Horses and Historic Houses

  • 15 May 2018
  • Article

What do horses and ha-has have in common? Not much, you might think. But, as I’ve been discovering over the last year, it turns out equestrian sport and historic house landscapes are natural partners.

This interrelationship isn’t new; from jousting in the Middle Ages, to modern equestrian sports such as carriage driving and eventing, historic house landscapes have long provided dramatic settings for major horse sport events. What is perhaps surprising, and often overlooked, is the scale and importance of this partnership today.

I’ve been lucky enough to go behind the scenes at the world famous Burghley Horse Trials over the last year, as part of a University College London project looking at the synergies between heritage and sport. Horse trials have been held at Burghley since 1961, at the instigation of the 6th Marquess of Exeter, an Olympic gold medallist in athletics.

Today Burghley’s Horse Trials are one of only six leading (e.g. CCI Four Star) three day events in the world – two of which are in Britain (the other being Badminton Horse Trials, which also takes place in the setting of a nationally important historic house).

Burghley Horse Trials attracts around 165,000 spectators every year and induces spending in the local economy estimated at £16.3 million, while generating income for conservation work at Burghley House. It’s a similar story at other independent historic houses across the country, such as Blenheim Palace, Blair Castle and Chatsworth, which all run horse trials events.
The UCL project team has been measuring the impact of the horses on Burghley’s landscape (specifically any impact on archaeological remains), as well as the impact of the historic landscape on the horses’ gait and performance. UCL has brought together an impressive team of experts to measure these impacts, including an archaeological geophysicist and an equine biomechanist (whose client list includes Olympic athletes).

Last week the team was reunited at Burghley’s famous ‘Cottesmore Leap’ jump for a field experiment, in which five equine volunteers trotted various paths across a submerged Roman road, while their movements were tracked via video gait analysis software.

Despite losing my bearings attempting to navigate through Burghley’s enormous park – I ended up miles away from the Cottesmore Leap, ultimately rescued thanks to a lift from Catherine in the house office team – the experiment day was a success, with unusually serene weather conditions and perfectly behaved equine participants. The researchers are now busy comparing their findings before recommending next steps for the project.

The potential impact of this research is exciting – from closer collaboration between government and agencies responsible for developing the potential of the heritage and sport sectors, to better informed decision-making in eventing. I’m looking forward to continuing Historic Houses’ involvement in this innovative study as it progresses over the coming year.

Emma Robinson, Director of Policy & Campaigns


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