Gallop to Gatcombe

PUBLISHED: 10:43 17 July 2013 | UPDATED: 12:05 16 June 2015

If you’re after thrills, skills, speed and excitement, then The Festival of British Eventing, presented by the British Equestrian Trade Association offers it all. Taking place on the weekend of August 2-4, it’s one of the most-anticipated events of the equestrian calendar. “But you don’t have to love horses to enjoy the fun”, says event director Tim Henson. “There’s entertainment enough to put a smile on everyone’s face.”

So, Tim… time for the annual Festival of British Eventing at Gatcombe Park, and things are looking fantastic in the equestrian world – there were record crowds at Badminton Horse Trials this year!

I really am excited and, yes, Badminton was totally awesome. Jilly Cooper couldn’t have written the story! I cannot believe that Michael Jung rolled that pole at the end: it isn’t over until it’s over and everybody thought he’d won. [The 2013 Badminton title was snatched from Jung by Jock Paget and Clifton Promise in a spectacular finish.] But – hey – if it was easy, there’d be no point in doing it! And yet, afterwards, Michael was so honourable in defeat, which is what makes it such a nice sport.

Are we still benefiting from the Olympic legacy?

The Olympics raised equestrian sport in people’s minds generally – not just the awareness of it but because it was so visual at Greenwich Park. And when people are interested in what you’re doing, it does make the sport more vibrant. It’s like riding the Severn Bore! Everybody is with it; everybody gets carried away, and that’s good. That’s not just true for us, as a team: it’s true for our sponsors; our public; our trade stands; our competitors; our volunteers. Everybody enjoys it when it’s fun and exciting: that’s what sport is all about.

So who might we see riding at The Festival this year?

I love our roll of honour – it reads like a Who’s Who of eventing! If I look back at past winners, I can see Andrew Nicholson, Daisy Berkeley, Ruth Friend, Mary King, Clayton Fredericks, William Fox-Pitt, Mark Todd, Blyth Tait, Andrew Hoy… There’s no reason to suggest they won’t be coming. And Zara? I’m not saying she’s going to ride in the British Eventing Open Championship but she’s ridden here every year she’s been able, so I can’t imagine she won’t be here either.

Rumour has it you’ve a very special equestrian guest as part of the main arena entertainment…

Absolutely. On the Sunday (August 4), we’ve a guest appearance by National Hunt legend Kauto Star, who will be taking part in a ‘retraining racehorses’ demonstration. There’s lots of other entertainment, too, of course. New this year is our fast and furious scurry driving: ponies and small carriages doing a course that demands speed and accuracy. It’s great entertainment: you’ve got a driver, and a groom who stands on the back of the carriage, counterbalancing round corners. And there’ll be the ever -popular dressage to music; Ye Olde Red Tail Falconry Display; and – of course – everybody’s favourite: the Shetland Pony Grand National.

And there’s the shopping village, too.

Yes – the interesting thing is that you don’t have to love horses to want to come and enjoy The Festival. One of the best letters we ever had was from a lady who wrote: “Thank you very much for a fantastic event. I came on Sunday and my only disappointment was that I so enjoyed the main arena attractions, I forgot to go and watch the cross-country.” Genius! It’s a horse show: the lady came and she loves horses but she never got to see one. And that’s what a good event should be: truly something for everybody. It’s about putting smiles on people’s faces.

The event has been awarded further recognition this year, gaining international CIC*** status. Does that mean we might get to see even more international riders?

We’ve always accepted international riders but this really places us on the international eventing calendar. In technical terms, it’s significant as regards the qualifications that riders can achieve at our event: they have to do a certain amount of these events to move up to the next level. In practice, it means we’re likely to see more international riders who aren’t permanently based in the UK.

One of the great joys of Gatcombe Park is that nature designed it specifically for eventing… We know that now, don’t we!

I think it’s probably the best and most picturesque cross-country viewing in Europe. The best vantage point has to be a spot in the park bowl. I don’t know of a better place where you can sit, watch, and see so much tension. It’s not only a fantastic natural amphitheatre; but you’re overlooking the water-jump and guaranteed the best seat in the house. Whoever built here knew what they were doing; it is one of the most beautiful spots I’ve ever been to.

It is also, of course, a working farm, home of HRH The Princess Royal, which adds to the richness of the environment.

It’s an interesting scenario. We don’t come in and just say, ‘Right! We’re here; this is ours now!’ I met Matthew Aspinall, the farm manager, last week and we discussed grazing patterns, movement of stock, and when we need to take tenancy of each piece of land. We don’t need the car parks or the caravan sites until we get closer to the event, of course. Throughout the whole time, Matthew and I work together, hand in glove.

It might surprise people to learn that you live on the family farm in Lincolnshire. How does that work in terms of planning – and how did you get the job in the first place?

Oh, the wonders of modern communication! If you were going to set up the event now, you wouldn’t run it with an entries secretary in Devon, an administrative secretary in Yorkshire, an event director in Lincolnshire, and the event itself in Gloucestershire… but it works because everyone knows their job and we all know each other extremely well. This is my 17th year: Mark [Captain Mark Phillips, who organises the event jointly with son, Peter, and who designs the course] took a big leap of faith when he employed me. I had been involved in Burghley and Bramham International Horse Trials, the Windsor Horse Show and what is now the London International Horse Show, but jobs like this just don’t get advertised. I rang up Captain Phillips – whom I didn’t know at all well - and said I’d like to come and see him, and it all happened from there. In life, these opportunities appear and you just have to act on them.

Are you a rider?

Err, no! Not in terms of eventing. I rode full-time right up until I joined the army and then didn’t ride for more than 20 years. My wife, Lucy, is a three-day event rider, which is how we met; and we’ve now got two small children – Olivia, 9, and William, 7 – who’ve both got ponies. I didn’t want to get left behind so, this time last year, I bought myself a horse again. It’s great fun!

The Festival of British Eventing on August 2-4 takes place at Gatcombe Park, Minchinhampton GL6 9AT

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