of the Queen was another competitor here. She came in tenth place on High Kingdom.

The winner – and for a record sixth time – was the popular William Fox-Pitt. Known as ‘Mr Cool’, William sits quietly on his horse, unlike some riders, and appears to have no nerves whatsoever. I wonder if that is really so!

But Burghley isn’t just about horses! For many of us, Burghley and events like it, are places where we can meet up with old friends and aquaintances, a place to relax in late summer sunshine, a place to bring all the family including our dogs. It’s a place where we can shop, where we can picnic and where we can dream of one day riding a horse well enough to compete here.

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At the 2011 Burghley Horse Trials – part 1

One of the highlights of my social calendar is the annual trip to Burghley for the horse trials. Although I ride and, probably immodest of me to say it, ride rather well, neither my horse, nor my skill, nor my nerve would take me to this level. As it happens, we have just got an additional new horse that has competed at Burghley in the past – as has my partner – but just the sight of some of the fences fill me with such fear we won’t be attempting it!

There is something rather special about Burghley that is quite difficult to define. The atmosphere is electric yet relaxed, a great team of people organise it, the visitors all thoroughly enjoy it and, of course, there is the splendour of the magnificent Burghley House that dominates the grounds.

Burghley House was built in the 1500’s for the first Earl of Exeter, one of Queen Elizabeth I’s favourites. Today it is considered to be one of the finest Elizabethan houses in England and is still owned by the same family. Dominating the west front of the house and its turrets and towers, the great gilded gates were designed to catch the rays of the setting sun. These, and the huge numbers of windows, create a blaze of light on a summer’s evening , exactly the image that was required: power, wealth and fine enough to impress the Virgin Queen when she visited.

The Exeter crest is designed into the gates and, elsewhere, there is yet more gilding. The levels of craftsmanship is outstanding, not just in the architecture but down to every detail. Even the garden railings are beautifully crafted.

The grounds, where the horse trials take place, are also kept beautifully. A dominant feature of the parkland is the large numbers of Sweet Chestnut trees, mostly planted in avenues. Their immense girth really shows the twisted bark that is seldom seen on younger trees.

However, it is the lake and Lion Bridge that creates the focal centrepoint whether from the park or when seen from the house. These were created later than the house by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (who else?!) around 1778. The lake is designed to give the impression of a winding river and features as an obstacle in the trials.
Trialling or eventing, for those unfamiliar with the sport – the word ‘horse’ is only said by those that don’t ride and is a social faux pas when used – is one of the toughest tests of endurance for both horse and rider. First there are dressage tests where the skill and accuracy of both are measured. This is followed by the most popular part of the contest (although all have their aficionados), the cross country course (link here). At a length of 6686 metres with 33 fences – the highest standing at 1.45m – it has a target time of just over 11 minutes to complete. Cross country tests the bravery, strength and stamina of both horse and rider. Finally, there is the showjumping on the last day. Here, the test is for stamina, accuracy and skill. This year, William Fox-Pitt won Burghley for the sixth time, a record, which made a very successful end to Burghley’s 50th anniversary.

If you are not horse crazy – and the majority of the thousands of people that come here are – there are other things to occupy your time. Socialising is important, catching up with people that you may see only here, and shopping is even more so. There are over five hundred shops to visit on the site selling everything from clothes to furniture, to paintings and sculpture and, of course, lots of horse related products. The food halls are important too: my favourite was the Neil’s Yard cheese shop with its amazing displays of English cheeses. They tasted good too!

For those of you that have never been here, do give it a try, especially at this time. The house and gardens are open to the public all year and, from time to time, concerts are performed here. Burghley House should be on every persons agenda to visit at leat once. If you need convincing, follow this link to their website.

The next post will concentrate more on the cross country course and will even have some ‘horsey’ photos!

Horses – a sure bet to lose money!

When I’m not gardening I’m invariably doing something with horses or dogs – or preferably both. And as I have been writing recently about the Gatcombe and Burghley Horse Trials it seems a good time to introduce you to some equine friends, past and present.

