The Gatcombe Horse Trials

PUBLISHED: 10:45 19 January 2010 | UPDATED: 08:56 21 February 2013

Princess Royal

Princess Royal

Back in 1984, the Princess Royal and Captain Mark Phillips gaave the equestrian community a valuable gift when they established the Festival of British Eventing. The Gatcombe event is now a highlight of the sporting character.

THERE are special congratulations due this year to one of the Cotswolds' most prestigious events. For Gatcombe Park Horse Trials are 25 years old.

The official title for this highlight of the equestrian calendar is, of course, the Festival of British Eventing; but formality is far from being its hallmark. The 40,000-odd visitors who flock through the gates each year come to watch their favourite riders in action: but there's no doubt they also come knowing they'll see famous faces at their most relaxed, including the Princess Royal herself.

Those who know the green valley which runs through the Gatcombe Estate will testify to its innate tranquillity. The grass that grows here is the same as any other grass; the slopes up which it climbs are typically Cotswold; and the green of the leaves is much like any other green. But the sum is more than its parts; for there's a different feel to Gatcombe Park; something indefinable that sets it apart.

Tim Henson, director of the Festival of British Eventing, has said in the past, "The odd thing is, Gatcombe has an aura created by its natural geography; and even at its most frantic, that feeling of peacefulness and calm persists."

Perhaps that's why it's no surprise to meet the Princess in her office, at the back of Gatcombe House, looking natural and at ease; happy to talk about the landmark anniversary of the horse trials.

Indeed, the serenity of the place (surely a relief from the public side of life in the limelight) makes it all the more extraordinary that, in 1982, the Princess and Captain Mark Phillips decided to open up the grounds to stage their own horse trials. The reason was simple: it was a way of giving something back to a sport that meant so much to them.

"I can hardly believe it is 25 years since the horse trials began," the Princess says, with a wry smile. "It sounds even worse if you say a quarter of a century!

"Oddly enough, it wasn't a big decision to open up the grounds. The debate we had was how much we should use Gatcombe as an advertising tool. In the end, we decided not to sell the trials on the basis of the house at all, which is slightly six and two threes; but I think in retrospect that probably hasn't made a huge amount of difference: people who come here know what they're looking at."

Undoubtedly they do. For visitors get to enjoy an uninterrupted view of the Bath-stone edifice of Gatcombe House, the Princess Royal's private residence. Its fine symmetry is a tribute to an 18th century architect. The natural amphitheatre behind which it stands (a perfect setting for horse trials) is a tribute to nature alone.

"There are those who, I suspect, always come out of sheer curiosity; there are those who now come because they think it's a reasonable venue and they like being able to watch the sport; and maybe some might come just to do their shopping!

"Hopefully, though, you're always bringing in a few extra new people to appreciate the sport. Funnily enough, whenever I manage to get time to go to our small merchandising operation, I find three quarters of the people there have never been to a horse trials before, which is quite fun."

Whether first-timers or old hands, there's nothing quite like the thrill of watching top competitors in action - riders who, over the years, have included Mark Todd, Ginny Leng, Lucinda Green, Pippa Funnell, Andrew Hoy, Mary King, William Fox-Pitt, the Princess's own daughter, Zara Phillips, and many more.

This is the public face of Gatcombe. But behind that faade, not many visitors are aware that an incredible 500-plus volunteers are instrumental in putting on the event; and it's those people in particular that the Princess Royal is acknowledging in this anniversary year.

For that silent volunteer workforce is an essential element in the successful formula that has allowed the Festival to gain a unique status in the eventing calendar. Not only has it grown in terms of sheer crowd numbers; it now includes all levels of the sport: novice, intermediate and advanced (also known as the British Open Championships).

"The volunteers are extremely important in terms of what they allow us to do - things you couldn't do, to be honest, if you had to pay for them all," the Princess acknowledges.

"I do occasionally meet people in other places who say, 'I'm one of your fence judges!' I think it's because they feel part of the process, which is as it should be."

Of course, there are the less glamorous jobs too, known as the 'menial tasks': painting, hammering in posts, putting up signs, marking and closing off certain areas with string. In the early years, while Captain Phillips was busy with the course design, these are the jobs the Princess (never afraid of hard work) picked up herself, with the help of her children and various groups of friends.

