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Following a Badminton star in the making

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Ollie Williams | 22:29 UK time, Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Badminton Horse Trials, Gloucestershire

"When people ask me what I'd love to win, I say Olympic gold. But Badminton would be very shortly afterwards."

Piggy French is 30 years old, one of the best three-day eventing riders in Britain, and nervous. Badminton Horse Trials are a month away, and a BBC Sport camera crew - in the shape of me - will be following her all the way.

Badminton sends shivers down her spine. It is her sport's equivalent of the British Open golf or Wimbledon tennis.

The sport of eventing requires that you pilot your horse through the technical drill of dressage, the strategic endurance test of cross-country and the pressure cooker of a showjumping finale.

At Badminton, all three push both horse and rider to the limit - and, this year, Olympic qualification is a factor as well. I'm following French and her horse, Jakata, to find out what goes on behind the scenes at a competition this big.

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Highlights: Final day of Badminton Horse Trials (UK users only)

The only problem? French has a terrible Badminton record. She has competed three times: on the most recent two occasions being eliminated before the finish. A 31st-place finish on her Badminton debut in 2003 remains her best record to date.

"Badminton has not been a great place for me. It's been an unlucky place," she says. "It'd be fabulous to put the ghosts to rest, and that's what we'll try to do."

I'm taken down to the stables to meet Jakata, a violent-brown machine of a horse whose muscles bubble like pistons with every movement. Jakata is developing a reputation for both liveliness and excellence, having surprised many in the sport by proving good enough to go to the World Equestrian Games with French last year. Few people expected the pair to get selected. They finished 16th, which doesn't sound marvellous, but French came back confident that her horse looked "very exciting for the future".

Now here we are in the future - but things are not going to plan. This year's Badminton preparations have been hampered by an error in an earlier competition where Jakata took an unexpected dip in a water jump, up to his ears. The horse emerged thoroughly discombobulated and is now ginger, to say the least, around parts of the cross-country. More importantly, the soaking has made the horse a little sceptical of his rider. French needs to regain his trust, sharpish.

"He fell in a water jump - for no reason, he just stumbled down - and he didn't like that much. We're going back to basics and working on getting his trust back, showing him it's alright and that doesn't need to happen again," she says.

Eventing is as much about the horse as the rider, if not more so. In almost all Olympic sports, the athletes follow a strict dietary regime, receive regular sports massages, and have teams of people dedicated to their welfare. In equestrian sports, the horse is substituted for the human. Over the coming weeks I'll see Jakata receiving ice baths, electronic massage blankets and blood tests. To do well at Badminton, French must be on her game but Jakata must be in phenomenal form.

Fast forward three weeks later and I'm sat in French's horsebox, en route to Badminton with the competition only a couple of days away. She drives, with head lad Stuart Ward - charged with keeping the yard ticking over and the horses in top condition - accompanying a small Jack Russell in the combined kitchen-and-bedroom behind us. Jakata is in the back, presumably going through some positive-mental-attitude stuff.

This is not a cheap sport. Even the horsebox cost £35,000 and that was six years ago, when it was already 15 years old. When we stop for fuel, the reading on the pump is an eye-watering £359 and that's not a full tank. As for the price of horses, French herself - along with many other riders - could never afford them on her own. Like a top football or Formula 1 team, wealthy owners and sponsors are the financial guarantors.

Cost of fuel for Piggy French's horsebox

Not what most of us want to see at the pumps - the cost of filling up a horsebox.

And this is a team sport, too. French is front-of-house, riding the horse and doing the interviews, but there is a small armada of stable staff - led by Ward - propelling her to Badminton. There is also a secretary for all the paperwork, while vets, physios, farriers and horse dentists enjoy frequent cameos at the yard.

"It's scary to think how many people are behind you and do so much for you," says French as we swap the horsebox for Jakata's regal stable inside the main Badminton complex. This is the heart of one of the world's biggest equestrian events and it is awash with the finest three-day eventers alive, people who have trained legendary horses and become legends themselves. This will be the strongest Badminton field in years.

As the weekend progresses, it becomes slowly evident that French is a contender.

The first sign comes at the end of the dressage, a discipline in which the immaculately presented horse and rider, replete with top hat and tails as tradition demands, must demonstrate a series of precise movements and around predefined coordinates in the arena.

It is near-impenetrable for untrained spectators but three judges sit at various points, marking each element of the routine. French and Jakata are among the last of many dozens of competitors over a two-day span, and with their very last movement they score the only perfect 10 to be awarded to any horse at the event.

French is not a dressage specialist and Jakata is not dainty. That score, and the second place to which it helps her after Badminton's first stage, are enough to moisten her eyes as she dismounts Jakata to cheers from the crowd and a hug from dad Wally.

Wally French has in some respects been the architect of this partnership. Eighteen months ago, he and friend Michael Underwood set out to find a horse that they believed would match his daughter's talent. "You're not going to get anywhere if you haven't got the horsepower," he reasoned. They came back with Jakata.

Getting an unexpectedly excellent dressage score is a fine start for French, but Badminton is so gruelling that the dressage can end up almost forgotten by the end - particularly after Sunday's daunting cross-country stage.

Here, horses must mount a four-mile dash across uneven ground and a series of challenging jumps, each designed to make horse and rider think and test their communication. You earn penalties if your horse refuses a jump and riders who fall are eliminated entirely from Badminton, but you must also be quick as you are further penalised for every second you take over a specific time - 11 minutes and 16 seconds.

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Badminton Horse Trials: Cross-country helmet-cam (UK users only)

This year, the Badminton cross-country proves viciously tough. Three riders are hospitalised (though all three, and their horses, recover quickly) and 18 horses in all are wiped out of the reckoning one way or the other.

