One minute you're sitting pretty at the top of your game and the next, it's all turned ugly! That about sums up the last week of Oliver Townend's eventing career, from Kentucky to Badders. It's tough to get to the top and it can be even tougher to stay there. As the Billy Ocean song goes, " When the Going Get's Tough, the Tough Get Going.' We know that it takes grit and determination to rise to the top of any sport but when animals are involved the less attractive side of ambition can be amplified.
The reactions of most spectators to Oliver Townend's use of the whip on Badminton's Cross Country day ranged from 'uncomfortable' to 'appalled'. The sudden onset of hot weather married with 'holding' ground meant that a lot of horses were really tiring near the end of the course and had to be coaxed home. A lot of riders did this sympathetically but Townend was seen giving Ballaghmor Class in particular, quite a few smacks plus waving of his whip to drive him home. When we watched the cross country action live on the BBC it certainly wasn't a pretty picture. In his interview with Clare Balding afterwards Townend said that he'd had to work hard on his young horse who was prone to being nappy and was playing up a bit on the way home. Re-watching the footage, Ballaghmor Class actually didn't look as fatigued as many of the other horses and so maybe he did just have his mind on other things. Cooley SRS who he rode at the beginning of the day, didn't look too tired as he finished and both horses certainly looked good in the jumping phase so certain claims that he was beating unfit exhausted horses home is probably an overwrought response.
Oliver Townend on the XC course riding Cooley SRS at Badminton Horse Trials, 2018
You know your horse is talented, you've got your eye on the grand slam and a huge cash prize, new scoring changes have meant that your cross country time is even more crucial than before so it's easy to see that if your steed then decides he'd rather be back in his box munching hay, you might feel impelled to dissuade him! …..and under pressure, in full view of the equestrian world, Oliver Townend did just that with rather too many thwacks and waves of his whip.
Now, we're not condoning what he's done but let's face it, many of us riders have made errors of judgement especially in the heat of the moment that we regret. There are probably plenty of his critics who definitely shouldn't be throwing stones! On the other hand it's quite right that we demand better of our equestrian heroes; they are supposed to inspire us and when they are flawed, we are disappointed. This has meant that Oliver Townend has received on top of the official warning from the Badminton ground jury, a social media whipping which can create it's own version of ugly.
"I fully accept the warning I received. My competitive instincts got the better of me and I will work hard to improve in this area.
"I try hard to give my horse the best ride possible. I try to be as fit as possible, to be as light as I can be, to sit as still as I can, to get them on the best strides and take-off points to minimise the energy they have to waste."