"Peter and Zara have both contributed a lot of time and effort to the menial task division over the years. Peter now runs a bunch of his own mates, which is a bonus as far as I'm concerned. It means I no longer have to walk around the roads doing stringing!

"It has also been fun, particularly for Peter and his old school friends. While their careers and their sports have taken them in different directions, this is a way of keeping in contact."

As the Princess sits in her office in casual jeans and canvas top, it's easy to picture her getting stuck into these far-from glamorous jobs. In her autobiographical book about her life with horses - Riding Through My Life - she refers to her ability to leave formality behind and 'muck in', as if it were the most natural thing in the world. As children, she writes, "We were always expected to do a certain amount with the ponies before getting on and after getting off. That usually meant putting on the saddle and bridle and cleaning the same afterwards... I happen to think that if you're going to be involved with horses, you jolly well ought to learn that they're not bicycles, and if you can't be bothered to do the tacking up and preparation yourself, you shouldn't be involved with them. Because life's not like that; it's not that simple."

But if you ask the Princess about the elements that have led to the Festival's success, she wouldn't think of mentioning her own contribution. "You have to say most of that comes from Captain Phillips's experience and his course building," she says. "People like his work and they know he can build challenging courses. If they jump around Gatcombe, they've got horses that can probably go anywhere. That reputation, which he started with here, has since seen him building courses all over the world."

Indeed, the Captain nowadays is in great demand, particularly in Australia, New Zealand, the USA and Japan. On this, Gatcombe's 25th anniversary year, he is treating the cross-country course to a major revamp, with changes that include cutting out much of the car park loop. It is well known that he particularly relishes the estate, with its 'bowl' effect, as a setting for his courses.

The Princess is more pragmatic: "If you take advantage of the whole of the layout, the horses have actually got to be very fit and, in modern terms, that's not quite so popular. They don't tend to go quite so far as they did in the old days - they whinge about it!"

So how do the riders enjoy Gatcombe?

"You're asking the wrong person," she points out. "I've never ridden here and I don't think I ever would have done because riding at home is always a difficult thing to do: horses are easily distracted when they know where they are.

"You'd have to ask the regulars why they come back, but it's certainly a different environment from other horse trials. As riders come into the park, they're suddenly faced with lots of people, which can be difficult for the horses.

"The only other place I can think of that has quite that impact is Chatsworth, which has always had big crowds. I know that, when I was starting, Alison Oliver (the Princess's trainer) wanted me to ride at Chatsworth. She always said that if you went well there, the chances were the horse would go well at Badminton. Badminton was very much about dealing with the crowds as much as the fences; you had to be able to ignore the spectators and just concentrate on what you were doing."

The Princess's own riding career began when she was two, with a small pony called Fum. And while riding has been far from her only focus, her natural talent has undoubtedly enriched her life. She has spoken of how it allowed her to compete on equal terms with others; how it has led to her meeting people she would never have come across in other circumstances. Horses, she has written, "are no respecters of reputation or ego and certainly not of wealth".

At 21, the Princess won the individual European Three-Day Event at Burghley, as well as BBC Sports Personality of the year. Among other achievements, she gained medals at the 1975 Three-Day Event Championships in Germany, and was a member of the British team in the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games.

She even enjoyed a short career as an amateur jockey in several National Hunt races.

But if her fine abilities as a horsewoman have hit the headlines, her other 'career' has not been so extensively covered. Yet the work the Princess carries out on the farmlands she owns is a vital part of her life - and it's far from unaffected when the horse trials are in full flow.

"People don't always think of Gatcombe as a working farm," she acknowledges, "and there's no reason why they should. In fact, a lot of people don't ever stop to think about the inconvenience of horse trials in terms of trying to farm land at all; but there is always a level of disruption. I'm not the sort of landowner who wants to look at an empty field and cut it with a machine every now and then, so that is a balance we have to strike."

The rare breeds the Princess keeps - White Park cattle and Wiltshire Horn sheep - are ideal for grazing the unimproved grassland in which her 730-acre estate is rich; while pigs roam some of the 200 acres of woodland. "They're Gloucester Old Spot. I couldn't really have anything else, could I!

"The woodland is an important part of Gatcombe. In fact, I suspect part of the peaceful aura of the place is due to the amount of woodland we have here. I get the joy of flying round here in a helicopter rather a lot, and I see plenty of woodland in the area - but it's quite often in strips along sections of the valley. The person who designed Gatcombe Park left banks of trees which, I suppose, some people might have been tempted to take out. We have a block of it, which is unusual, and it undoubtedly has a sort of calming effect."