Again, French is one of the last to go - her fate for having ended up as number 120 out of 131 when drawing lots at the start of the week. She avoids any mishaps on the course, but Jakata slows up and the duo receive time penalties as a result, pushing them down to fifth.

For someone who has never beaten 31st place, heading into Badminton's final day in the top five might seem pleasing at the very least. But that night, back in the stable, French seems closer to mortified.

"I wasn't happy," she later confesses. "I felt I had missed the chance to finish in the top three for the sake of five or six seconds. On a scale of 11 minutes, you wonder how you couldn't make five seconds up."

But a strange thing happens on Monday: a showjumping course that initially appears easy slowly starts to bite competitors as the day wears on. Riders are penalised four points for each jump they knock over and, since fewer than four points separate the top 12 competitors on a congested leaderboard, one fault is enough to blow anyone's challenge apart.

Piggy French jumping at Badminton on Jakata

Piggy French on her way to a clear showjumping round aboard Jakata. Photo: Getty Images

French, fifth-last to compete, goes clear. And then all the two of us can do is watch, and listen - French with her team and family, me with a camera hovering about five feet away. As we do, the next three riders all clip a fence. French is in the lead with only New Zealand veteran Mark Todd, a three-time Badminton champion already, to go.

The 90 seconds that Todd takes to complete the course feel like a lifetime for me filming, let alone French. I can't see the action as I'm filming her, so the only cue I have is the sound of the crowd. There is an audible gasp as Todd's horse grazes the first jump, but leaves it intact. Then, aching silence. Applause in the middle of proceedings is not the done thing here.

An explosion of sound, however, greets Todd as he successfully clears the final fence to win his fourth Badminton title. French, who has barely been able to watch, receives supportive hugs. I'm wondering how happy she is. Is second OK? Or is it devastating to come that close to first place?

Second, it transpires, is more than OK. After an hour of laps of honour, presentations, press conferences and autograph sessions, French is in a state of near-collapse. She can barely articulate her happiness. Second to Todd, one of the legends of equestrian sport, will do for her.

"It's everything," she says. "The very best in the world were here this year and it's an incredible feeling. I haven't got anywhere near being competitive or even in the top 10 before. It's very, very special to be the best of the British at one of the biggest events in the world.

"I've been in this sport long enough to see other competitors do well, congratulate them, see what it's all about... and wish, and hope, that one day that would be me."

Her father fights back tears as I speak to him. He says: "I am so proud of her, I can't even begin to tell you. She has worked hard, hard, hard. She's always been knocking at the door - she has the skill, she has the ability, she's always believed she's had these things and we've always believed too.

"She's never had a proper, big win. She's had some good wins but never anything too big. This is a big occasion for her. She may not have won it but she's proved her ability."

Jakata gets a reward, too. By completing the Badminton event, one of only seven top-class eventing tournaments in the world, he qualifies himself for the London Olympic Games. There is no guarantee he will be selected to compete for Britain, but it means he and French have their names in the hat.

"We're qualified for the Olympics, that in itself is now a pressure off," says French. "But we've got to be in form this good this time next year. I'm definitely not home and dry just because this week's gone well. I can't just relax and say I've done it. I'm still a million miles away.

"Next week we're eventing a load of horses down in Kent. Tomorrow morning I'll be up preparing them - you're back down to earth very quickly. But I think it's important not to miss what has come of this week, and to enjoy it. For the first time, we've done it."

You'll be able to see our footage behind the scenes with Piggy French on BBC TV and the BBC Sport website at a later date.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    well written Ollie!!!!

    And I mean, VERY well written, because for me to get to the end of a piece about this "sport", says more for the writing than anything else!

    Seriously though, There is a reason Im the first to comment on this.

    Rich, posh folk prancing about on horses is not a sport, its a social event for owners and trainers, in the same way that horse racing is equally a social/fun event for owners/backers and trainers trying to make money from their horses, with the appeal to the common man coming in the enticement of throwing away all their life savings by gambling on outcomes.

    Before anyone replies telling me about the skill and strength and speed and power of the horse - yes, the horse is an impressive beast, but Id much rather watch humans play sport, not animals.

    Apologies for the negativity, its just average folk like me simply don't see the point. Any sport that is so obviously reduced in its participation to a select segment of society, where the main skilled action is performed by an animal, is not worth reporting about, frankly, except maybe in the Eventing Weekly Magazine!

    I like your blogs though Ollie

  • Comment number 2.

    You're either a troll or massively ignorant as to the wide variety of people from a wealth of backgrounds, who compete in Eventing. Many of whom have struggled incredibly for their acheivements.

    If you think riding at that level is easy, you've clearly never sat on a horse, and the fact that you believe it's an exclusive club means you know nothing about the sport. It's a mix of people & you insult incredibly hard working people like Piggy French by posting such uneducated rubbish.

  • Comment number 3.

    Can't help but agree with much of what #1 TeniPurist has written.

    Also, at the risk of perpetuating social cliches and stereotyping, the name 'Piggy French' does have that air of self deprecating toff about it.

    £360 of petrol? Buy a smaller horsebox, get a different hobby, whatever.

    That said, the BBC are right to cover this sort of marginalised activity, but it's hardly relevant or for the masses I'm afraid, even if the masses wanted it to be.

  • Comment number 4.

    "Also, at the risk of perpetuating social cliches and stereotyping, the name 'Piggy French' does have that air of self deprecating toff about it."

    Congratulations, that's exactly what you have acheived. She was born Georgina but her sister couldn't pronounce it, so Piggy is her nickname.

    If either of you knew *anything* about Equestrian sport, you would know that there is virtually no money in Eventing. Show jumping & Dressage are where the cash is if that's what you're interested in. The majority of Eventers slog their guts out to get where they are. You should be ashamed of yourselves.

    I think I might take your lead though & go comment on some sport related stories of which I have absoultely no knowledge. Golf is just about getting expensive clubs, right? The club will hit the ball for you, yes?

