~ Equestrian lifestyle blogger ~
~ Follow our journey ~


Monday, 4 June 2018

Access All Areas: Belsay Horse Trials

Friday lunchtime at work I took on the mission of clearing out my email inbox... A task I'd been putting off for a LONG time. I came across an email from British Eventing that was a couple of weeks old advertising an Access All Areas course running at Belsay horse trials. My plan had been to be out competing British Dressage that day, but with Louie's injury I warmly welcomed the opportunity to take my mind of what I could have been doing & to learn about what actually goes on behind the scenes at an event.

I clicked the link to the British Eventing website to find out more. The course was being run by the Regional Development Officer, Ruth Mousdale, and was free of charge, aimed at riders, non-riders, volunteers and anyone wanting to find out more about the sport. I've often thought about fence judging as I know a couple of people who do it and seem to really enjoy it. While I worry about missing a competitor's number as they fly past or need to oversee a particularly tricky fence and figure out if a combination cross their tracks when all doesn't go smoothly, I really would like to give something back to the sport. After all these events simply would not run if it was not for the volume of volunteers that give their time, effort and enthusiasm.

I was keen to sign up to get involved, but at almost 1pm the day before, I didn't expect that there would be many spaces left. Luckily, I was able to book on and texted the organiser to let them know I had done so, simply because it was so late in the day.

Saturday afternoon I arrived at Belsay, which as my favourite Northumberland horse trials meant I was like a child at Christmas! I headed to the Secretary's tent as requested to find it completely packed and about to do the Novice section prize giving. A little shy and reserved, I hung back until I spotted the back of a t-shirt sporting 'Regional Development Officer' at the far side of the tent. I headed over and introduced myself, and my four other lovely ladies that were also taking part & soon learnt that I was the local one, and that some had come as far as North Yorkshire & Cumbria to enjoy a day at the event and find out what it really takes to put it on.

'Spirit of Freedom' by James Kemish

Meeting the event organiser

Our first stop was with event organiser Laura de Wesselow. The first thing that struck me about Laura was her passion, enthusiasm and inspiration to continually make the event better & better each year. If anyone ever considers just how passionate about Belsay Laura is...she explained she had dropped her daughter off at Brand Hall for the British Pony Championships competition a few days before and left her there to head back in order to run the event in Northumberland! I'd say that's fairly dedicated...!

Laura talked about how the event had grown in the six years that it had been running, and I can definitely confirm this, both as a competitor & as a regular spectator.  Last year, I wrote a post all about the event, and detailed all of the hard work that had gone into improving the showjumping arena in the first few years. You can really hear Laura's drive behind this when she talks about the project - from providing a great return for sponsors both in coverage & in corporate enjoyment, but also in giving the competitors & spectators a good feeling of being somewhere special. I think this really shows as I see on social media people who have almost no horsey connection enjoying days out at the event.

Belsay's showjumping arena in all its glory

Laura's plans for Belsay are very clearly to continue to strive for improvement - she talked through the way in which she collates feedback every year, considers how things can be improved and really works hard to make sure everyone involved wants to continue to be so. Laura also talked through her ambitions for FEI status at the event, so watch this space in future years!!

The peace & calm at the dressage arenas

Next, it was onto meet the dressage steward, Jean, and her team. Jean hadn't been fortunate until recent years to have a horse able to event, but now does so, and at the age of 61 was clearly very proud to do so. It really shows that the sport of eventing is for everyone and that no matter what your age, you can give it a go!!

The two ladies chatted through how they organise their stewards for each arena, how the scores are collected, and we even discussed the new rules around not needing to wear a jacket. They noted that only one competitor that day had not worn one, and joked that perhaps it made for a better photograph!

As soon as we walked to the arena, I instantly spotted how simply fantastic they looked, each dressed with beautiful & bright flowers. They almost resembled championship arenas. Jean talked through how the flower pots each had a slot for the dressage letters to slot into and that the day before (Friday) a man had carefully arrange these flowers after driving all the way from Lincolnshire with them!

Jean also talked through how the dressage arenas were set out, something that I had never really thought about before. Each arena is marked fully, all four sides, with string and pegs, before placing & staking the boards down. She talked through how far out they are when you try to place them using a pacing systems, and how difficult it is to get a straight line of boards without the sacred string!

Jean is a volunteer, and clearly a very passionate one at that!