Even during the horse trials weekend?

She laughs. "If you thought about waking up here and being able to look out onto that peaceful view, you'd imagine the answer to be 'yes' - but it tends not to be when the event is on because there's always somebody out there. When someone decides to walk their dog at night, it's more a case of, 'That's where my dogs go for a walk! Too late! Go back home to your caravan!'"

In the 21st century, of course, staging public events isn't just about encouraging sport. For farmers like the Princess, it's also about diversifying, and trying to educate the public about the problems the agricultural industry faces. "There's a challenge to being able to maintain places like this - whether you believe they ought to exist or not," the Princess agrees. "There's a constant cost, which farming now doesn't really pay for as it did in the past.

"I think a lot of people fail to understand that. We have a shoot here and people tend to think, 'What an antisocial habit! Why do they all shoot on Saturdays?' or whenever it is. But that's an important part of the income, and it's still barely washing its face."

It's obvious that events such as the horse trials do more than one job. While they are undoubtedly supporting sport and competitors, they're also a way of trying to reconnect people with the countryside. In fact, the estate is open several times a year. There are craft fairs in May and October, and the Princess also runs her own 'little Gatcombes' in March and September.

These 'one star' events are particularly close to her heart. They're very much geared to the novice and intermediate levels, and this year they'll provide an opportunity for riders to qualify their up and coming horses for the French Le Lion d'Angers International in October.

"That's the sort of thing it's nice to be able to do: to fill in a gap in the calendar that is useful to the riders in terms of qualifying. I'm not sure I understand the qualification - it didn't use to happen in my day - and from a course designing point of view, I shall need a bit of help to understand what it is they're looking for. It will be an interesting challenge to me to get the balance right."

And are there still gaps in the calendar? Is there more she'd like to see done for the sport?

"It's the balance of levels of competition during the year which is still not quite right," the Princess says. "You tend to get the build-ups to Badminton and the summer competitions, and then Burghley, and then there's a bit of a blank spot.

"I think the quality generally is rising at all venues, but not everybody can afford to run the higher level competitions because, actually, they don't make any money. You can run the lower level competitions and get lots of people in. Anything above that and you're pushing your luck: you get fewer horses round because they take more time, and you need more expensive courses. So the trade-off is that you get fewer at the highest level of competition simply because of the costs involved."

Is there an answer?

She smiles. "Sponsors!

"Keeping the sponsors keen has always been a challenge and, of course, that depends on factors such as how much the television is involved; and how popular the event is. Certainly from big Gatcombe's point of view, all that is absolutely key to making it work. It doesn't matter how good you think you are; you've still got to maintain a level of interest and enthusiasm from the sponsors.

"Judging by the look of it, we're not going to run out of competitors; but the growth in competitors is at the lowest level, and I think the challenge for all sports associations is not to get too carried away with the bottom level. You have to make sure that the steps up are there, and that they're proper steps. But you can't expect everybody who starts at the bottom level to proceed up the ladder: that would be neither convenient nor appropriate."

Which rather brings to mind a phrase from the Princess's book: "I would have to say that I am a strong supporter of the 'It is not the winning but the taking part' school of thought," she writes, "partly because I seemed to learn more from my 'failures' than I did from my occasional successes, but also because it encourages participation."

Sport, she says, is about tolerance, the need for rules, and discipline: it reflects life itself.

"Above all, when an individual decides to take up a sport, it should be for fun."

The Princess Royal and Captain Phillips gave the sport of eventing a valuable gift when they established their horse trials 25 years ago. Gatcombe provided something professional, vital and long-lasting; and, above all, a quarter of a century later it still retains a great spirit of fun.

  • The Festival of British Eventing takes place from August 3-5 at Gatcombe Park, Minchinhampton. As well as top competition from the best riders and horses in the country, there will be a full timetable of entertainment in the arena, including daily shows from the daring Devils Horsemen Cossack riding display; Gus Dermody and his sheepdogs; dressage to music; the Shetland Pony Grand National; displays from Riding for the Disabled and Natural Horsemanship as well as the traditional parade of hounds. Shoppers can also enjoy 120 trade stalls. For more information and discounted tickets, visit or phone 0871 7891423.

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