  • Comment number 5.

    Also should add that Badminton Cross Country day alone had an attendance of over 120,000 people, the biggest attendance of any outdoor event in Europe. Marginalised? Really?

  • Comment number 6.

    #4 struthruth

    Oh yes, 'Piggy' sounds like any girl from up and down the country doesn't she:-

    http://www.eqlife.co.uk/2011/local-rider-biographies-piggy-french/

    There needn't be any money in eventing if there's already money in the family, and I think that's part of the point.

    'Slog their guts out' to indulge their hobby. Now, where is my violin. Stradivarius of course. I slogged my guts out to get it.

  • Comment number 7.

    Interesting debate. I don't know much about eventing so please take this question in the right way. In order for the people not involved in the sport to understand the "accessibility" aspect it would be good to get an idea of how I might get what I need to take part? In golf - as that is analogy which has been used - I can buy second hand clubs (or hire them) and play on municipal courses for very little money - Is it possible for a beginner to hire the equipment and get going/compete without the Horse/horsebox/fuel/equipment costs that seem to be required?

    I will never take this up myself but my daughter is interested in horses and might, one day, like to do something along these lines.

  • Comment number 8.

    #5 struthtruth

    How does that compare to the number's that watch the London Marathon? What other outdoor events have you in mind? I'm pretty sure that Glastonbury has more than that (unofficially of course. Super fence? Pah!).

  • Comment number 9.

    I'm a bloke who was brought up on a council estate. Though I had a very limited exposure to equestrian events, I'd always quite liked to watch.

    3 years ago, I started riding, and have taken part in a jump competition.

    Equestrian sports are not just for the wealthy...anyone can take part. It's just a case of finding a local riding school.

    These days, I hack out across the farm, where I live, and enjoy riding immensely. I watch many of the events because I now understand the horsemanship required to compete.

    To those who think it *IS* just for the rich.....I'd suggest you get off your PC, and give it a go. Then, you can comment from a position of strength, instead of making inane comments which only confirm your stupidity!

    Remember, it is easier to keep your fingers clear of the keyboard, and let people THINK you're an idiot, than typing something on the keyboard and CONFIRMING you're an idiot!

  • Comment number 10.

    #7

    Just take your daughter to a local riding school...If they are any good, they will have everything that she needs to start with.

    If she becomes interested, properly, then you should look at buying her a riding hat, jhodpurs and boots. Though these can be quite expensive, it is always worth looking out for second-hand.

    My son has been riding since he was 3, and has loved every minute of it!

  • Comment number 11.

    #7

    Also, I should point out that the riding school will probably run various competitions throughout the year, and these will be tailored to each level of riding, so your daughter would not be competing against kids who were much, much better than her!

    Equestrian is VERY accessible, depending on where you live. In Suffolk, I have 3-4 riding schools around, and one which has it's own cross-country course. Again, these stage competition days, where anyone can register to take part.

    I hope that you can see past the "snobbishness" that pervades, and is shown towards, the Equestrian world.

  • Comment number 12.

    Goalie up front: Horse ownership is expensive, and it's a terrible myth that only 'toffs' or wealthy people do it, not to mention insulting to those of us who go without things for ourselves to ensure that our horses are well cared for.

    As a sport, Eventing is fairly unique in that at the lower levels of the sport you will find the very top riders taking their inexperienced horses up through the levels, and it's relatively cheap, entry for a one day event is around the £40-60 mark.

    You can loan a pony/horse for your daughter if she shows interest, stabling is around £25 per week, the things that cost the most money tend to be vets bills, lessons & tack and equipment. A good saddle for a horse will cost around £1000.

    As AerospaceMango says though, there is plenty of enjoyment to be had from just riding out in the countryside, you don't need all the kit & lessons if you don't want them.

    What really irriates me is the ignorance of some people thinking that anyone can sit on an expensive, well trained horse & have it perform brilliantly. I can't tell you how difficult it is to ride well and how many years of hard work all riders in the professional sphere have to put in to acheive what they do.

    As there is so little money in Eventing (in terms of prize money & sponsorship) that there is in other sports Eventers have to work particularly hard to survive. Yes, there are people in the sport from weathier backgrounds, but plenty aren't. Phoebe Buckley is one example, from a travelling family she is certainly not privileged.

  • Comment number 13.

    #12 struthruth

    Give over, I don't think people are saying that you can just sit on a horse and ride to victory any more than you could sit in a formula one car and lap very quickly. I use that example as there are clear parallels between the two.

    Essentially these are money orientated sports primarily for those with a few quid where success generally goes to those with the best equipment, that equipment being expensive.

    It is surely stretching things somewhat to suggest that it is all inclusive and almost certainly the winner will go to the one that spent alot of money, however that money has come about.

    As for 'those of us who go without things for ourselves to ensure that our horses are well cared for', what do you want a medal, or should I say rosette! I own a pet too and I wouldn't have acquired it if I couldn't look after it. That is simple responsibility.

  • Comment number 14.

    Of course it's true that equestrian sports require large amounts of money to maintain the horses. The horses are generally owned by people who can afford them, and ridden by people who have the talent to ride at this level. Where would any sport be without sponsors? Where would football teams be without incredibly wealthy investors and sponsors? It has nothing to do with class or money, the riders work incredibly hard and take home very little of the money involved.
    As for whether it's a sport or not - it takes skill and physical ability without question.

  • Comment number 15.

    I appreciate sporting talent (im a multi sports fan and make an effort to see what all sports have to offeR) and no doubt (having ridden a horse before) to be in tune with the horse like that and stay on while it does whatever it has to do, is a very impressive skill.

    But Real sport is played between humans, not greyhounds legging it round dirt tracks or Horses moving between carefully placed coordinates or jumping over hurdles politely applauded by those observing.

