CCI**** events are designated by the FEI (International Equestrian Federation) as the highest level of eventing competition. There are only six of these four-star events in the world: Rolex, USA; Badminton and Burghley, United Kingdom; Luhmühlen, Germany; Pau, France; and Adelaide, Australia.
The FEI requires CCI**** competitors to be highly qualified, which guarantees that when you watch a four-star, you will see a spectacular sporting event. Organizers realize they are dealing with the elite of the sport, and they make their plans accordingly. Cross-country and show-jumping course designers know that plain-vanilla courses will not be suitable and put their best foot forward with their course designs. Most important, the riders know they are in for a hotly contested competition, and they bring their "A" game. You can see why CCI**** events are catnip for fans.
In many ways, these events are exactly alike. FEI rules for them are very specific about the dressage test; the height and spread of cross-country obstacles and the speed and distance of the course; and the speed, height and spread of the show-jumping course.
In addition, variable weather is always a factor at these events. The five Northern Hemisphere four-stars take place when the seasons are shifting from spring to summer or summer to fall. This means the weather can change from day to day, and the wise spectator packs accordingly.
Despite these similarities, each of the five events has a unique character and feel. Over the past year I've attended four of the five, and I'd like to give you my perspective on them. I was training horses competing at each, so I had the unusual vantage of seeing things going on behind the scenes yet enjoying the spectacles as they unfolded for the public.
I worked with my horses in their final dressage warm-ups yet could watch everyone else's horses compete. This allowed me to indulge in the time-honored practice of substituting my judgment for the dressage judges'—to their detriment, of course. I had to walk the cross-country and show-jumping courses carefully because riders were depending on my advice for competitive success, yet I was able to sit back and watch the whole field jump. Most important, I was surrounded by fabulous horses, all in peak condition.
Rolex: Horse- and Rider-Friendly; Not So Spectator-Friendly
I'll start my summary of these events with my favorite, the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, the annual CCI**** in the United States. The late-April event is horse-friendly and rider-friendly, but not so spectator-friendly. Its site—the Kentucky Horse Park—is the largest of all, and its present layout means you need your walking shoes to savor the whole Rolex experience. Unlike at other large events, the shopping is some distance from the arena, and it will take a while to move from one to the other—in part because you will encounter people along the way that you see only here and spend a little time catching up.
Rolex is the "must" event for all aspiring North American eventers. Many of the riders currently competing there speak of coming to Rolex years ago and secretly deciding, "Some day I'm going to ride at Rolex." I mentioned that every CCI**** has its own feel; the character of Rolex is the Horse Park itself, with lovely green fields of Kentucky bluegrass and mature oaks. The KHP terrain has just enough rise and fall to enable cross-country course designers to make things interesting. The terrain in itself would be interesting enough to bring horses and riders from around the world; add to that a week of parties for riders and owners and you have a wonderful experience for the competitors. Several elite international riders have told me that while some events make you feel as if you are lucky to be there, Rolex makes you feel as if they are lucky to have you there.
Badminton: First Among Equals
The next event on my list is the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials—first among equals. This is the oldest of the four stars and to ride there is every eventer's dream. The event is held on the Duke of Beaufort's Gloucestershire estate with Badminton House, originating from the 17th century, as a majestic backdrop. The late 10th Duke of Beaufort said in his memoirs that while watching the three-day event at the 1948 London Olympics, he thought such an event would be a marvelous test for a foxhunter. The first Badminton Horse Trials took place in 1949, and the competition has been held annually ever since. (It has been cancelled twice due to torrential rains, in 1975 and 2012.) The surprisingly flat clay-soil terrain can have a material effect on the cross-country results, especially with the variable weather conditions in early May. In this year's perfect footing and weather, the cross-country score sheets would have you believe the course was too easy for a CCI****. Conversely, in cold rain and deep mud, the scores will suggest that the course was too difficult.
I consider Badminton first among equals for several reasons.
History: No other event can match its longevity.
Selectivity: Its reputation makes it an annual destination event for all the elite riders in Western Europe, joined by resident Australians, New Zealanders and occasional visitors from North America. This causes Badminton to use a qualifying system in addition to the FEI regulations that produces the most elite field in the world, plus a wait list almost as long as the accepted entry list and almost as highly qualified (84 horses and riders started in this year's field). In effect, Badminton annually matches the best with the best. The old saying is that it is not what you win; it is who you beat to win it. If you win Badminton, you have won by beating the rest of the best.
Number of spectators: The size of the Badminton crowd is so startling that riders rarely perform well their first time at Badminton, unless their name is Mark Todd or Jonathan Paget. These two New Zealanders are the only riders in Badminton's 64-year history to win their first attempts. And speaking of crowds, the trade fair wraps around the main arena, producing a steady hum of activity throughout the competition. The hundreds of thousands of spectators on cross-country day can produce monster traffic jams on the small lanes leading to the venue, but the traffic patterns are well planned and bring the crowds in and out with surprising efficiency.
