Cross-country wow factor: No easy ride at Luhmühlen

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Captain Mark Phillips points out a feature of one of the water jumps on the cross-country course at Luhmühlen.
Captain Mark Phillips points out a feature of one of the water jumps on the cross-country course at Luhmühlen. © Jane Thompson

Kiwi journalist Jane Thompson takes a cross-country drive around the four-star course at the Luhmühlen International Horse Trials, along with course designer Captain Mark Phillips.

The cross-country phase of the three-day-event takes place on Saturday, and Phillips took the wheel of one of the courtesy Land Rovers to explain his work and put in a final inspection. Phillips has been course building at Luhmühlen for about ten years, although he wasn’t exactly sure: “It’s been a while!”  he said, as we drove through one of the water jumps!

Luhmühlen course designer Captain Mark Phillips inspects a frangible fitting on one of the skinny obstacles.
Luhmühlen course designer Captain Mark Phillips inspects a frangible fitting on one of the skinny obstacles. © Jane Thompson

The first fence is only 60 metres from the start box, and he is asking the competitors to get into a rhythm quickly.  The first big spread appears, and he says that riders “have to make sure they are into the right gear early!”

“I have put a lot of the spreads off the turn so the rider has to balance the horse.”

There are no fences where the rider can just gallop into them.

Safety has been a huge focus this year, and the whole course has been designed with this in mind.  Last year’s tragic event is still fresh in everyone’s minds. Phillips has put in a new type of safety device on one of the skinny fences.  The release device is in the front of the back element of the fence, and this part of the fence is also on hinges, so if a horse hits it with pressure, it will give.

When asked if he is already thinking about what he will do with the course next year, Phillips said that “he can only think of one thing at a time” and will wait to see how it rides, but then added that “there are a few fences which have reached their sell-by date, so I have been thinking this will be their last year”.

Building a course requires many visits. Phillips was on hand to supervise all the fences being put out three weeks ago, and he was out many times before that.

The first water comes up at No 5. He has given riders a nice alternative because “normally waters don’t come up as early as this one.”  He thinks that 90% of the field will go straight, although taking the alternative will lose riders only about 5-6 seconds.

Checking the footing.
Checking the footing. © Jane Thompson

Riders are also asked to be patient in many places. “While they can easily take out strides, in many places this would be the wrong thing to do as the next fence will come up wrong. Riders will need to have a nice jump over the first parts to get the strides. I think I have been kinder this year, putting in five strides in places rather than four.”

The time will obviously be one of the influencing factors but Phillips thinks that “good horses and good riders will do the time easily”.

There are some fences where the horse has to jump in towards the trees (which there are many).  “Fences are always easier if there is daylight behind them. Trees make it harder, and riders have to be in control.”

There will be four and a half minutes between riders. This has been carefully planned. “I spent a long time working out the timing so that horses don’t overlap,” he said. The course twists and turns back on itself in several places, and imagine how disconcerting it would be to find yourself galloping flat out towards one of your rivals! With the big gap, this won’t happen.   “We have the possibility of catching up if we do get hold-ups.  We could go to three minutes between horses if we had to.”  TV schedules also have an influence on the timing of the event.

The second water has a different shape and a lot of the trees have been taken out.  The reeds have been retained, and there are six efforts in a short period of time.   There are seven strides from the hedges coming in to the log, then four strides across the water, up the step, bounce the hedge and a quiet five strides to the next two elements which will require one stride between.   “So many efforts will lose time, and it is more of a gymnastic exercise.  Riders will not be able to make up time here!”  The alternative involves jumping 9A backwards and going around the island.

Andrew Nicholson reckons the final fence should not be a problem.
Andrew Nicholson reckons the final fence should not be a problem. © Jane Thompson

There are also two fountains in the water which will continue to run during the competition. “There is something about horses not seeing water in the shadows. Horses see in contrast. They see out the side, so for narrow fences, they see it with one eye and see wide open spaces with the other. With water in shadows, they don’t seem to see it well, but we don’t know why, we just know it causes issues. Moving water seems to be better for them so we have put the fountains in to keep the water moving,” Phillips said.

The combinations on time should be in to the arena to tackle the fences in there within eight minutes.  The turns into the combinations need to be shaped.  “Good people will make these look easy.”

There are plenty of fences which will tempt the horse to go for the gaps.  Phillips predicts that one or two horses “will have some interesting moments!”

As to which fence Philllips thinks may cause trouble, he hopes that there is no one boogey fence but thinks the last combination will be a big challenge for tired horses and riders.

“They have to take time to have a good canter before they get to the fence.”

As Andrew Nicholson just happened to be at this fence during the tour, we asked his opinion. “No, this isn’t the trickiest fence and no, I won’t be taking the alternative!”  (as if …)    Phillips joked that perhaps Andrew may think the DHL beach fence was the hardest as that fence had caught him out in the past.

There is about a minute of galloping through the woods where there has been a lot of work done on the ground. The ground is mainly sandy, which is great if there are downpours or wet conditions, but it does dry out very quickly.  The course is being watered.

As to his predictions, master-of-the-understatement Phillips wouldn’t be drawn into saying more than “Michael Jung is always competitive!”

Fountains help keep the water moving to improve the equine view of the obstacle.
Fountains help keep the water moving to improve the equine view of the obstacle. © Jane Thompson

Images below © Jane Thompson

Jane Thompson

Jane has always had a keen interest in horses, and was an active competitor in equestrian events from her early days until the late 1980s. » Read Jane's profile

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