    I wont bother with the comparison with golf.... Living in the south of spain where there are 100s of golf clubs costing 35euro for 18 holes plus buggy! (estepona golf club summer deal ;)

    I bet "Piggy French" has never had to work a day in her life!!!! Slugging it out in her eventing competitions indeed, poor lass!

  • Comment number 16.

    "Give over, I don't think people are saying that you can just sit on a horse and ride to victory any more than you could sit in a formula one car and lap very quickly. I use that example as there are clear parallels between the two."

    How are there parallels between the two if you're not saying that??? Here's what TeniPurist said: "....where the main skilled action is performed by an animal". Utter rubbish. Neither have you have ever sitten on a horse to know what skill is required.

    "Essentially these are money orientated sports primarily for those with a few quid where success generally goes to those with the best equipment, that equipment being expensive." Yes, in the sense that ALL SPORTS are money orientated, and if you have a few quid more maybe it'll help, but do you think Lewis Hamilton wins because he has money? Does Tiger Woods? No? What are their backgrounds? Do you even know? Don't assume riders (who are athletes) can buy their way to the top anymore than anyone from any sporting field can. That's totally stupid and you are just showing your own prejudices here.

    And no, I don't want a medal for caring for my animal, I was making the point that I'm NOT from a privileged background, I'm NOT rich, and yet I event. But hey, why not miss this and all the other points made, clearly you know far more than us horse owners/riders/eventers. Because you own a horse, you ride & event. Right?

  • Comment number 17.

    TeniPurist.

    What you said in your first post: 'the main skilled action is performed by an animal'

    What you said in your last post: 'and no doubt (having ridden a horse before) to be in tune with the horse like that and stay on while it does whatever it has to do, is a very impressive skill'

    are you a politician by any chance? do me a favour, stick with politics and refrain from insulting hard working people when you are entirely ignorant of what it is they do.

  • Comment number 18.

    #14 Lizimina

    Of course it's true that equestrian sports require large amounts of money to maintain the horses. The horses are generally owned by people who can afford them, and ridden by people who have the talent to ride at this level. Where would any sport be without sponsors? Where would football teams be without incredibly wealthy investors and sponsors?
    ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------
    What a mis-conception. The reason that football is the world's most popular sport is that there is a complete absence of need for money. You only have to look at children in the poorest parts of the world kicking about, well, just about anything to make a game of football.

    Money and power in football has done nothing but corrupt the game. Money has not made footballers better but a myth that pervades helps put people on pedestals which makes money for the makers of those pedestals.

  • Comment number 19.

    #16 struthruth

    I have sitten (sic) on a horse and my impression is that it is very good to be able to control such a powerful animal. Believe me (as no doubt you will on this one) the animal was in control and I was very much the passenger!

    But, I couldn't afford to do that every day of the week since buying and looking after a horse is an expensive business. My experiences and impression of the horsey set is that it is largely populated by the type of person that can afford to indulge their hobby. That doesn't stop others getting involved but I'm afraid that it is mostly for the have's rather than the have not's.

  • Comment number 20.

    Mr BlueBurns:

    "My experiences and impression of the horsey set is that it is largely populated by the type of person that can afford to indulge their hobby. That doesn't stop others getting involved but I'm afraid that it is mostly for the have's rather than the have not's"

    All I'm trying to tell you is that your experience is not representative of the sport. If anything I would say there are plenty more 'have nots' than haves, the vast majority of my horsey friends just choose to spend what they have on their horses and as a result don't tend to live in big houses or drive flash cars or have holidays. And you won't hear any complaints but all I'm saying is it isn't the way you think it is.

    As a sport Eventing is incredibly accessible and those with talent with rise to the top, regardless of their backgrounds. What *all* event riders have in common is how much work they have to put in. Most ride around 6 horses a day and teach others to supplement their income.

    What I love about Eventing is the partnership & trust a rider has to build with their horse in order to complete an event like Badminton. Most Event riders spend years & years on the partnership and it's a shame when it is belittled with silly 'you're just a toff with money' judgements. Piggy French, regardless of background has worked years for this. Please don't disregard that.

  • Comment number 21.

    I said the main skilled action is that of the horse, I never suggested that the whole feat is absent any skill on behalf of the rider! These guys are brave (particularly the horse racer folk) and have impressive ability too

    But its all about the horse...

    You telling me 1000s of unfortunate wanna be "socialites" dress up in ridiculous hats at Royal Ascott, to appreciate the skill of the little man on top of the horse?

    The human participants are very, very good at their hobbie, they no doubt enjoy it, especially seeing as there is "very little money in it"
    ;

    Real sports generate money and there is a reason why - they are universally popular, because they are actually a worthwhile sporting contest, not a hobby played out in front of like minded people. Horse Racing is a big industry but that says more about peoples love of laying a good bet than anything else.

    Do you not consider how lucky Miss French is? At being able to put all her time and energy into a sport that doesnt even pay her enough to live on?? I bet we'd all love to train 3 times a week and play on the weekend for our local pubside and do that for a living! Oh but its a hard slog down the mud pitch I tell you!!

    I repeat, for the record, I am not suggesting that people who participate in these events are not very skilled, and I accept that there is not a sign on the door to your local horse riding club that says "YOu must earn over X in order to enter these premises" (although it probably might as well)

    Struthruth, I suppose I commend you for being a not rich, hard working girl, who chooses to put herself through financial hardship in order to participate in your chosen hobbie...

    And that is really my point, that this horse play (gettit??) is all well and good, but its not much of a sport (at least in my book) and barely worth reporting on, which is why, to go back to square 1, I commended the author Ollie for producing a good read.


  • Comment number 22.

    Who cares about those who are involved or how much it costs? Seriously, can we not just enjoy it for what it is ... a competition?

  • Comment number 23.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 24.

    So to summise, you have no interest in, or knowledge of the sport therefore it's a load of rubbish.

