Captain Mark Phillips, the Olympic gold-medal winning equestrian, wandered the grounds of Rebecca Farm in Kalispell last week on a typical Montana spring day where the sky was alternately sunny and spitting snow. Three months later, the mid-summer sun will shine on The Event at Rebecca Farm, the Flathead’s storied equestrian triathlon where an anticipated 450 riders will compete before a crowd of thousands from July 24-27.
But of the preparations already underway for this year’s Event, Phillips’ duties may be the most important: to inspect, design and make any necessary changes to the cross-country course.
“We don’t just go out there and stick a pole in the field,” Phillips said. “There’s actually quite a bit of thought that goes into it.”
Working with the course builder, Bert Wood, Phillips decides the shape and height of obstacles, and how close together they should be. He anticipates the tight turns and places to rest and what jumps will look like to horse and rider charging toward them. He inspects the ground to make sure the course avoids any rocky or dangerous areas. And he alters features to which competitors have become accustomed, to ensure the course remains challenging.
“In sport, nothing stands still,” Phillips said. “The world is out there trying to beat you … design is the same way.”
Phillips is a manager and coach of the U.S. Equestrian team for eventing, which incorporates the three separate competitions of dressage, cross-country jumping and show jumping over three days. He has also become one of the leading designers in the world for equestrian courses, designing roughly 50 a year, including championship courses in Great Britain, Germany, France and New Zealand.
Phillips moved into course design and coaching after retiring from international competition in 1988, the year in which he won a team silver medal for Great Britain at the Olympics in Seoul. Along with placing in several national, European and world championships, Phillips won a team gold medal for Great Britain in the 1972 Olympics. After training the Spanish and British teams for the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, Phillips began coaching the U.S. team, and American riders rapidly began to improve their standings in subsequent Olympics and international competitions.
Through his equestrian activities, Phillips met Princess Anne, the only daughter of Queen Elizabeth II, who he married in 1973 and divorced in 1992. He retains the title of captain from his service in the British military.
Designing a cross-country course is fairly straightforward, Phillips said, and broke the typical course into three phases. The first section should have a few jumps, but mainly allow the horse and rider to warm up and settle their nerves before entering the middle section, what Phillips calls “the meat of the program.” Here are the biggest jumps, in the greatest density. The final section of the course should have fewer obstacles, allowing competitors to “finish up with a feel-good factor.” Most courses have an obstacle every 100 meters, so the 2,400-meter long advanced course has 24 features.
The key to designing a jump is to focus, not on what the rider sees, but what the horse sees, Phillips said. Providing good visibility of what lies before and after a jump is what allows the horse to shorten its stride at the right moment to jump powerfully – and to see what the landing requires.
“What you’re trying to do all the time is give the horse the opportunity to understand the question,” he added, “so the horse has a good idea of what they’re trying to jump.”
Phillips enjoys The Event at Rebecca farm because the visibility is so good, for horses, riders and spectators, nor does he see any friction between equestrian competition and Montana as a stronghold of cowboy country and the Western riding tradition.
“A horseman is a horseman,” he said. “If you’ve got an affinity with the horse, you have that ability with the horse.”
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