My Week: Mark Phillips

Mark Phillips Course Designer, Burghley Horse Trials
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

I leave London at 6.30am and drive to Cheshire to see the horse trials at Henbury Hall. I am interested to see the American riders who are coming to Burghley. One of my jobs is coach of the US Equestrian Team. Back to London in the afternoon as my daughter, Stephanie, has been ill in hospital. I spend the rest of the day with her.


Get up early, and am with Stephanie back at the hospital by 7am, then I drive to Burghley for 9.30am. Burghley, along with Badminton, is one of the biggest three-day events in the world. This year there are 80 competitors from nine countries. This is my 10th year as course designer of the cross- country course. My job is to design the 45 fences and position them along the course. Each year I try to change a quarter to a third of the course to make it different for the horses, riders and spectators. Sometimes I simply change the route.

The course must be ready for inspection by lunch time tomorrow. Today, I make the final touches and adjustments to the course. This involves placing the television cameras, checking the decorative flowers that surround the fences, raising and lowering rails, moving flags and any other last-minute details.

I finish by 7.30pm and end up staying in Burghley. I meant to drive back to London to see Stephanie, but it has got too late and she will be in bed.


I finish any further adjustments to the course this morning and then, between 2pm and 5pm, the grand jury check it for approval. They ensure that the fences are safe and that the dimensions are appropriate. It is not the size of them but where you put them that's important.

All the fences are difficult. Some involve jumping up, others down, some in water and some out of water - a whole number of different things, really. We try to be fair to the horses and yet test the riders' skills at the same time.


In the morning there is a competitors' briefing and then all the riders get to look at the course. I go along with the US riders. They need to walk it at least four times before they can determine where to jump and how fast to jump.

In the afternoon the vets and the jury look at the horses to make sure they are fit and sound. In the evening there is a safety meeting. Two weeks ago at Thirlestane Castle horse trials there was a fatality. We look into the reports from this to see whether there is anything to be learnt from the event. My daughter returns home from hospital today, so I am very relieved.


Today is dressage day and the first day of competition. I am helping out with the US riders - watching the horses and helping them to warm up. The dressage is a set test that is the same format for all international events. Each test lasts eight minutes and, as with figure skating, there are set movements to be completed in a set order.

There are 22 movements in dressage and each movement is given a mark out of 10. The final positions cannot be calculated until . The marks for the dressage are added to the cross-country on Saturday and then these are added to the show-jumping on . Each rider competes on the same horse for each of the three phases.

I do another walk of the cross-country course with a bunch of riders. We then catch the last of a cocktail party that the event hosts every year.


Today is a same-again day; another dressage day. I am looking at some of the horse and rider combinations with an eye to the Sydney Olympics next year. We have one or two people that are not going to win, but they are getting the experience they need to become better for next year.

Most of the riders are also thinking about Saturday. It is the biggest day for them as it is the most difficult, and 180,000 people come along to watch. The speed is of the course has been calculated at 570 metres a minute. For every second over the 12 minutes and 24 seconds that the course should take, the rider gets penalised, with one extra point added onto his dressage score. If they have a refusal they get an additional 40 penalties, and if they fall off they get 120 penalties. This is the equivalent of being 40 seconds or 120 seconds slower on the course.

I can empathise with the feelings of the riders. I rode internationally for 20 years, won the Burghley Horse Trials in 1973, and came second in 1975 and 1976. Morale is high at the moment and I hope it's still high on .

Interview by

Nathalie Curry