    Your comparisons with horse racing aren't worth commenting on, we're talking about Eventing, which just to inform you, is a sport that requires competitors to master the arts of Dressage, Cross Country riding and Showjumping. Horse racing is totally different. It's like saying rugby & football are the same as they both use balls. Personally, I have no interest in football whatsoever, but that doesn't mean I feel justified in commenting on footballing stories, rubbishing the game (because I don't like it) and worst of all, displaying my own ignorance in not evening understand what the sport is even about!

  • Comment number 25.

    @struthruth

    Don't let the WUM's get to you!

    They do not understand the points that they try to raise.

    They have never gone over a 5-bar-gate, or a 2 foot bar. They know no different, so can only comment from a position of hostility.

    I know, and work with, plenty of women who are NOT highly paid, and yet still manage to look after their horses. I know plenty of people for whom their horse is their life. In much the same way that people are with dogs and cats.

    Don't get sucked into an argument with them. It is pointless to have a battle of wits with someone who is unarmed!

  • Comment number 26.

    AerospaceMango: Well said! and you're right of course, I know I'm on a hiding to nothing :o)

  • Comment number 27.

    Yes I am talking generally about all sport involving horses as I have little time for it. I know that horse racing is completely different yet I think the argument remains valid that people watching the various elements of the Eventing competition are primarly there to enjoy the wine and cheese, hopefully the sunshine, and a jolly great big impressive horse!

    Eventers are certainly the all rounders though

    I saw this article on bbc sport and like Ollie's stuff so I read it. Upon reading it I was reminded of my contempt for these "sports" - I think gambling is a terrible thing and that it is legalised and so freely pushed at people is disgraceful. The fact that people walk around commending the noble sport of horse racing is embarassing, its a degenerate's dream (and consequentially, his nightmare).

    At least there is racing though. Eventing is posh people celebrating the majesty of the Royal beast, the great horse. I have no respect for it as a sport and felt minded to share that, while complementing the author on a good article. (By contrast, lots of people express the opinion that darts is not really a sport but fat men playing a pub game, I dont agree but I have the good grace to allow people their opinion)

    I don't agree that it requires an intimate knowledge of the sport to have an opinion of it. If I was commenting on a particular aspect of it such as scoring or technique etc, then I would cede your point. I think I was perfectly justified to comment on the article, and the whole Eventing business, actually.

  • Comment number 28.

    The difference is that I am just expressing an opinion quite contentedly, whereas you are getting upset about it! If my opinion is so uncouth and uninformed then ignore me and get on with it, but it seems to strike a chord, you should indeed follow Aerospacemango's (fellow Eventer?) advice and chill and enjoy....

  • Comment number 29.

    @28 TeniPurist

    I think the point that I'm trying to make is that uninformed opinions are so rife on the internet, and particularly the BBC blog/606, that it is pointless to get into an argument.

    I do not wish to denigrate your words, but surely even you must realise that Horse-Racking is called "The Sport of Kings"? Which rather knocks your point in #21, about it being your opinion that it is NOT a sport.

    We ARE all entitled to our opinions, and to express them in any way that is allowed.

    As a working class bloke, I have just booked myself a lesson for Friday 6th, and will continue to go weekly thereafter. I enjoy riding, and enjoy watching Eventing as I believe it is a truly awe-inspiring sport. Once you have stood next to a cross-country course, and seen the size and shape of the jumps, you would learn a healthy respect for both the riders and the horses!

    Peace, TeniPurist!

  • Comment number 30.

    AerospaceMango:

    "I enjoy riding, and enjoy watching Eventing as I believe it is a truly awe-inspiring sport. Once you have stood next to a cross-country course, and seen the size and shape of the jumps, you would learn a healthy respect for both the riders and the horses!"

    Couldn't agree more, some non horsey friends came to Badminton with us this year & they were blown away by the difficulty & drama of it all. A friend of mine once had to put up with some 'riding isn't exercise or a sport' comments from some gym going friends, so she put them on her horse for 10 mins. Each one of them hobbled off afterwards after struggling to stay on, and they never gave her any hassle about it again! It's one of the things that looks easy but is so very hard. But I think that's why I love it so much, always something to learn & improve on.

    Enjoy riding in the sunshine :o)

  • Comment number 31.

    To be quite honest the ill-informed comments on here are simply laughable. Everyone is allowed an opinion but to make such comments on a public forum with no justification or knowledge to substantiate the opinion, to be frank, quite simply makes you look an imbecile. In particular the reference to “knowing the intimacies of the sport” by intimacies you must be referring to knowing absolutely anything to do with it, as this is made very clear by the fact you could even consider this not to be a sport. To reiterate it is very fair to have an opinion, but if you are to voice it publicly, make it an informed opinion and don’t try to rationalise it against people who have been involved in the sport all their lives. Who I might add are involved in the sport not through having inherited a title or vast land or sums of money, but through sheer hard work and determination to be involved in such a challenging and fantastic sport, and who aspire to compete alongside the greats of Piggy and Toddy.

    Your comments have not “struck a chord” as you wish to believe as they are completely unfounded and cannot be taken seriously, it is the ignorance which is the annoyance!

  • Comment number 32.

    Hello, everybody. Thanks for the comments, much appreciated.

    I think if nothing else, we've proved that there's a pretty clear division between people who like their equestrian sport and people who don't. For what it's worth, here's how I feel about it.

    TeniPurist - Thanks for the kind words about the blog, glad you enjoyed it.

    There is no denying that Badminton is a social event. Nobody can tell me that the 100,000-plus people who turned up to the cross-country on Sunday were all there for the sport. There are shops galore, food festivals, other displays and attractions, and friends and family to see. Same applies to a fair few other equestrian events.

