Personally, I like to try to keep my horses calm at the start, so I usually just keep walking around, or perhaps trot or canter a circle, then back to walk, wait until the Starter says “3… 2”, walk in through the back of the start box, pop up to canter and straight out of the front on “Go”.
I watched quite a few horses start at 4*s last year, and it was interesting that most riders that I saw chose to walk into the front of the box and turn 180 degrees, then jump up to canter.
Horses get used to doing this at the bottom of gallops, and in my experience get very keen on it, anticipating the swing round and jumping off enthusiastically. I wonder if it gives them an instant adrenalin surge, and that’s why some Pros do it, saving vital seconds at the start, having the horse instantly on the ball.
I’ve been eventing long enough to remember when there wasn’t a gap in the side of the Start Box, it had three closed sides so you had no option but to walk in the front and turn 180 degrees, even if it didn’t suit your horse.
This was very exciting for a lot of horses and led to some memorable moments. A friend’s hysterically hyped-up mare, having already done the Roads and Tracks and Steeplechase at a big 3* event, bounced in through the front of the start box… and launched straight out the back over the white rail into the car park, narrowly avoiding cars and losing precious seconds, as they had to wend their way through the string to get back to the start, having already been counted down and out!
I’ve witnessed horses rearing (and in one case, going over backwards, mercifully beside the rider) and riders falling off due to startbox dramas. Some top horses have always been led in by a groom, sometimes on a rope (usually unclipped, just threaded through the bit rings so it can be pulled away at the last second).
Of course we’ve even seen them refusing to start, for instance Sharon Hunt’s brilliant but quirky Tankers Town at Badminton in 2009, when the attempts by the ground crew to force him to move just seemed to make things worse and worse until he totally downed tools. She ironed out the problems and won Luhmühlen 4* the year after, proving that however bad things might get, there is usually a solution!
Depending on your horse’s temperament (and how happy it is to leave its friends in the warm-up area and concentrate on the job immediately!) it’s always worth planning your start box strategy, and perhaps watching top riders to see what they do.
All photos by Katie Mortimore.