The first ever FEI European Eventing Championships to be held in Scotland get under way at Blair Castle today.
With 60,000 people expected to watch around 80 horses and riders from 15 nations take on the infamous hills of Highland Perthshire and qualification for the 2016 Olympics in Rio hanging in the balance, the competition is a very big deal for Scotland.
The Blair team fought off bids by Germany, Poland, the Netherlands and Belgium to host the championships which are very much a Scottish affair.
The course designer is Borders eventing veteran and five-time Olympian Ian Stark. The event director is fellow Scot Alec Lochore, who was in charge of the eventing at the London 2012 Olympics and there is also a local competitor. Fife rider Wills Oakden, 25, is making his senior championship debut on Greystone Midnight Melody, aka Molly.
He said: “I can’t believe it. It never crossed my mind that this would happen – I didn’t even expect to be on the reserve list, so the last few days have been something of a whirlwind. It’s been a real team effort to get this far and things have just come together at the right time.”
The 12-year-old Molly, as well as Oakden, has history at Blair and the pair came second there last year in the Scottish Open Championships.
Oakden added: “With the European Championship being so close to home, it makes it even more special for me. The thought of competing in front of a home nation crowd is mind-blowing.”
So who else is riding? British team members William Fox-Pitt, Pippa Funnell, Nicola Wilson and Kitty King are no strangers to the arena of international competition and are up there with the best in the world meaning their vast experience forms the backbone of the squad.
As host nation, Britain fields 12 competitors with eight squad members competing as individuals – Oakden, Oliver Townend, Gemma Tattersall, Francis Whittington, Holly Woodhead, Laura Collett, Izzy Taylor and Sarah Bullimore.
Team GB have a good record at the Europeans but at the moment it is the Germans who dominate the sport. They are reigning world, European and Olympic champions and their seemingly invincible superstar Michael Jung holds the Olympic and European individual titles. He also won the CCI four-star at Burghley last weekend.
Let’s not forget France. They are a force to be reckoned with too and have the added impetus of still needing to qualify for Rio. Blair is the last chance to earn the right to be there with only two places up for grabs.
The riders can expect to be jumping a serious cross country course. Stark’s tracks are known for being “big” and “bold” which is eventing speak for “terrifying” and “it’s enormous, you’ve got to be kidding, right?”
“I have tried to create a course that reflects the heritage of Scotland and provides a true test of horsemanship without catching horses out”, said the Borderer.
Whisky barrels, stags’ heads and a Forth Bridge are just some of the features.
Stark added: “Blair Castle’s hills are well-known, but I have used them as sympathetically as possible.
“Riders who ‘attack’ the course but who ride intelligently and conserve their horses’ energy for the later combinations should enjoy a thrilling ride.”
There are four days of competition ahead at this triathlon for horses. Today and tomorrow feature the dressage which puts the horse’s obedience and training under the spotlight. Saturday is cross country day in which horse and rider take on big, unforgiving, solid fences to test their partnership, bravery and athleticism to the limits.
Sunday is the showjumping, the nail-biting finale in which medal hopes can be wrecked by the fall of a pole. At the moment the ground is good, some of the greatest eventers in the world are ready to go and the stage is set for a really exciting competition.