Saturday 31st of July 2021
All in a day's work

Kelvin Bywater: Show Jumping Course Designer

We catch up with Kelvin Bywater and find out how he got into course designing, his stand-out memories and get an insight into the Blue Chip Championships.

Working for myself means that I have a very varied life, I juggle the role of course designer at a variety of shows throughout the year with being the show organiser for the Blue Chip Championships, Trailblazers Championships and National and Winter Dressage Championships. I may be away course designing for a week and then back into the office at home to catch up with the team on the progress and preparations for the shows we organise. My wife tells me I am guilty of doing too many hours in the office, there always seems to be something that needs attention! The hours are long, however I have always said that I have never had a job, I have a lifestyle!


How did you get in to course design?

I left school at 18, after taking my A Levels. I went to ride in various yards and ended up working for Carmen Lanni at Goostrey Arena in Cheshire, where I rode horses he had on his yard. It was a busy indoor and outdoor Equestrian Centre and part of my job was to build the courses for the next show. I was given a set of plans to build, but soon started building my own designs and it all developed from there. In the early days I had a lot of help from Carmen and Shelia Elstone who were very supportive.

I grew up on ponies and we used to go to gymkhanas on a regular basis. I began affiliated jumping on 13.2’s, and then had a young rider horse that I jumped before working away from home. When I left Goostrey I set up a yard alongside course designing. But the course design soon took over and in 1989 I stopped competing and started supplying arena decoration to shows which complimented the time I was spending designing courses. Over the years I provided decoration to Horse of the Year Show, Badminton, Olympia, Windsor and many county shows while also suppling decoration to shows as far afield as Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Athens, Toronto and Portugal.

Although I stopped providing decoration to many of the shows when I became Show Organiser for the British Dressage National and Winter Championships, I still supply Badminton and Olympia with their arena decorations. Part of my remit for London 2012 was as artistic designer for the jumping competitions. I designed many of the fences used and coordinated the overall image of each jumping course.

Bob & Kelvin

Bob & Kelvin

How did you start working with Bob Ellis?

I first met Bob when I was about 12 years old and I started going for jumping lessons with him. We lived about 15 miles from him and at that stage he was riding alongside course designing. In the late 80s, I started doing more course design and used to work with Bob at various shows including Church Farm in Staffordshire and White Rose in Yorkshire. In 1990, he gave me my first opportunity to go to a show abroad, which was an amazing experience.


How did you start working at Hickstead?

I met Jon Doney in 1989 when I went as a trainee to the Royal Show at Stoneleigh Park. On the back of that he invited me to come to Hickstead and I have been to nearly every international show since 1990. The only international I have missed at Hickstead was in 2005 when I was in hospital with a ruptured appendix; but managed to phone Bob on a regular basis to make sure flags were straight while I was watching it on BBC. When I started at Hickstead I began designing in Ring 3, then moved to Ring 2 and now I design in the International Arena. The Bunn family are amazing to work with and are so very supportive. I love designing in the main arena, it is totally unique and I am honored to carry on the tradition. There is nothing more terrify or more rewarding than designing the British Nations Cup for the King George V Gold Cup, especially having watched them on TV while growing up.

What inspires your course designs?

What I enjoy about the designing competitions is trying to look at the list of competitors in the class and finding a balance of what you think is a fair test for that competition. I don’t believe there is a fixed science to course designing, you use your judgment and with years of experience and knowledge and a lot of luck you get it right! I hope that the course provides good quality sport and then it is also entertaining to those watching the sport. First and foremost it is about fairness to the horse, the test should be predominantly for the riders, making them have to think and solve the problems. I think show jumping horses are becoming so well trained, so balanced and so athletic that the role of the course designer gets harder each year.

Can you watch the 1st competitor?

I do feel extremely nervous! As a show organiser it is about making logical decisions and dealing with problems as they present themselves. Designing courses is about putting your neck on the block at the start of the competition and hoping you get it right! There is an enormous amount of pressure when designers especially when designing an important class, I personally think it is a far greater pressure than running a show. I believe there are a lot of ingredients that need to come together to create a great competition; you need a good course, riders who perform well on the day, the riders to be drawn in the right order in the jump off and a lot of luck! However, the feeling of satisfaction when it does all come together though is tremendous.

