Badminton Horse Trials: The Unofficial Guide
Badminton Horse Trials runs in early May every year and is the opening spring four-star Horse Trials that marks the start of the eventing year in the UK. There are only six four-star horse trials in the world; this is the highest and toughest pinnacle of this demanding sport.
Badminton is run at the beautiful home of the Duke of Beaufort in Gloucestershire, Badminton House. The house dates back to the 1660s and the family connections with it are just as historic, although, the house that you see today is largely the result of rebuilding and improvement which took place in the 17th and 18th centuries. The first horse trials were held in the sumptuous parkland of Badminton House in 1949. It was instigated by the then 10th Duke of Beaufort who wished to help British riders prepare for the fledgling international sport of eventing. Television arrived in 1956 and the rest, as they say, is history.
What to Expect at Badminton Horse Trials
Badminton is a three-day event, but because of the number of competitors, dressage is allocated to two days, so there are actually four days of competition in total, starting on a Thursday, running through to cross-country on Saturday and the last day of show jumping on Sunday. Enthusiasts arrive on Wednesday to watch the famous trot up in front of Badminton House. This is to check that all the horses are fit and well before they start the competition. The check is conducted in front of a panel of vets. Just as eye-catching are the rider’s outfits; this is a very smart occasion.
The most popular day is cross-country day on Saturday, so you should expect very large crowds; somewhere in the region of a quarter of a million people will come to Badminton on that day to watch the thrills and spills!
The event has a shopping village which is to die for, every equestrian item you can think of and lots of stalls selling country clothing, gifts, fine art, and food. Some people come just for the shopping! Because Saturday is the busiest day of the event with regard to footfall, the trade stands are always packed. The best days to shop are the dressage days, which traditionally, are quieter.
What to Wear
It would be safe to say that the dress code is ‘smart country’ but you will need to wear something practical as the weather can be very unpredictable. Early May in Britain can bring all four seasons in a day so layering is the best option for comfort, and this means you can shed garments if it gets hot. Something waterproof, but breathable is a must and a wax coat for men or women with plenty of pockets is the ideal garment; this also makes the perfect blanket for wet grass for a seat around the cross country fences. Team this up with a wax gilet and you won’t go far wrong.
A hat is essential to ward off rain and also burning sun – May can be very hot – probably both. A waxed Bushman’s hat for ladies and a flat tweed cap for the gentlemen. And waterproof, comfortable footwear as you will be on your feet for a lot of the day and the cross country course is four miles long, so plenty of walking if you want to see a horse and rider over each fence.
Where to Stay
Badminton House is situated in the heart of the Cotswolds which is an idyllic location in the heart of England and a popular holiday destination in its own right. Good accommodation is booked from year to year over the horse trials weekend, so you will have to be quick off the mark to find some. This is a very rural area - one of the best and closest options is farmhouse Bed and Breakfast or renting a self-catering cottage. There are also some lovely village pubs which offer accommodation and dinner but again, these get booked up pretty far in advance.
There is a campsite at the horse trials and keen annual enthusiasts will book from year to year, either pitching a tent or bringing a caravan. This is a great way to stay on site and removes the need for driving backwards and forwards to a pub or other accommodation, but take note, spaces for the campsite sell out months ahead.
Tickets and Passes
You will need to buy a ticket and pay for parking on each day of the horse trials. Buying tickets and parking in advance makes it cheaper and if you are attending more than one day of the horse trials, it can be more economical to buy a special pass. A season ticket for the whole four days makes a lovely present for someone. But you can also just turn up and pay on the day.
There is no ticket required for the cross country which is accessible to all. There are viewing stands at certain fences such as the water and some people camp there for the day, seats are usually bagged quite quickly as this is one of the most popular fences. The dressage arenas and show jumping arena are surrounded by stands and there is usually one stand which is free to sit in, although it may not have the best view of the action. The free stands get very busy, particularly on the last day but you can buy a ticket for seating in the other stands and these have a better view for the dressage and show jumping.
Other DistractionsUnfortunately, the house and gardens remain private and are not open to the public, although, to be honest, there is so much to do and see down in the park that it is unlikely you would find time to look at the house as well, it does make for a fantastic backdrop.
There are lots of other events and displays that go on across all four days in arenas around the shopping village and the main arena. There are young event horse classes, cross country course walks with famous riders and interviews with the top competitors.
Badminton Horse Trials is an iconic lifestyle event and it’s hard to know which is the most superior, the location, the competition or the shopping. Go prepared to really savour all aspects of it and make it an annual ‘look forward to and feel good’ pilgrimage on your calendar.