    However, I've been to a few hundred football matches in my time and it seems to me that a pretty hefty percentage of football fans aren't necessarily there for the football. Don't quite a few football supporters go to games for the social side as much as, if not more so, than the actual match? There's a sense of camaraderie to following a team that, I'd argue, probably becomes the overwhelming motivation for many fans. Supporters' coaches there and back, pub before/after, chants etc. But there's an entire psychology dissertation in that and I won't get bogged down in it now.

    And as stated in the blog above, the sport is more about the horse than the rider when it comes to the event itself. Of course it is. The better the horse, the better your chances of winning - hence top horses cost huge sums of money (though noticeably more in, say, dressage and racing than in eventing, where the horses are more jack-of-all-trades types).

    But to suggest that Piggy French has "never had to work a day in her life" is overdoing it pretty drastically. These horses don't just "get good" overnight - they are trained for years and years, day after day, in any weather. And you can't just train one if you want to compete at the very top. If you did, and that horse suffered an injury, you'd be left with nothing. So you need a stable full of top horses.

  • Comment number 33.

    (continued from above...) Some top riders, who do have money behind them, are able to buy in those horses - though often there are sponsors and owners doing the buying for them, at prices the riders couldn't dream of affording any more than you or I could. That's not unusual in sport. Football has been cited as an example and track cycling would be another. Sir Chris Hoy rides bikes that I highly doubt he'd want to be buying from his own pocket.

    However, those riders - and the ones who bring up their own horses from scratch - will still be out there every day, getting those horses exactly right for big competitions, for hours on end. You need trust, communication and understanding between horse and rider in a way that no other sport replicates, and that takes a very long time to achieve. (Particularly if there's a setback, as in the blog above and the fateful water jump.)

    During the competition season, you're then spending a lot of time travelling and lugging equipment and horses up and down the country. Horseboxes might cost a lot but, unless you're buying a truly top-of-the-range model, they aren't luxurious and long periods in/around them feel very much like work!

    What you then see at the competition is the end product of months of work. And for those three days, the horse is the star and the one doing the hard yards. But the horse has been brought to that point in partnership with a rider and their team working very hard to make that pairing a success.

    Now, I think that's a sport. Before I did this job I might have lazily agreed with interpretations of equestrian sport as a nonsense-sport promoted and enjoyed exclusively by a limited social sphere, with little to commend it to an Olympic Games. Having now spent time watching the sport, studying its participants and understanding the machinations, I couldn't disagree more.

    There is a level of strategy and tactical nous pervading eventing, particularly, that is hard to pick up - understandably so, with no blame attached - if you haven't ever been to watch it first-hand. I don't even think TV coverage is able to capture the full thought process.

    The dressage, I will admit, is always going to be a hard sell for your average hardcore sporting fan. But it's a precision game, based on minute movements earning technical plaudits. It takes a lot of skill to be anywhere near good at it.

  • Comment number 34.

    (continued from above...) Then there's the cross-country, which is incredibly tactical. The course has long and short routes, and you choose which to go for based on where you are in the standings and what you need to achieve. You can push it to the limit and risk a fall, which eliminates you entirely from the tournament, or take it easy but rack up time penalties and pay the price as a result.

    If you have more than one horse in the event, you can use the first as a "pathfinder", i.e. a test-run of the course to establish what you want to do with your main contender later. It therefore pays to get as many horses into the reckoning as you can but, of course, that's demanding and requires twice the work.

    Finally, we reach the showjumping. A real test of nerve once you have seen the rest of the event and understand what rides on it. Each of the top 12 riders on Monday knew that knocking over one fence was enough to ruin their whole three-day competition. By the time you get to the last rider, knowing they have to have a perfect round to win, it's pure drama.

    I'm glad this sport is part of the Olympics. I think it represents a facet of human sporting endeavour that no other Olympic sport reflects: Olympic equestrian medals commend those nations who produce the humans best able to to work with horses to achieve an end product. That's been a human talent for centuries and it seems worth rewarding to me.

    As with a number of Olympic sports, there are some elements that don't exactly subscribe to the Olympic ideal. Yes, you can buy yourself a better horse and become better overnight. But then don't celebrate British track cycling successes if that puts you off, because that's essentially what happened to Britain's bikes for Beijing. They upgraded and those bikes had an impact on results. If they didn't, Britain wouldn't have spent the money designing and building them.

  • Comment number 35.

    (continued from above...) MrBlueBurns - You said: "Money and power in football has done nothing but corrupt the game. Money has not made footballers better but a myth that pervades helps put people on pedestals which makes money for the makers of those pedestals."

    I'd be inclined to agree, but money remains an absolute fact of elite football around the world. There is no successful professional club, at domestic or international level, that is not throwing around a level of money which in the equestrian world would be obscene. I would have thought it barely an exaggeration to suggest that Manchester City's annual wage bill could buy every horse on the planet.

    I'm not saying you've done this, but it would be highly irresponsible of anybody to criticise the money flowing in equestrian sport and then happily watch a Premier League football match.

    TeniPurist - You make this later point: "Do you not consider how lucky Miss French is? At being able to put all her time and energy into a sport that doesn't even pay her enough to live on?"

    If that concerns you, then we're going to have to do away with a lot of Olympic sports. Many elite athletes in this country, across a great number of sports, are able to put their time and energy into that sport by virtue of public funding alone, occasionally allied to private sponsorship. They certainly aren't living off direct earnings from the sport, even the most successful in some sports. Gymnastics, canoeing and hockey spring to mind as sports where Britain do very well but I highly doubt anyone could do it on the sport's proceeds alone. Once you get to UK Sport-funded weightlifters and handballers, the ratio of success to funding looks particularly bleak.

    Now those athletes would all agree that they are lucky, but they also put in a lot of hard work in return for the funding. Equestrian sport is probably more expensive than those other examples but the same level of work goes in, and the financial shortfall is made up by more hard work attracting investors or running an equestrian business to generate the necessary profit (as French and others try to do).