Burghley: Disneyland For Eventers
Part of the reason I think of the Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials as Disneyland for eventers is due to Burghley House itself. It is a 16th-century Elizabethan house—I say "house," but it took from 1558 to 1587 to build it. When completed, it contained more than 100 rooms. In the 1700s, landscape architect Lancelot "Capability" Brown laid out the landscaping of the surrounding grounds. These features remain part of the cross-country course today, and Capability's Cutting is usually an influential obstacle.
Burghley is the newcomer on the British eventing scene, dating from 1965. The cross-country course uses the land close to the main house and the competition arenas, which makes for a spectator-friendly experience. The terrain has a surprising amount of rise and fall, which can make it difficult for horses and riders to establish a galloping rhythm.
The first and only time I ever galloped up to Capability's Cutting, I admit to losing my focus slightly. There was a brief "Wow, I'm actually at Burghley" moment before I woke up and got back to the job at hand. This was in 1983, and by then I had been trying to get to Burghley for nearly 20 years. Because it is held in September, the entries at Burghley can change depending on the international calendar. I think part of the reason I placed fourth is that most of the European riders were getting ready for the European Championships, which are usually held a week or so later. But a CCI**** is the pinnacle of eventing, and the winners there can hold their heads up in any company.
Luhmühlen: A German Beer Garden for Horses
When I think of the Luhmühlen CCI****, I think of beer gardens and the smell of bratwurst cooking behind the scenes. Luhmühlen, with its small and intimate setting, has a very different feel from all the other four-stars. The stands in the main arena will hold only a few thousand spectators, and the trade fair is limited to a few high-end displays and stores, plus the obligatory tack shops.
But the small scope of the event should not fool you. This is the real deal, and it runs with typical German efficiency. This is necessary, because the Germans run their national CCI*** championships at the same time, which any organizer can tell you exponentially increases the scheduling complexity.
The terrain here is a nice mixture of open fields and mature hardwood groves, and the cross-country course designer usually takes full advantage of the variety of ground available to him. This can produce mixed cross-country results, because European riders quite often use Luhmühlen as their horses' first four-star experience. I often say that you never really know if you have a four-star horse until you run him in a CCI****.
Because the entries here are not as experienced as at some of the other four-stars I'm discussing, the results can show a greater variance. The crowds are smaller, but they enjoy their experience regardless. Anyone who has devoured a beer and a bratwurst for lunch on a warm June day while watching a Jumbotron in the middle of the cross-country course can be forgiven for thinking that other events could do with a few more beer gardens.
Pau: You Have To Want to Get There
Pau, officially titled Les Etoiles de Pau, is located in the southwestern corner of France, at the base of the Pyrenees. This is the only Northern Hemisphere CCI**** that I have never seen, but it is on my bucket list. Meanwhile, I asked one of my riders, Colleen Rutledge, for her firsthand impressions. Colleen and her U.S. Thoroughbred, Shiraz (Luke), are the only horse-and-rider combination in history to complete all five Northern Hemisphere four-stars. This is impressive enough, but when you consider that they did it with no cross-country jumping faults at any of the five events, it is a spectacular achievement.
I asked Colleen for her impressions of Pau, and here's what she said: "Dressage, cross-country start and show jumping are on decent footing, mostly bluestone. The warm-up for all is on a much nicer sand/fiber mix. The biggest drawback to this setup is that there is not really any way of getting the horses to be able to warm up for cross country on grass, so they never feel the ground, and it is a very different feeling on course. Sort of like Southern Pines [in North Carolina] but with lots more silt and manmade terrain. There also is a MASSIVE Jumbotron in the corner of the main arena, which caused a lot of horses to take serious offense."
Colleen adds that the cross-country course is flat and, at first glance, walks a bit easy—but the track's design makes it ride harder than it walks. She says the trade fair is extensive and close to the arena, and the community obviously makes an effort to promote the event. She closes with a reference to the "fabulous" crepes available. I was already keen to see Pau, and this just fortified my resolve.
The only drawback to Pau is that it is a very difficult place to get to; you really have to want to get there. There are no horse-friendly airports close to the site, which means a long drive (more than 700 miles) from the English Channel for foreign competitors. However, with the prospect of a four-star competition and fabulous crepes, Pau is a can't-miss event. Napoleon said that an army travels on its stomach, so travel to the southwest of France will have a reward waiting for you.
As you can see, each of these events offers its own unique reward, and I hope you are able to attend at least one of the five formidable four-stars in our part of the world.