Ian Stark’s cross country course is quintessentially Scottish, featuring the saltire, the Forth road and rail bridges, some ferocious looking haggis (haggi?!) along with neeps and tatties, and of course, kilts. It makes good use of the undulating ground at Blair, and not only will the horses need to be fit enough, so will the riders just to walk the course! Michael Jung, still limping after his fall at Burghley last week, was spotted out ‘walking’ the course on a segway – we wonder if he’d rigged the wheels up to measure the course at the same time!
The course starts on the flat in a valley over a simple flower box, beautifully decorated with a union flag on one side and the Scottish saltire on the other. The second fence is the now familar flower box between long-time eventing sponsor Mitsubish’s L200 pickups. Then the intensity starts, with a steep uphill run to the Whisky Barrels Spread at three, where the more direct left hand route is marginally larger. Continuing uphill, riders do a 360 degree loop round a tree for 4a, b and c, three houses with heather roofs. This is the first accuracy question, since riders have to ride a curving left hand loop and the final element is a skinny.
After a short galloping stretch, the Olympic Legacy fence is situated at the top of a sharp rise, and will catch out the unwary and underpowered, or those who come in a bit flat. There is then a long gallop through the woods to fence 6, an upright white gate approached off a sharp left turn. This may cause problems for horses which aren’t totally focused, since it requires them to turn out of the woods on very few strides.
Heading further uphill, we come to the Leaf Pit Drop at 7, which is related to the first water at 8. Riders come off a large drop at the top of the hill, and then can either run straight down the hill to a one stride double into the water, or can loop in an S shape over the alternative. If horses come off the drop or down the hill too boldly, we anticipate them having issues with both the straight route and the turn to the first element of the alternative.
Fence 9, the Silver Birch Oxer, is a let up fence, and though it’s jumping light to dark into the woods, we don’t foresee any issues here. The track then runs through the woods and starts to descend, bringing us to fence 10, a skinny tree trunk. This is approached downhill and requires the riders to angle the fence, making the chance of a run out to the left quite likely.
Fences 11 and 12 take in the second water. The direct route is a large oxer running steeply downhill into the water and over a skinny fence of fishheads, then out over a bounce step up to a fish. Riders can opt for the alternative at 12, which takes them right handed over a step up to fish this time on one stride.
There’s another let up at 13, where a large table is decked out for a picnic, however Ian Stark has cleverly situated this at the top of a short sharp uphill run. There is then a short gallop to the castle wall and canon, where the wall of the ha-ha has been clad in wood and a ramp built to create a ditch palisade effect. Since the horses land a couple of feet below the height of the top of the fence, it will be interesting to see how they cope with the unexpected landing point. There is an alternative canon for those who land in a heap or have a bit of a stumble.
Fence 15 is a total work of art, featuring nine foot high carved stags heads flanking a hanging long on a downhill slope. We don’t anticipate this causing many problems, but if a tired horse leaves a leg, it could tip an unwary rider out the side door.
Riders then go through the woods and downhill to enter the main arena where two big open corners wait for them. On exiting the arena, they quickly come to the sunken road fence at 17, where a brush arrowhead tests accuracy over undulating ground.
The third water comes up after a long gallop, and relates fences 18 and 19 to have riders jumping over the Firth of Forth rail and road bridges, including a skinny ‘new bridge’ in the water and a large brush corner on a right hand line out.
We’re now back down in the valley, and the course continues over a steeplechase fence and then up the final climb to the Haggis, Neeps and Tatties at 21 and 22. This is an incredibly tricky fence, where riders jump some upright ‘neeps’, then jump a fierce looking haggis at the lip of a hill so steep we struggled to walk down it, let alone cantering a horse down it! 22 is a skinny arrowhead tattie box, where we anticipate more than one ‘fly by’.
Back down in the valley, the remainder of the course is largely flat, but relatively intense. At 23 and 24, a classic coffin combination, riders can opt for an incredibly time consuming option at 23 to allow them to tackle the ditch and rail out separately. Those taking the direct route will have to hope their horses don’t launch off the bank over the ditch, as this will make them very wrong for the rail out.
A large trakhener at 25 is a let up fence at this level, and leads riders on to a hanging keyhole. A very kind groundline largely obscures the ditch here, but one or two may take a peek.
Fences 27 and 28 are offset brushes very reminiscent of those found in the Discovery Valley at Burghley. We’re confident that this week even William Fox Pitt won’t get lost here, given how tightly strung the course is. Those on tired horses would be well advised to turn a circle between these two fences, as the angle is acute and runouts here are inevitable.
We then come to the final fence, the Longines Final Fling, featuring kilts, to finish what will be a true cross country test.
Our coverage from the Longines FEI European Eventing Championship is brought to you by Sportzvibe massage rugs from Horseware. Read our reviews of the Sportzvibe Horse Rug here and the Dog Rug here and here.