  • Comment number 36.

    (last comment for now... promise... follows on from above...) Finally, as far as taking up the sport goes, I'm no expert as it's not something I've tried to do. However, the testimony of AerospaceMango would imply it's not the closed shop many people suspect it to be. I'd be interested to hear from more people on that front.

    All of this is not to deny that equestrian sport involves more cash than many other sports, or that it's a sport which picks up a share of its audience from society's upper echelons. But the former hardly makes it unique and it's difficult to understand precisely what the problem is with the latter.

    You can't play in the Premier League, no matter how much cash you've got, if you're not very good at football. You can't ride a horse at Badminton, no matter how much cash you've got, if you're not very good at riding horses. You can play football even if you aren't rich, and you can ride a horse even if you aren't rich.

    And now, having written another essay, that'll do from me. I've no desire to take sides or join in a slanging match about who is or isn't a troll, but for my two penn'orth eventing is a sport, and a good one at that. For those who remain to be convinced, that gives me the useful challenge of trying to make it interesting enough to persuade you. I'll do my best.

  • Comment number 37.

    I agree with your points, Ollie, in your 3 posts above.....

    However, why don't we explore the phenomenon that is Katie Price (AKA Jordan!).

    This is a woman who said she wanted to make it big in Eventing, and has the money to do so. But without the natural talent, she cannot really move forward, with any speed, regardless of how much she spends on a horse. It is all well and good being able to knock out your own line of clothing, in hideous pink, but without the talent, your horse is not going to win!

    P.S. Can't wait to get back on a horse, in the sun, and ride out next week! It's been almost 2 months since I last rode, and I'm worried all those muscles will be aching again!!! (Thanks to padded shorts!!!)

  • Comment number 38.

    Interesting to note that from a spectator's point of view, eventing is one of the most affordable sports to go and watch live. £62.50 for four days of top level international competition at Burghley this year, compared to paying £65 for one day the last time I went to a test match and a similar amount for 90 minutes of international rugby or 80 minutes of international football.

    As a (very low level) participant the £20 an hour I pay for my riding lessons is also much less than friends pay for an hour of, for example, golf tuition.

  • Comment number 39.

    Thanks for the blog Ollie, but I'm bored of the ridiculous comments and arguments which have become about class and society and not sport.

    What professional sport isn't elitist? Don't tell me you think Steven Gerrard still lives in his nice council house do you? Sport offers huge rewards, but demands time, commitment, finance, etc. Look at the mileage and sacrifices that Tom Daley's parents have done to enable him to be where he is.

    Also, why should every sport be open to everyone? Would you dare to tell Dame Tanni Gay-Thompson that she doesn't deserve her medals because not everyone can do what she does? Of course you wouldn't - so why the double standards?

    So please comment on the eventing. Really good to see Jakata do so well at Badminton and thanks for the insights in to what is enabled to get that far. I can't ride and undoubtedly never will, but really appreciate commitment, sportsmanship and excellence, and she seems to be striving for all of those, so I hope she gets to the Olympics and does well.

  • Comment number 40.

    Poor Piggy 1st landed with nickname of Piggy during Childhood by a loving sister which has stuck for life and 2nd all her success and hard work dismissed as an activity for the idle rich.
    Frankly I don;t care if it is or isn't; To be a champion in any sport requires hard work, dedication, determination and COLD HARD CASH I just want someone British to do well - -Go Piggy Go
    Or if you prefer Go jakata Go

  • Comment number 41.

    Sorry guys Im not convinced, and nor do I agree with anyone who says I have no right to comment, or that I am an ignorant, completely wrong of you (kiwi000 etc,) to say that.

    Do you have to have tried every single item on the menu at an indian restaurant to be able to say you dont like it? Of course not.

    to say that I cant give an opinion of my impressions of the sport from what I have seen of it and my general beliefs about sport is complete tosh. It is clear that a lot of people here have had this argument before with people like me and are very used to defending the position.

    It takes no end of skill to all the things mentioned, but it is as much a sport for the masses as is Polo... I suppose now you are going to tell me that Polo, sport of the Princes, is a sport played by one and all? Oh look, another horse sport for the rich! come off it!

    My point was not about "what it takes to succeed in the sport" and whether people only made it to the top through having money (and therefore not by hard work), my point was that there are very, very, very few people who care to watch it, and with good reason.

    Most people have missed the point with what i was saying, quite catastrophically!

  • Comment number 42.

    TeniPurist - if there are "very, very, very few people who care to watch it", how can Badminton attendance be the largest sporting event in the UK and the 4th largest in the world. 2.5m people ride regularly in the UK and 17.68m people have an interest in non-racing equestrian sport (IMSM March 2011). Can that many people really be that wrong?

  • Comment number 43.

    There are two types of rider: the full on professional who usually has a stable full of horses, a good example of this is William Fox-Pitt, he has around 22 and various owners for whom he rides. He represents the absolute top level pf event rider. If he were no good he would not get the sponsors.He teaches and takes liveries to supplement income. He actually does come from a very privileged background; he was educated at Eton and his family are very wealthy. Years ago he would not have been alowed to compete in Olympics because he is a professional rider. There are others like for example Daisy Dick who has only a few horses and works for a living ( I think she is a biologist). She is an amateur and does not have the time to event full-time. Unfortunately struthruth the involvement of the likes of Zara Phillips and her mother from years ago have given the impression that eventing is a "toffs" sport. Whereas riding per se is available to most people, I think it's cheaper than learning to drive now, to compete at absolute top level you have to have a lot of cash. Talent, courage, fitness and of course ability are needed but let's not be disingenuous - I have never met a pauper at Badminton, Burghley or Blenheim. It is very popular as a spectator sport and as a pure Olympic sport horsemanship goes right back to the ancient Greek Games (Xenophon). It is very difficult to get a horse around a four star track, so horse and rider must bond and be equally fit and be up for it. To the sport's detractors I say this: you try it, you will not make it to the first fence but I also say you need plenty of spare money from some source to get you to the top.

