What we learned from our Hickstead course walk with William Funnell

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The renowned British showjumper on navigating big arenas, his tips for competing on grass and riding at the Longines Royal International Horse Show.

Text Susanne Madsen

If you speak to course designers, many of them will tell you that the level of riding they’re seeing nowadays means that they constantly have to think of new technical challenges to keep riders and horses on their toes. For the Furusiyya FEI Nations Cup at Hickstead presented by Longines, Kelvin Bywater had certainly come up with a pretty tricky track. Hickstead’s International Arena is a mouthful in itself, but the big ring and its formidable jumps were made even more interesting by some complicated turns – the first one as early as fence number two, a gate, making it hard for riders to get into a nice rhythm, as William Funnell explained ahead of the class when we he gave us an exclusive tour of the course.

Having won the Hickstead Derby in 2006, 2008 and 2009, Funnell certainly knows his way around Hickstead. For horses who aren’t used to coming here, he explained, it can be slightly overwhelming. There’s plenty to look at for starters, from the large parasols shading the Longines VIP area bordering right onto the track to full-sized, narrow-ish planted birch trees you’re sometimes required to ride in between, as it was the case at the FEI Nations Cup. And then there’s the massive water, where course builders tend to like to put a big vertical or combination immediately after to test riders’ ability to get their horse under control and get it jumping up instead of long and flat.

Before Hickstead’s famous Longines clock started ticking for the Nations Cup (and Germany won with just four faults and such ease that Ludger Beerbaum didn’t even get to ride as his teammates Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum, Janne Friederike Meyer and Patrick Stühlmeyer all jumped clear in the first round and Stühlmeyer only got four faults in the second), we got some tips from William Funnell on how best to navigate Hickstead – and big, outdoor arenas in general.

Start as you mean to go on

“We all tend to start a little quiet sometimes and then you risk having [a pole down] because the horse is not really up and in the rhythm. So a few riders will be a bit slow and perhaps touch the back pole,” Funnell said of the first oxer.

The Earth is not flat – particularly at Hickstead

“Riders who don’t ride at Hickstead a lot don’t realise there’s a gradient. You know, when you go to a lot of these sand rings, they’re dead flat. The character of the Hickstead ring is when you look at the gradients up and down the hills, how much the horse needs to be at a balance there,” Funnell explained.

Beware the exit

“Here, the horses jump quite a lot of jumps, so when the course requires you to canter past the exit, a lot of the time the horse starts to think, I’m nearly home,” Funnell noted. “So you need to pick the horse up and say come on, there’s one more fence, don’t drop off the bridle and leave me. You need to make sure he’s there and he’s focused on you, between hand and leg is where you want him.”

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