How old were you when you became an advanced course builder? Were you the youngest?

I have no idea if I was the youngest; I think it was in 1994, eight years after I first started that I became advanced and then became full international in 1999, which was also the year I first designed competitions at Horse of the Year Show.

I enjoy seeing new course designers and being able to help them develop and progress. I have now been designing for 30 years and you learn that experience is a tremendous help. I was very lucky to have the opportunity to travel to shows abroad with both Jon Doney and Bob Ellis, but much of these in the early days I did at my own expense to gain experience.

I would like to think I am a perfectionist; however I also think perfection cannot ever be achieved, but you must always strive to be as close to perfect as possible. I like the detail to be right; I like fences to be balanced and the colours to be coordinated. I do believe if you provide the people with the right information then everything runs more smoothly.

Blue Chip Championships

Blue Chip Championships

Blue Chip Championships

In 1992, Jackie Wood and Philip Billington created the Winter Show Jumping Championships (Toggi Championships) and for the first two years I supplied the arena decoration while Philip Billington designed the courses, then took over the course design for the championships. I remember one year there was a fence that had become quite marked; Adrian House and myself drove from Stoneleigh Park to Aldershot to pick up a can of the correct colour of paint in order to re-paint the wings ready for the next day!

I took over the running of the Winter Show Jumping Championships in 2000 and in the same year Blue Chip Feeds became our title sponsor and have been so for the past 16 years. I am very proud of the Championships and the “Team” of officials that make the show such a success. The aim has always been to provide the best possible stage for competition at all levels and there is a massive satisfaction on seeing people enjoy the event.

Team work

When we re-build at night at a show like Hickstead there is a big team effort to get everything right and ready for the next day’s competition. Bob and I will position the fences and measure the distances, another team follow us and level the fences and put in all the fillers etc., a third team then washes the fences and a fourth team touches up the paint; there is huge attention to detail. Yet another team puts holes in the ground for all the Christmas trees and flags, it is a huge logistical operations. At HOYS over 50 people are responsible for creating the course, this is made up of about 38-arena party, Bob and myself, 4 corner course builders and 8 assistants. Finally, there is a team of about 10 people to decorate the course. The builds at HOYS are very quick, with about 10 -15 minutes from start to finish.

How has course design changed over the years?

I probably came into it as it was starting to change. I remember watching the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 and being intrigued by Bert de Nemethy’s courses; but for me the biggest impact internationally was seeing the Olympics in Seoul in 1988 built by Olaf Peterson. His courses were fresh and left a big impression on me.

What are your plans for Trailblazers?

We took over running the Trailblazers Championships in December 2014 and have enjoyed the first year of getting to know the event. Trailblazers competitions run 12 months of the year with qualification for a Championship Final which this year will be 29 July – 6 August at Stoneleigh Park. There is dressage, show jumping, showing and combined training with junior and adult sections.

I went to see the Championship Finals in 2014 and it reminded me of shows I used to go to as a child. There is a lovely family feeling, lots of small horseboxes, gazebos and tents with a great social feel. A bit like Blue Chip Championships, the ethos is to give the best Championship experience we can to all those attending.

Do showjumping courses for eventing differ from pure showjumping?

If you asked me 25 years ago, I would have said yes. Now I think it is much closer, the expectation of a true jumping course is far greater. I will walk the show jumping course with the Technical Director and the XC Designer the night before the jumping phase and we discuss the course in terms of the overall three day competition. I try to account that they have done two other elements and create a fair course. I first went to Badminton in 1992 to assist Richard Jefferey with the arena decoration and have been involved ever since. The first year I went Jon Doney was the course designer, I remember that there was a gate, the judges asked for flower troughs in front of the gate because they thought the gate was too vertical. I think this demonstrates how show jumping courses have changed within eventing.

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