Grunta was a character – and a dangerous one at that! A pleasure to ride and as quiet as anything until he saw a fence or a hedge. Then you would feel the tension rise in him and off he would gallop and sail straight over without hesitation. Woe betide you if you tried to stop him for he would rear up on his hind legs and go for it either with or without you. His silly name came from his grunting with excitement before the take off!

A thin, worm ridden, timid creature, when we got Daisy May. We realised she would be too light for us to ride but we took delight in building up her trust and her body. She was sold some time later to be a brood mare.

Dior was the most beautiful of all the horses that we have owned – and the best quality. Bought to show as a youngster, we lost both her and her unborn foal to ragwort poisoning. A most terrible and distressing death to witness and a plea to all who have ragwort growing on their land – destroy it.

Barney is the wonder horse and still going strong after many years. A 17 hands 3″ Irish Draught he is a great companion. His main picture is to the right but he also appears on the one below with Squirrel and Polly, the 30 year old pony that we ‘inherited’ along with the paddock. Barney is another great jumper and will tackle the biggest fences with ease – but in a kind and considerate sort of way. Squirrel was another danger horse who would try his utmost to throw you off when you first mounted him. Providing you stayed on he would settle down and be a good lad for the rest of the day. However, in the end he proved too hot to handle and, just when we were wondering what to do with him, he had to be put down. A good thing probably – I think he might have killed us in the end. Now white with age, Henry our grey Irish Draught and Rambo, our young Shire horse, along with Barney make up our stables at the moment. Rambo is ridden occasionally and has all the makings of a good horse as he gets older. Enormous, towering over Barney, but a gentle giant.


Carriage driving is not for the faint hearted either! This belongs to a friend and it is great fun when travelling off road and at speed….

Ragwort is an introduced plant to the UK and an absolute curse. It needs to be destroyed but care must be taken – pull it out wearing gloves for the toxins that attack the liver are absorbed through the skin. Then burn it or put it in your refuse bin where it can go for industrial composting. Garden compost heaps will not heat up enough to destroy it so don’t put it there. I plan to write about ragwort and other introduced aliens in due course.

A final word of warning: horses eat money – but they are worth it!
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At the (Hurly) Burghley Horse Trials

Feeling reckless, I took a day or two off work to visit the Burghley Horse Trials, one of the premier contests in Britain. Not for a rest, for it is exhausting – all that socialising, shopping and concentrating. For the horse world is a small world and amongst the thousands of people that attend there are always dozens that you know, chat to, have a coffee and a sandwich with ……

A walk around the cross country course is always exciting: working out how you would approach the jumps, most of which are huge and difficult, talking with the competitors and admiring the thought and work that goes into creating the course. I should say that my riding skills are nowhere good enough (nor my courage level high enough) to compete but my partner has in the past and jumped into the dreaded “leaf pit”. The photograph of it below hardly does justice to the 4ft drop into the pit – the horse takes off just to the right of the guy, then immediately tackles either one of the two smaller jumps and then gallops off down the course. It is quite nerve wracking to watch, especially if it’s your partner doing it! If I was on my horse, Barney, I would be another 7ft higher still – it makes me feel quite ill just thinking about it!
The water jumps are always a popular place so I visit them before the competition starts. People congregate here, not to see the jump carved to look like a duck, but in the hope of seeing the riders fall and get a good ducking!
A crowd of over 140,000 watch the eighty or so horses compete over four days – the guy with the best view is certainly the television cameraman – I always watch most of it on the giant screens that are strategically placed around the grounds. There is always a place, ‘though, where you can get a clear view of the jumps and, if the crowds get too much, a quiet place under the magnificent sweet chesnut avenues.
Burghley House is a magnificent Elizabethan building built – and virtually unaltered – in the sixteenth century and set in hundreds of acres of parkland. With over 80 major rooms, gardens and the park, it is well worth a visit. Although still privately owned (by the same family since being built) it is open to the public throughout the summer months.

Great excitement! She-Dog has met her husband! The potentially lucky lad may ‘marry’ her around Christmas and, with luck, we will become proud parents in the spring of 2010. Burghley is a good place for romance too – watch this space!

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