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Q&A with International Cross Country Course Designer Eric Winter

Eric Winter is a former 5* event rider and is now one of the world’s most respected cross country course designers. As an FEI International Level Designer and A List British Eventing Accredited Course Designer, Eric boasts an impressive CV.  After designing the courses at Blenheim Palace Horse Trials for 10 years, Eric got the call up to design Badminton’s 5* track in 2017. 

He has also designed courses for the European Championships for Ponies, Juniors and Young Riders, so Youth Performance Manager, Darrell Scaife, sat down with Eric via Zoom to put questions from some of the riders on the BE Youth Programmes. 

What makes the ultimate Championships course – is it the height or the technicality?


The height of the courses make very little difference. There is actually only 10cm difference between 1* and 5* - so it can’t be about the height. The top spread is greater, but it’s the technicality and the ground you use. There are bits of ground that are 5*, some 3* etc. and so it’s the steepness and how you link the fences. To me cross country has to be about terrain and how horses travel across the terrain. Championship courses have to tick all boxes for me, it’s about the rhythm of how those courses come up. 

As you go up the grades you have to make decisions about how your horse is travelling, how your horse goes and react accordingly. I like to see riders making decisions and your rider has to adapt in the middle of distances. To me with all courses it’s about education, it’s about how much you [the rider] have to make something happen and educate the horses and yourself to react.

As you go up the levels, at what point, and how, do you move from a track being educational to it testing horse and rider?


Education comes through all the way for me. To me 5* is an education. It’s education all the way through but it’s also test all the way through – it just depends how good you are at each level.

Do you think riders pay more attention to the dressage and show jumping phases in everyday training?


A little bit yes. Education doesn’t come about from just running on the best going over the nicest course in the world that encourages great riding, education sometimes come from going in the mud and up and down hills. 

It’s a sport about the relationship between horses and riders. We often see that relationship come through when we see a rider take their horse through Pony Club, Young Riders and then they go to Badminton – that is not so evident in dressage and show jumping, but it’s really evident in eventing. 

The training is really important to me. When I started at Badminton it’s that [the training of horses] that I really wanted to influence, I wanted to really think about the way we taught horses to travel across the country, I thought I could make the sport safer and the riders better and the horses better. 

Frank Weldon, Badminton’s first course designer, was quoted saying that cross country is 70% rider and 30% horse, do you think those ratios still stand?


To me it’s very much about rider and horse relationship. It’s about the trust between horse and rider and the way those two build together. 

What are your principles that would help make tracks more educational for a partnership?


I don’t like formulaic design. I’m not a fan of having one flat piece of ground to do a specific type of exercise, I like to mix it up in different places. To be a course designer you’ve got to let the ground talk to you. Think about how your questions are going to work there and what you want to do that is the best education for your horses. For riders it to learn to ride in balance - allow your horse to travel and use it head and neck, so it can balance and organise itself. To me in my courses, those are the things I want to try to educate. If we can do that with all courses, that would be a great thing.

When you design a fence do you imagine yourself jumping it?


It’s me riding it in my mind. I go through it in quite a lot of detail to get a feel for it. Sometimes you’ll have fences that you’ll just keep coming to, but it just doesn’t feel right. You’ve got to be prepared to come back and change things. 

It must be exciting to go to a blank canvas and start a course from scratch. What are your thoughts on it and where would you start?


I always start with a thought process just about the ground and what it is and then I design the course I want to do, and then I look at what I’ve actually got. I think about how I can get to where I want to with it. Some places can be very restrictive, and you have a very limited track and can only work within that track. 

Normally when you start with a blank sheet, you give space to where you’re going to show jump, the car park, places you can do dressage, because they are key things. And then you look at the start and finish, it’s always the hardest bit. Once you’ve jumped five or six fences it’s really simple, it’s your imagination and what you want to do. But when you’re at the start and finish, you have to start them off in a really positive way and control their pace at the end, so that they are flat out in a straight line. The start and finish has also got to fit in with the rest of the event. 

After that it’s just fill your boots! It’s great fun and I love those blank sites.

How would you describe the flair you would put into an Eric course?


I could go to a bowls course and I’d still find a hill on it! I always look out for those little bits of ground and I get a feel for every little lump and bump. 

What is your plan for Badminton next year, will it be the course that was meant to be used this year? 


I was really excited about this year! I had changed the course on the Vicarage Ditch line, significantly. Nobody actually saw or walked the course this year, so I think we’ll play around with it a little bit, but intrinsically it’s a very different track to anything we’ve had a Badminton before, and it changed the spectator experience. It’s much tighter together so it left less room for spectators to flow, but hopefully gives you more positions where you can stand in one place and watch two or three fences. 

How do you become a course designer? Do you have to have ridden at 5* to design at 5*?


No, I don’t think so. A lot of top-level designers have never ridden at that level. You have to have a bit of prior knowledge, so go and spend some days with a course designer. To start with just be involved and find an inroad - go and work with a course builder to learn about measurements and construction of fences.

British Eventing have a designated pathway to becoming a course designer, find out more HERE.