Pippa Funnell, winner of Badminton, Burghley and multiple championship medals with the British Eventing team, has fears for the future of eventing.
The first-ever Rolex Grand Slam of Eventing winner issued a strong statement via her Facebook page in support of the iconic horse trials venues in the UK that have been forced to cancel for a second year running due to COVID-19 restrictions and uncertainties.
Locations such as Badminton, Burghley, Chatsworth and Bramham, have faced much criticism for cancelling their 2021 events, in particular after the Kentucky Three Day Event successfully ran without spectators in April when a crowdfunding campaign, organised by the riders, raised the funds required.
“Yes I understand Badminton, Burghley, Bramham, Chatsworth and Gatcombe’s reasons [for cancelling],” wrote Funnell, “I’m sure mainly being the financial risk but I feel very saddened riders, owners, sponsors etc. were not put in the picture, that we only knew once the official statements of cancellation went public. We are all wanting the same thing so surely we all need to pull together, who knows, there may be people out there with magic wands, the more of us looking the more likely we will find them.”
While financial elements played into the UK cancellations, there are significant differences in the infrastructure that made running Kentucky a different model entirely. Most notably, the UK venues are privately owned (or held in trust)—they receive no state funding for maintenance etc. and most survive on a financial knife edge. Unlike the Horse Park, not one is a permanent equestrian venue year round.
The main sticking point, however, is insurance. Despite significant behind the scenes efforts from riders such as William Fox Pitt to offer assistance, financial or otherwise, it is currently impossible to insure an event against last minute COVID-related cancellation in the UK. The UK Government has been implementing such measures at a few hours notice.
Funnell expressed fears for a future of 5* eventing without the “absolutely essential” role these UK horse trials, with their unspoilt, undulating terrain, play in preparing riders for the challenges of three-day eventing.
“There are many things special about our sport, the main thing is that we have such unbelievably beautiful locations, many hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people probably millions get to hear about, visit or watch on tv our sport in these Historical country Estates. It gives us an opportunity to see and be so proud of the beauty of these parklands. The changing terrains of these venues is what makes us and teaches us to be horsemen, that is part of the XC challenge not just jumping daunting looking fences, its [sic] being able to balance horses over different terrains. Before covid many riders particularly the younger generation steered clear of the likes of Gatcombe Park etc because it is so hilly, its [sic] tough to ride, they might be more likely to blemish their record and pick up 20 penalties but it is this which teaches us such crucial lessons more than practicing angles and skinnies in all weather arenas. It is the Chatsworth’s, Gatcombe’s, Bramham’s that prepare us and let us know if we and our horses are ready for the challenge of Badminton and Burghley,” she wrote.
“Please please let us preserve these venues. By dubbing [sic] down our sport horses will be ridden faster and faster, they will not have time to think, riders will take too many chances and risks and none of us want to see that. I would rather see less but properly prepared combinations at our top 5 stars, when they come back!! What will do our sport more damage than anything is seeing images of tired horses or horses and riders that shouldn’t be at a 5 star. That is why it is absolutely essential that there must not be an easy passage through, that rider’s get the chance to really find out if they and their horse’s are ready for the challenge. On a huge positive note lets all get behind The Jockey Club in their new role of running what will be our only top event this year, Blenheim Horse Trials.
In the UK this year, Blenheim and Blair will run 4* long format events but 5* shows are gone until 2022. On the European mainland, 5* Luhmuhlen in Germany will run behind closed doors next month, and 5* Pau in France is still scheduled for October.