The MARS Badminton Horse Trials is always a highlight of the equestrian calendar, and this year’s event was one for the record books in several ways. From Caroline Powell’s first win here at the age of 51 and being the fourth consecutive female winner, to working rider Lucy Latta’s stunning debut that saw her finish second and Alex Bragg’s leap up the leaderboard to third from 51st after dressage.

It’s not all about the final scores and finishing positions, though. Spectators witnessed brilliant horsemanship (like cross-country leader Tim Price’s summary of going fast safely); learned some useful insight into preparation (Ros Canter hacking rather than schooling); witnessed remarkable comebacks (Bubby Upton’s recovery from a broken back), plus the sad announcement that this was the last time we will ever see William Fox-Pitt gallop out of the start box at this level.

Here are some of the best things I saw and heard while reporting at the famous Gloucestershire CCI5*L over the weekend.

Female winning streak

Caroline Powell is pictured with the trophy at Badminton Horse TrialsFemale riders have lifted the Badminton trophy ever since 2018:

  • Jonelle Price in 2018
  • Piggy March in 2019
  • Laura Collett in 2022
  • Ros Canter in 2023
  • Caroline Powell in 2024
    (Badminton was cancelled in 2021 & 2022 due to Covid)

Interestingly, since Mary King won on Star Appeal in 2000, there have been 10 female winners (including Mary) — three of these wins being Pippa Funnell (in 2002, 2003 and 2005). The other 11 winners were male, with the last man to win Badminton being Andrew Nicholson riding Nereo in 2017. Badminton has been cancelled four times in this timeframe, in 2001 (foot and mouth year), 2012 (because of wet weather) and the two Covid years.

Caroline’s victory: patience pays off!

I’ll be honest — I didn’t see Caroline coming! Did you? Speaking to other journalists and spectators, it seems I wasn’t the only one. We really should have though. Caroline has finished in the top 10 regularly over the years, and won Burghley in 2010 with the great Lenamore.

This time Caroline’s winning mount was Greenacres Special Cavalier. They were at Badminton last year and had two stops on the cross-country. They did complete — Caroline schooling around to give the horse confidence — and they finished dead last. Fast forward 12 months and they finished dead first. Now that’s a journey!

“I had a bit of stick for it, you shouldn’t actually school around Badminton!” said Caroline with a smile. “Last year was such a big step for her and the first time she had been in this atmosphere. After her second stop, I thought I’d hack home and see how far she goes and she finished, which is great. She had a great time and then this year she knew where she was.

“She does react to the atmosphere but lately she’s started to relax in front of the crowd and instead of getting tense she’s now quite rideable.”

Schooling at the Lake

Talking of cross-country schooling, we saw a flash of it from Ros Canter too. After Izilot DHI (‘Isaac’)’s run-out at the Lake, she jumped the two triple brushes and cantered away quietly for a short distance before raising her hand and retiring. It meant the horse — whom she later said spooked badly at the crowd by the Lake and lost focus — finished on a positive note and will have benefitted from the experience.

“Isaac has always been a very spooky horse so this was always going to be a big ask,” said Ros. “He’s only 11, so relatively young, and I’m not disappointed, I’m really not. I know what an amazing horse he is and I know what he was like as a young horse and the journey we’ve been through to get here.

“We’ll try to expose him to some more five-stars without the crowds of Badminton and then maybe come back with a bit more experience.”

Bubby’s emotional comeback

I told my Dad that Bubby, 25, couldn’t walk let alone ride a few months ago, and he wasn’t convinced until he heard the British rider talking about her recovery on Badminton TV.

Achieving 10th place here on Cola some nine months after breaking several vertebrae in her back is remarkable. She suffered a fall when riding on the flat at home and needed surgery. Doctors warned that she may not walk again, let alone ride. Unsurprisingly, she was very emotional yesterday, as were her team and people watching — I even saw some wet eyes in the media centre.

“He has been truly phenomenal all week,” said Bubby of the 14-year-old gelding she started riding in 2017. This was their third Badminton completion. “When I look at the past eight months and put it into perspective, what we’ve gone and done — it’s a win for us.”