  • Comment number 44.

    Can I just add a couple of points?
    I am not a toff nor am I by any stretch of the imagination, rich! I have not been bought up in a privileged background, nor have I been exposed to the ‘horsey’ set in my formative years! However, I attended Badminton this year for the first time and whilst I cannot pretend to have understood all the rules etc I had an absolute blast! I have to concede that the social aspect was a large part of the reason I went, having previously had very little interest in horses/racing/Eventing etc. In fact, I don’t even think I knew really what Eventing was! I do now!! And I have to say I am amazed and impressed! The camaraderie, the hard work, the beautiful animals and the fantastic relationship between horse and rider made this weekend very special. As a complete hater of sport, I went with an open mind, with no pre-conceptions (or prejudices!) and I learnt lot about this sport and can now appreciate the hard work and dedication of these Eventers. To say that this is not a sport, or indeed to say that the main skilled action is performed by an animal is, quite frankly, short sighted. A horse is a living animal and has a temperament and personality! To cultivate a relationship between human and animal to the extent that the horse will respond to, and even pre-empt, an instruction is nothing short of amazing.
    The top footballers get accolades and paid exorbitant amounts of money to kick an inanimate object around a pitch for 90 minutes and that is called sport. A rider takes a living, breathing and sometimes cantankerous (!) animal around a difficult cross country course and it is decried as ‘a few toffs messing about with their expensive hobby?!’
    I don’t profess to be an expert in either football or Eventing but having been to a football match and to Badminton, I know which one impressed me more!

  • Comment number 45.

    A good article about a dangerous and misunderstood sport.
    I make my living photographing equestrian events and spend a lot of my life at these events. I come from an housing estate in Yorkshire and had nothing to do with horses until my daughter became interested. Equestrian sport in the UK is easily accessible to all. There will be events from local riding club level up going on every weekend all over the UK with tens of thousands participating. For those who want to find them. www.britishshowjumping.co.uk, www.britisheventing.com , www.horsedrivingtrials.co.uk http://www.pcuk.org , www.britishshowponysociety.co.uk www.nationalponysociety.org.uk . Thats just an hand full of the affiliations plus there are thousands of unaffiliated events.(most towns have a few riding clubs ) +County and Agricultural Shows,. Where it struggles is the lack of spectators and the myth that its for the rich. Equestrian tends to be a participant sport rather than a spectators sport and spectators plus media coverage are needed by all sports for sponsorship and other funding.
    When I first started I remember talking to a top up and coming young show jumpers mum assuming they were a wealthy family. It turned out the mum worked as a lorry driver to fund the horses. On another occasion I had one customer on the Times UK wealthist list followed by a girl who had just finished the night shift in a biscuit factory.. That type of mixed demographic is normal at equestrian events.. Talk to the last British Show Jumping Olympic Team members, they are all very easy to meet and talk too, a few sentences from them will debunk the myth that they come from some privileged background..
    There are plenty of opportunities to participate in equestrian at an hobby fun level but the amount of work involved at riding at the top level is phenomenal. My daughter had a go and realised it was much easier to build a business and sponser somebody else with that exceptional talent and devotion to do it than do it herself. Nobody would suggest building a business from scratch is easy. This image of rich toffs socialising with good food on an idyllic sunny day is soon dismissed when everybody is wrapped in horse blankets to keep warm, the food is from the trailer that spends the week in a lay bye on the A5, horses have to be schooled, exercised, mucked out, groomed and fed, it hasn’t stopped raining for 3 days and your living in an horse box for weeks on end to get some competitive rounds, And thats what you are working 12 to 15 hours a day 7 days a week back at the the yard to get too..Yes it does help if your from a wealthy background but where doesn’t it? And there is a part of UK society that have the privilege of been horsey and attending public schools as a part of there standard up bringing but to get to international level takes a lot more than that.
    A bye the bye on an earlier comment, Show Jumpers think Eventers and Dressage competitors have all the money.

  • Comment number 46.

    This has been very interesting and I think may of the contributors have more than proved that equestrian sport is available to many. However,I still stand by my opinion that to reach the very top you must have loads of ready money. Mary King, a rider whom I admire greatly and who has just won the Kentucky Four Star, has been competing all her life and at forty nine she really is the epitome of a woman totally dedicated to her sport. She never gave up eventing after she had her children and is a regular member of team GB; likely to win a medal next year. She surely encompasses all that is positive about three day eventing, you would hardly call her a "toff" but she has owners and sponsors without whom she could not have such a choice of super horses,although some are home bred as well.

  • Comment number 47.

    It's been interesting reading all these comments. I can understand why people who haven't tried it, may not think it's a sport or all you need is an expensive horse and money to get to the top. As I am a horse rider (and owner) I know this isn't necessarily true, the above example of Katy Price is a very good one. I am 16 years old and my parents are by no means rich so the theory of it being a "toffs" sport is incorrect. Horse riding is an accessible sport; show jumping, eventing and dressage however, not so much as you are limited by the need for your own horse. As for needing an expensive horse, if you are an able rider it would help but if you weren't good enough to handle such a horse you wouldn't have a chance. I own 2 horses and ride/show another for her owner. My show jumper is showing amazing potential, clearing 1m50 with ease, you wouldn't think i'd gotten him as an abused race horse for £900. So it is possible to find an amazing horse who isn't expensive, you just need to know what your looking for. I think all equestrian related disciplines are sports, hours of training are put in, the dedication is unparalleled, it is demanding physically and mentally. What makes it more difficult than other sports is the fact that it's a team sport, but not between humans. The partnership between horse and rider is amazing. Trust is essential.

 

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