Friday, November 21, 2014

Blair Castle International Horse Trials

Show jumping at the Blair Castle International Horse Trials
A competitor in show jumping at the Blair Castle International Horse Trials.
Set amidst rolling hills in the Scottish highlands, the Blair Castle International Horse Trials are the biggest equestrian event in Scotland and one of the biggest in the United Kingdom. Competitors range in age and skill from schoolchildren and amateurs to Olympian and world champion levels.

A young competitor at the Blair Castle International Horse Trials
A young rider approaches the challenge  . . .
A young competitor at the Blair Castle International Horse Trials
attempts to place the box on the pile  . . .
A young competitor at the Blair Castle International Horse Trials
but ultimately has to dismount to stack it.
Rider at the Blair Castle International Horse Trials
An adult competitor charges through the cross country course.
The annual horse trial -- 2014 marked its 26th year -- takes place over four days in late summer. On Thursday and Friday, the top-level riders complete a dressage test, with half the field on the first day and the other half on the second day. All the competitors compete on Saturday in cross country, riding a course more than 3.5 miles in length with roughly three dozen jumps (fences, walls, etc.). Then on Sunday, the riders compete in show jumping, a tight course of high fence jumps. Though the competition lasts four days, each rider only competes on three of those days, and hence the horse trials are often called "three-day eventing."

Wooden horse sculpture
A life-size wooden sculpture available for purchase.
Besides the top-level competitors, the horse trials include many other equestrians, from Pony Club games to adult enthusiasts to professional riders. Their cross country course follows the same path as the elite riders, but with easier and fewer jumps; their show jumping involves lower and easier fences. Meanwhile, with a country fair incorporated into the event, there are hundreds of vendors selling gear, clothing, food, crafts, furniture, and sundry other items. More than 40,000 spectators wander freely amongst the hubbub. Also, dogs are welcome and so many attend that the horse trials become nearly a dog and pony show. Ba-dum ching! Thank you, thank you, I'll be here all week.

{Ed.'s note: Don't try too hard, buckaroo.} 

{Ed.'s note: Ba-dum ching.}

Main entrance of Blair Castle
The front entrance to Blair Castle.
Hosting this massive event is Blair Castle and, at least nominally, the current (12th) Duke of Atholl. The castle was opened to the public in 1936, with 30 rooms available for touring. The castle grounds include 145,000 acres of gardens, woodland, farm land, and moor land. The wooded hills and castle serve as gorgeous backdrop for the event, with the horse trials nestled into hundreds of those acres. Many spectators take a break from the action to tour the castle and its grounds.
Blair Castle as the backdrop for show jumping
Blair Castle as a backdrop for the show jumping.

Attendance at the trials isn't cheap. The gate price per person for one day is £15 on Thursday or Friday, £25 on Saturday, and £20 on Sunday, three pounds cheaper if you buy in advance. Grandstand seats cost another £12 to £22, depending upon which day. Parking is a further £5-6. And the horse trial tickets don't include the £10.50 entrance price to tour the castle. In addition, there isn't much hotel or B&B space in the area, so many hardcore attendees end up camping on the grounds, which costs anywhere from £130 to £256 for two people. If you wanna go all out, you can rent a "luxury yurt" for three people for £1,115.

We attended only on the Saturday of the trials. The castle is roughly two hours from our house, so we got up early and arrived just after the gates opened. Parking was easy. I'd reckon that getting out at the close of the day would be a long wait, but we left in late afternoon, part of the blessing/curse of having a toddler who can endure only so much.

Kate grew up an equestrian, though she hasn't ridden much since her early college days. Her Our main interest was the cross country riding. She might've liked to see the dressage, but that finished the day before. I think that watching even 15 minutes of dressage would've been hell plenty for me. We did watch a bit of show jumping, but a ground-view vantage point is great for the few jumps in your vicinity and only meh for the many others farther away.

Horse crash
Horse crash! Did the rider survive? Did the horse? See here.
Watching cross country isn't exciting, per se, in my estimation. But it is very pleasant. The horses cover more than 3.5 miles on their circuit, though in many places the course turns and folds back near itself, so if you place yourself right you can get a close-up view of one or two jumps and a decent view of several others. The only exciting -- and scary -- moment I had during the horse trials was witnessing a horse crash. I provided a photo journal of that crash in an earlier post, but here's what it looks like at the midpoint:

Between each horse/rider is an interval of a couple of minutes, so you watch intensely for 15-20 seconds and then have time to chat. This is a tailgating event with the occasional passing athlete. Kate says she could happily sit at one or two spots all day, watching and chatting. Which is believable, except she'd likely also fade into a multi-hour nap, undisturbed by the cantering thump of hooves passing by.

My favorite part is walking the course, tramping from one jump to the next, to the next, to the next. It's a gentle stroll in the countryside, with food trucks providing coffee and snacks.

Jumping a log fence into water
Jumping a log fence into water.
Jumping a brush fence
Leaping over a brush fence.
Keyhole jump at Blair Castle International Horse Trials
Only the route for the most advanced riders directed them through the keyhole jump. The next two photos are from the same obstacle:
Barrel jump
Jumping a barrel.
Leaping up a bank from a water obstacle
Leaping up a bank from the water obstacle.
Drop fence at Blair Castle International Horse Trials
"Drop fences," in which the horse has to land on ground lower than where it leaped, can be difficult because the horse may balk if it can't see where it'll land.
Wooden wall jump
Rather than a log or rail, this jump is a (temporary and movable) wooden wall.
Riders have to be careful with the horse's stride as they come downhill and jump. The narrower jumps are for more advanced riders.
Vegetable table horse jump at Blair Castle International Horse Trials
The final jump required the eventers to leap over a table of potatoes.
Three-day eventing derives from the kind of work that military horses used to endure. Those horses needed to show grace and equanimity for parades; strength, speed, and bravery for battle; and endurance and careful training for the various duties around camp or on the march. The modern horse trial tries to honor those attributes with the controlled dressage, the vigorous cross country, and the precise show jumping.

We spent most of our time watching the cross country. But we did take the opportunity to watch some show jumping, as well. You're better off watching show jumping from a grandstand or -- best of all -- on television. Nonetheless, the show jumping always seems to draw the biggest crowds, so what do I know?

Blair Castle as backdrop for International Horse Trials
Blair Castle served as the backdrop for the show jumping arena.
In 2015, Blair Castle's horse trials will serve as the European Eventing Championships. Many of the world's top equestrians will be in competition. For the British, whoever places highest at the event will go on to represent the U.K. at the 2016 Olympics.

The 2015 horse trials will run September 10-13, a bit later than Blair Castle's usual August dates in previous years. Tickets are already selling fast. In the two months since tickets have been on sale, the event's "membership" level for spectators has already tripled the number from 2014. While the biggest sporting event in Scotland this year was the Commonwealth Games, the European Eventing Championships at Blair Castle will be 2015's biggest sporting event, eclipsing even the return of the British Open to the historic Old Course at St. Andrews.

FEI European Eventing Championships at Blair Castle, 10 - 13 September 2015
Book your tickets now for 2015's biggest European equestrian event.

For more on the Blair Castle International Horse Trials, see:

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