Inspirational working rider

Imagine packing up your desk on Friday afternoon and then finishing second at Badminton the following week. Well, that’s exactly what Lucy Latta did! She piloted RCA Patron Saint (‘Paddy’) into second place. The Irish rider is a full-time brand manager for White Claw, a drinks company, and a one-horse rider.

As if that wasn’t impressive enough, Badminton was her five-star debut and she pulled off the fastest cross-country clear of the day (just one second over the optimum time) around a course that caught out some of the world’s best. Surely she’s caught the attention of Ireland’s selectors. Might her see them in Paris in a few weeks’ time?

“Eventing is my second job, so I look at it as if I have two jobs and do them both to the best of my ability,” said Lucy. “I think I’m going to have to call my boss and get tomorrow off. I hope she was watching!”

Lucy comes from a very successful horsey family. Her grandfather William Powell Harris competed at Badminton and Burghley in the early 1970s and was reserve for the 1972 Olympics in Munich. Her cousin Elizabeth Power has completed Badminton four times while her cousin Robert won the Grand National in 2007 on Silver Birch. Paddy has been living with Elizabeth in the build up to Badminton, so that she could help keep him fit and prepared.

William Fox-Pitt’s first mare

William finished 13th on Grafennacht and revealed that she is the first mare he has ever ridden around Badminton. This is a memorable fact when you consider that he first competed here way back in 1989 (34 years ago!) and has racked up 26 completions (including this one) since then. He’s a two-time Badminton winner too (in 2015 with the stallion Chilli Morning and 2004 on Tamarillo).

“I’ve never ridden a mare at Badminton in quite a long time,” confirmed William. “She’s a cool horse, anybody could ride her. Whatever you’re asking, she’ll always have a go. She seems to know where she’s going; she seems to have walked the course and I don’t have to pull the reins, so it’s quite easy.”

Interestingly, the 12-year-old British-bred Grafennacht who is by the leading sire Grafenstolz was born by embryo transfer. She is owned by Amanda Gould and was bred by Susan Eggleton. As well as being the first mare to carry William around Badminton, she will also be the last, as he confirmed his retirement from top-level eventing at the final prize-giving.

William retires 

While it is sad that William won’t be riding at this level anymore and we will miss watching him, thinking about all that he has achieved over his lengthy career is a happy occasion. Numerous 5* and three-day wins; so many medals won on the European, World and Olympic stage that I can’t list them all here (plenty of them were gold); being the best-placed British rider at the Rio Olympics just months after suffering a brain injury in a cross-country fall that left him in a coma.

“This is it. I won’t be coming back to Badminton,” confirmed William. “It’s a tricky one to say but I’m 55, I’ve had a great time, I’m in one piece and I’m lucky to be in one piece. It’s time to find a new habit.”

Armada dishes

William was very clear that he is retiring from the top level only, and he will continue riding and competing young horses. So we’ll still be able to watch him riding at one-days. Grafennacht will continue with a new rider.

The mare had six showjumps down on the last day and dropped outside the top 10. So it wasn’t a fairytale finish for William, but pulling off his 26th Badminton completion and collecting his fifth Armada dish is very special all the same. (Armada dishes are given to riders for every five Badminton completions.)

I started working in equestrian media in 2008. During my six-year run at Eventing magazine, I wrote about William a lot. He won so often that I remember briefly considering whether a plain report headline of ‘William wins yet again’ would suffice (of course it didn’t). I had to get the thesaurus out to find ideas for new adjectives to use. He has always been a journalist’s dream, providing good, insightful quotes. Thank you, William!

Price’s great horsemanship

We already knew that he is one of the greats, but Tim Price’s summary of riding fast across country in a way that is safe and kind for the horse was so clear and easy to understand, and shone a positive light on the sport of eventing and equine welfare.

“It’s tricky because you have to manage the horse and their stamina, but ultimately you want to go clear and fast to put yourself in content,” he said. “I was thinking I want to be one of the top two or three fastest rounds of the day, whether that is inside the time or not. You can’t go faster than what they’re willing to give. It’s about giving your horse a good trip so that they keep going for you.”