Organisation is key at the numbers tent

After a walk up the lorry park, we met a very local volunteer, so local, she walks from her house to the event! This volunteer talked through how much of their work is done on the days leading up to the event in terms of getting the competitor's numbers ready for each of the near 500 to come and collect!

Manned by just two people, the ladies talked about volunteering for an event and how helpful & on hand everyone is. As one put it, they are only a radio call away!

We were talked through a couple of the new 2018 rules that British Eventing have brought into force, including the new rule around falls. If a competitor falls during any phase it is elimination, and that a fall in any warm up, the competitor must see a doctor before continuing. Rules like this in our sport just make so much sense, and once they are in black & white, you wonder why they were never there before!

Meeting event rider, Douglas Edward

Literally fresh off the cross country course, we were granted the privilege to hear from a competitor's point of view about what it takes to go eventing.

First up, being based in Perthshire, it was surprising to hear that an event in Northumberland was classed as local...! Douglas explained that usually his average travel time would be around 10 hours just to get to an event which really shows the dedication that not only the riders have, but their teams at home, on the road and that their owners have. The largest cost to Douglas in terms of eventing is his diesel for his wagon.

Douglas chatted about the horse that he had run in the Intermediate class. The horse had just come back from an injury but had had a lovely, steady round. Interestingly, Douglas had another horse with him graze side by side with the horse he had compete on. This one was brought for company and to come out and see the world. You don’t appreciate how lonely a horse could actually get being stalled in the wagon for a good few hours while travelling, then while course walks take place, as well as in between phases and while riders relax after completing.

Douglas talked through his fitness regimes with his horse, and how he works on building their cardio work up in the weeks and months around their competition plans. Interestingly was how he pointed out the variation in fitness work required between a BE event, CIC and then a CCI. It was refreshing to hear that he considers the horses fitness not only from whether they have the cardio ability to go around a course, but whether their tendons & ligaments are also prepared for the stress and strains of the higher levels. Douglas was very clued up on the research that’s been undertaken around the degeneration of soft tissues, and spoke about how he manages his horses on varying ground conditions, levels of competition and environment temperature.

I really enjoyed the 10-15 minutes that Douglas took to speak to us, and I’ll be making sure that I look out for him at future events.

The cross country start box & its never ending supply of stopwatches 

Like most other competitors, I hadn’t really taken much notice of the start box while waiting to set out on my cross country round, too busy concentrating on where I needed to go once I went through the start and trying (often failing!) to keep my nerves under control.

Actually, there is a lot that goes on in that little box! At Belsay there are three start controllers, each rotating to starting competitors at two minute intervals. The starting controller will give the next competitor notice typically at one minute, 30 seconds, 10 seconds and then countdown from five seconds. As the competitor leaves the start box, the start controller clicks his stopwatch and passes the information into the box to write onto the competitor slip.

The competitor slip shows the combination number, their start time, their end time and the calculated time it took for them to complete the course. The slip is then collected and taken to the scorers box to have the penalties calculated and added to their final score.

Back to the start box...As a combination comes across the finish line, a controller inside the box, clicks to mark their finish time and writes it on their slip. Interestingly, it is not necessarily the same controller that starts and finishes a combinations times. There are four stop watches on the go inside the box – one for each horse on course. Belsay has a maximum of four horses on course at any one time.

I asked about how they work holds on course to ensure accurate times, and the volunteer talked through that at certain points on the course there are stop points. The fence judges at these points record the time that a competitor is held and radio it through to the start box once they are set away again. This is then taken off the times that it took them to complete the course. This process alone showed exactly how much attention and on the ball all the volunteers need to be throughout the entire day.

Another volunteer in the start box also noted how any complaint against cross country times are investigated, noting that each fence judge makes a note of the time that you go through each fence, and that the start box is responsible for understanding how long it takes to get from the final fence to the finish line.

Enjoying a course walk with course design, Adrian Ditcham

I was lucky enough last year to do a Q&A with Adrian but I was excited to meet him face to face. Adrian gave a good introduction to himself and his course designing history over the years – he started in 1990. He gave us some sneak previews into his plans for the 2019 event and some key changes that he is planning to make – I can’t wait to see these in action next year!

Adrian also talked through some of the points to the course that aren’t always considered by all riders, such as how punishing the cambered downward hill to the last two fences is on a tired horse & rider.

