With over 173,000 visitors over the four days, more than 600 carefully selected exhibitors, an average of 80 of the world’s top competitors and a prize fund of over £300,000, 21st century Burghley Horse Trials is a far cry from the inaugural event, which took place more than 50 years ago with just 19 competitors and in front of a mere 12,000 people.
Eventing came to the magnificent Elizabethan parkland surrounding Burghley House in 1961 by accident rather than design, after the Marquess of Exeter, a keen equestrian, heard that the three-day event at Harewood was to be cancelled due to a suspected outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease. He invited the British Horse Society to transfer the event to his estate in a move which was to prove the start of a remarkable journey.
In only its second year, 1962, Burghley ran the FEI’s European Championship. It went on to host two World Championships (1966 and 1974), six European Championships (1962, 1971, 1977, 1985, 1989 and 1997) and one Young Riders European Championship (1978). No other horse trials site has staged as many Championships.
Today the event has become one of the most popular and highly regarded within the equestrian and social calendars and ranks within the UK’s top ten national sporting occasions by attendance. It has also been voted a firm favourite amongst riders from all over the world, securing the coveted L’Annee Hippique award an incredible seven times – a record within international eventing.
Burghley Horse Trials is one of only six CCI 5* events worldwide, the star rating denoting the highest standard of event (technically and administratively) and the most challenging test of horse and rider.
There have been six course designers: Bill Thomson, M.R.C.V.S. (1961 – 1983), Lt. Col. Henry Nicoll, D.S.O., O.B.E. (1975), Philip Herbert (1984 – 1988), Capt. Mark Phillips, C.V.O. (1989 – 1996 and 1998 – 2000), Mike Tucker (1997 and 2001), Wolfgang Feld (2002 – 2004) and Capt. Mark Phillips again (2005 – present).
William Fox-Pitt is Burghley’s most successful competitor, having won the title six times (1994, 2002, 2005, 2007, 2008 and 2011), with Virginia Elliott (née Holgate), Mark Todd and Andrew Nicholson winning five times (Virginia Elliott in 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986 and 1989; Mark Todd in 1987, 1990, 1991, 1997 and 1999; Andrew Nicholson in 1995, 2000, 2012, 2013 and 2014).
Andrew Nicholson has completed Burghley Horse Trials more times than any other rider – a staggering 36 times, notching up five wins, five seconds and six thirds. Only one horse has won Burghley twice (Priceless in 1983 and 1985) but Avebury holds the record, having clinched his third win in 2014. In fact, the Andrew Nicholson-Avebury duo made history across the board, becoming the only rider, horse and rider/horse combination to have won the Burghley title for three consecutive years: 2012, 2013 and 2014.
Another watershed moment came in 2003, when Pippa Funnell became the first rider to win the Rolex Grand Slam of Eventing, a feat not repeated until 2016 when Germany’s Michael Jung clinched his title at Badminton. The publicity around Pippa Funnell’s hat trick at Kentucky, Badminton and Burghley proved a turning point for the sport, drawing huge international media interest.
Burghley has long been graced with Royal visitors and competitors. In 2011 HRH The Princess Royal presented the prizes, but in 1971 as the young Princess Anne, she also rode here and took the European Champion title. Captain Mark Phillips also has a longstanding association with the event, winning Burghley in 1973 and subsequently becoming its Course Designer. Their daughter Zara Phillips is the only child of two former winners to compete at the Event. In both 2019 and 2017 HRH The Countess of Wessex visited Burghley on the Sunday of the Event to present the winner with the Land Rover Perpetual Challenge Trophy.