Being fast across country isn’t just about speed and how fast you gallop. It’s about being smooth. William Fox-Pitt alluded to it when he said he didn’t have to touch the reins during his round on Grafennacht. Every fence slows you down. So if you can keep travelling to fences and your horse is quick to come back to you and listen rather than pull or argue, you don’t waste any time.

It’s also about landing and riding immediately away. Not spending several precious seconds getting yourselves back together. The direct routes count too. William went long at the Dew Pond, for example, but Tim didn’t — and it was the latter who was lying first at the end of the day, with William in second.

Hacking pays off for Ros

There were a few surprised faces when Ros Canter, who led after dressage, said she hadn’t schooled Isaac at home over the winter, she took him hacking instead. This was music to my ears! Our #Hack1000Miles challengers will love this, I thought! It’s a great example of how much can be achieved outside of an arena.

“I haven’t done anything with him in the arena at home over the winter. He’s done a lot less schooling and in the run up to this I boxed him to local places to do his work,” said Ros. “He frightens me in the arena, particularly in the winter, so I kept avoiding it. Then I went to a training session and all I’d done is hack him for six weeks, but he went really well.

“I thought I’d keep going with it for a bit and it’s just continued,” added Ros. “Obviously when they’re young horses you have to teach them things but Isaac knows the job. He loves to hack. It settles him as he can look and use his eyes out hacking which is what he loves to do.”

I love the honesty of this. Personally, I hate getting on a fresh horse in the arena, especially in winter, and I’d much rather go hacking. As an amateur who these days mostly hacks and will never jump more than 3ft again, I’ll feel less sheepish next time I say I get nervous riding in an arena, thanks to Ros.

Emily King’s first Badminton completion

This was the fourth time that Emily King has started at Badminton, but only the first time that she has finished. She hasn’t had the best luck here. The year that particularly stands out is 2016, when she dazzled in the dressage on Brookleigh to lie second overnight (behind Michael Jung, no less). They were having a brilliant cross-country round until they reached the penultimate fence, where Emily fell off.

Emily has top-level success in her genes — Mary King is her mother, after all — and she made a promising start in 2019 when she finished fourth at Pau on Brookleigh. It was the 15-year-old Valmy Biats who carried her to fourth place at Badminton this year.

“I don’t normally get to speak to you after the cross-country and it’s great,” Emily told the press after the second phase, with a huge smile on her face.

Leaping up the leaderboard

Lucy Latta was 46th after dressage, and climbed 44 places to finish second. Really impressive, but her climb was slightly shorter (yes, really) than British rider Alex Bragg’s, who went from 51st after dressage to finish third. That’s a 48-place leap up the leaderboard.

These two riders actually finished on the same final score — 45.2 — but Lucy pipped Alex to the runner-up spot courtesy of being closest to the optimum time (0.4 and 7.6 time-faults respectively).

Quindiva nearly didn’t run 

Alex’s podium finish came aboard Quindiva, but just a few days before travelling to the 5* it wasn’t certain she would be able to run.

“It’s been a tricky build up with her. Mares at this time of year can be a little bit sensitive and delicate and right to the Friday before Badminton we were still unsure as to whether this was going to happen for us,” explained Alex. “I have to say a huge thank you to the vets and all my team at home, and the physios because they’ve done magic work and stuck with it.

“Diva arrived here and you could tell she was a little bit lively and sharp before the dressage, but we all knew it was going to be a jumping competition. How the week developed, changed and unfolded — one of the most exciting shuffle arounds ever,” added Alex. “It’s very tough doing this job, so when you get good moments it’s nice to enjoy it.”

Even the sun came along!

This is just a glimpse of what unfolded over the last five days. I’ve written this in no particular order; everyone mentioned was really deserving and there are many more things I could tell you, but I have to stop somewhere. This year’s MARS Badminton Horse Trials was a week packed with remarkable moments, leaderboard surprises, emotional achievements and generally a lot of fun. Even the sun came along!

Images: copyright Photography by Shelley/Your Horse

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