We set off on a course walk with Adrian, and we hadn’t walked very far before I realised just how many questions I had for Adrian!! At the second fence, a jump over natural hedge line, Adrian explained how he uses the natural landscape and surroundings to test the horses, and made comment about how different this part of Northumberland is compared to the courses he has designed at home (based in the South East).

Fence two is a natural hedge line, as is fence four, followed very quickly by a jump over an open ditch and a ‘ha-ha’ over a historical wall, all across undulating ground – three fences that he commented that his membership from the south east would not know how to ride. I asked as to what the difference is – what would our Nothumberland riders find difficult if they entered an event from the south east?

Adrian explained that firstly the terrain is much flatter, so the hills in themselves give him opportunity to add complexity and technicality to the obstacles that he places as tests. A mound with a simple jump on the top can be a great way to test a combinations balance and concentration. He also mentioned that the technicality to combination fences is greater, whether less strides in between, more of an angle, narrower second elements…

I noticed that where an open ditch after the water used to be, there was now a row of houses places over it, completely shading the ditch from view. I asked about why he did this as the two years I ran over it I got awful jumps over it, with Thomas clearly not seeing it until the very final second. That was part of the reason, but the other part was around the number of tests leading up to it – jumping a small obstacle at the top of the hill, coming down a steep slope, over a jump, into the water, out, jump, through the water again and then a ditch…Reducing the individual tests throughout the short run to create an overall test enabled this part of the course to run smoother and more naturally.

I also picked Adrian’s brain as to why he creates rider frightener fences – what makes him add this in instead of just a normal obstacle? As Adrian answered, the course has to test the rider too. Placing obstacles around the course that are natural and perfectly in dimension that horses can jump, is not a test. So adding in something to test the rider is all part of the fun! This can be anything, from testing rider’s concentration, accuracy, balance and control.

I could have spent all day with Adrian and would love to gain more insight into what goes into creating the cross country tests at various different events.

Fence judging actually isn’t that frightening 

As we walked past fence four, we stopped to talk to the fence judges – a husband and wife who had been volunteering for 15 years as fence judges, previously at Hexham horse trials and every year since Belsay began.

One was in charge of timing, and the other for the whistle as the horse approached. They also had a responsibility for radio communication and commentary on this fence, something that is not always required of all fence judges.

As each competitor came, a note of their number was made on the sheet, and as they passed, their time was also noted down. Each sheet had space for about 10 horses and are collected throughout the day by the other volunteers whizzing around on gators!

It is up to the fence judge as to how much commentary they give for each combination – it can be as simple as ‘number 123 clear at fence four’ or can have more creativity added ‘number 123 flying through fence four with ease’. Of course, the radio communication is also there to not only report of penalties, but also to radio for help in the instance of a fall, loose horse or any other support that the judge needs. The team in the control box are fed these radio communications to support their roles in guiding combinations through the course for the commentator and controlling the overall course.

The two lovely people we met clearly enjoyed volunteering come rain or shine, and were very encouraging about how easy it is to get into, how there is no need to worry about getting it wrong as there is so much support around the event should you need it.

Going into the event control box

If you’ve never done so, just take note of the concentration that is taking place inside the control box next time you walk past. It’s a pretty intense place and very soon I realised how the team in there required maximum concentration all day and how it actually requires a fairly rare skill of being able to listen to two communication channels at once with literally one radio in one ear and another in the other!!

Everything is centred around the plot-o-board – a large board sitting in front of the commentator with all the fence numbers on it with each fence sponsor underneath. As a competitor is due to start, their slip is pulled out of the pile. Included on it, is their dressage score, showjumping penalties, horse & rider name and the commentator notes that the competitor submitted at the time of entry. One person in control is responsible for finding the competitor slip.

A bulldog is clipped to it and it is placed at the start of the board by the next member of the team in control. This person is then responsible for pushing the slip along the board as the radio communication comes in as to where they are on course. As the competitor finishes, the final person in control passes the slip back to the first person to file ready for collection. In the middle, sits the commentator, who puts all of the information on the plot-o-board together to commentate on each combinations progress. This includes the fence that they are at and its sponsor, whether they are clear or have had any problems, the rider & horse name, their dressage & showjumping scores, and the notes that the competitor added.

