Where will the next generation of top cross-country course designers come from? This question has become increasingly prominent in equestrian circles, particularly with the upcoming retirements of industry stalwarts like Ian Stark and Mark Phillips. Let's delve into this intriguing topic in the equestrian world.

The Challenges & Passion of Course-Designing

What motivates someone to enter the niche field of cross-country course designing? Speaking to experienced designers, it appears a profound passion for the sport and a deep sense of reward drive many to this profession.

Take Helen West, for example. As a level three designer, she can design up to and including four-star courses. "I am hugely passionate about the course-design side of things and 100% want to do more of that," West revealed. Intriguingly, she got into designing when her event riding career started winding down. "I missed the excitement, adrenaline and buzz – and I got those things from course-designing," West confessed, citing her job at Bicton as a significant support and a stepping-stone into design.

However, the road to becoming an upper-level cross-country course-designer isn't all unicorns and rainbows. Costs and time are common roadblocks that can deter many aspiring designers. West herself benefited from the Bill Thompson bursary, which provided her with a crucial first step.

Encouraging Newcomers

So, how can we support fresh talent breaking into course-designing? One potential strategy involves tapping into the vast knowledge bank of current experienced designers to prevent valuable expertise from being lost. Another approach could lie in bolstering the role of assistant designers, not just requiring their presence when fences are laid out but also introducing an apprenticeship or scholarship programme specifically for them.

Promoting the role of assistant course-designer is already part of the FEI education system, and additional support for them could provide a necessary boost for the next generation. However, mandating the presence of an assistant at every four- and five-star event might inadvertently exert financial pressure on organizers already under budget constraints.

Mandatory Rotation of Course-Designers

The FEI introduced a rule in 2023 stating that designers cannot officiate at the same venue for more than six consecutive years at four-stars and championships and eight years at five-stars. While this was put into effect to encourage more new designers, some have voiced concerns about its potential side effects.

Mike Etherington-Smith, a seasoned championship and five-star tracks designer, expressed his reservations: “I don’t think rotation is going to achieve what is expected, as most of course-design is about feel… The risk of insisting and mandating a certain number of years is that it’s going to become more clinical and more designing out of a book. For me, the ideal is to find, source, encourage and then make possible the opportunities for good up-and-coming course-designers, who have flair, feel and imagination. I don’t think the sport should be regulating who organisers can and cannot engage, or how long for.”

A Balancing Act

Ultimately, the future of cross-country course-design lies in balancing the needs of the sport with the interests of the riders and horses involved. Encouraging new talent shouldn't come at the expense of the sport's quality nor should it deter the experienced designers who have dedicated their lives to this field. Nurturing the next generation while preserving the sport's uniqueness will be a complex but rewarding challenge for all.

Source: Horse & Hound