The control box is very quiet, and I was slightly apprehensive to step inside, worrying that we might upset the concentration in there, but while you can see that the team are concentrating, they were happy, where possible, to talk through what was coming through their headsets – one of the team has radio control with the fence judges, and the other ear with the vet, doctor and event control!

They are of course on rotation, and there are more than four people – I spotted six in total – to enable a brain break, toilet stop, as well as time for a cup of tea or coffee and some lunch.

Don’t underestimate the success of a scorer!

Another fairly quiet box, but excellently situated on the corner of the showjumping arena. There’s a lot more than just adding up that goes on in here!

We met Jen Caley, a name I definitely recognise from being a competitor in the past – Jen has been involved with many events across the north of England, and a few in the borders, since the early 1980’s…and she still comes across as passionate and having a great time doing what she is doing!

Jen talked us through how they are passed the dressage sheets – some events add up the sheets at the dressage arenas, but Belsay passes them to the Scorers box. The total score is then given a penalty score using a crib sheet, before being added to the competitor slip. As the showjumping sheets are brought to the scorer, these penalties are also added to the slip before being whisked off by gators to the event control box. It’s a well oiled operation for sure…

The scores are also added electronically to a system that updates the screens in the Secretary’s tent as they arrive with the scorer. There is also another system running that holds the scores to check as each phase comes in to ensure that there are no discrepancies. It really struck me that it is completely amazing that this small team of five or six people are able to effectively and efficiently co-ordinate over 500 competitors scores with only ever a very rare mistake being made…Unbelievable!

Stealing a few minutes of the event secretaries time…

As we headed back to the Secretary’s tent, Ruth was hoping to be able to get an insight into what the role of the event secretary was. I quickly learnt that this is a HUGELY busy role.

Amanda had taken the week off work to ensure that everything was prepped just as it should be, from managing the tradestands and sponsors' signage, to making sure that everything is organised from the first competitor pulling into the wagon park on Saturday morning through to the last one leaving on Sunday evening.

No sooner had Amanda started talking to us about what her role involved, but her phone was ringing and at least one of the three radios that she was carrying started call for her!! It’s clearly a very busy role, but Amanda’s passion for it shone through which really highlighted how lucky we are to have people like this in the sport, giving up their spare time to make sure competitors & spectators have a really great day!

Volunteers are vital

Belsay needs over 150 volunteers EACH DAY in order to run, & over the few hours that I was guided around this fantastic event, I really saw just why – from the cadets that are pole picking and manning the cross country crossing points, to efficiently collecting the scores & sheets from all over the site, to bringing food & drinks to all of the other volunteers at various points throughout the day. Every single volunteer is completely vital.

The afternoon really inspired me to give volunteering a go, whether it is fence judging, dressage writing, organising slips in the control, scorers or start box, I’ve seen just how important an extra pair of hands really can be. Ruth explained that different volunteers enjoy different roles on site, whether it's high organisation of the showjumping arena, wishing the competitors well as they start their cross country or hearing exactly what the judge likes to see through dressage writing, there is something for everyone! Whizzing around on a gator all day sounds like great fun to Andrew, so at least there is someone keen to help out with the challenge of keeping everyone fed & watered!

How to get involved

Firstly, if you see an Access All Areas course advertised at an event near to you, I’d 100% recommend signing up. It’s a really great way to see the event from all perspectives, and as a past competitor, it definitely highlighted how much goes into producing an event.

British Eventing have their own volunteer programme that you can sign up to. You can receive regular emails, and once you have volunteered at an event, you’ll be a friend for life to the organiser and are likely to be asked back year after year.

I’ve double checked that I’m signed up and am making a more determined effort to volunteer at a number of events but in a number of different roles to really understand what each one involves and see the event from all angles throughout the few days of competition.

In addition, there is a BE Volunteers Facebook page, where there are regularly shares from event pages calling for help, so make sure you’re following if you want to get involved!

Most of all, even if you’ve no plans to ever go eventing, or even if you’re not a competitive rider, it’s a great way to meet new people & find out more about the sport. And, it’s also a great way to enjoy the outdoors, in the fresh air, and on a sunny day, get a bit of a tan!

If you've enjoyed finding out all about how much precise organisation it takes to successfully run events, pin the post to share it with others!


  1. What a fun event! This might be something we look into since my little one really likes horses!


Copyright @ Team Tunnah Equestrian. Blog Design by KotrynaBassDesign