Sunday, Apr. 21, 2024

A Conversation With Course Designer Bernardo Costa Cabral

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Course designing wasn’t on Bernardo Costa Cabral’s radar, but a chance encounter when he was a teenager forever altered his trajectory. In the late 1980s, British course designer Bob Ellis was working for a show held at the same riding club where 14-year-old Costa Cabral rode in Portugal. Because the ring crew didn’t speak English, Costa Cabral was recruited to serve as a translator.

“I was totally astonished and thrilled to see the way he built a course and said, ‘This would be technical here, and this will be hard for them to jump the vertical, and then the oxer will push them forward,’ ” he said. “I’d never thought about that. I was gobsmacked and overwhelmed by all of that in one afternoon.”

That encounter spurred Costa Cabral to pursue course design, following Ellis around the world as he learned the craft. He was by Ellis’ side for some of his biggest events, including the 2009 European Championships at Windsor (England) and the 2012 London Olympics.

Costa Cabral web

Bernardo Costa Cabral. Andrew Ryback Photo


Now a level 4 FEI course designer and technical delegate himself, Costa Cabral, 45, has designed courses throughout the world for five-star competitions, Nations Cups, World Cup qualifiers, the European Championships and the Austrian National Championship. He also assisted with the tracks at the 2008 Olympic Games in Hong Kong. This year he is the course designer for the Longines FEI Show Jumping World Cup Final, held April 4-8 in Omaha, Nebraska. He heads a team of designers of all levels including Steve Stephens, Nicholas Granat, Ben Townley, Colm Quinn, Tommy Brawley, Kevin Holowack, Jared Erho and Brody Robertson.

We talked to him about designing courses for the World Cup Final.

What kinds of things do you think about when you first start designing a track?

It depends. Sometimes I think, ‘I would love this combination to work, so let’s make space for this combination and work around it.’ Sometimes it’s just the flow of a line. I always start with a pencil and rubber, and I do my line and my efforts around it. It varies.

Has your process changed over the years?

Of course. We all evolve. We don’t build exactly the same 20 years ago and now. I would like to think I’ve evolved better than I was a few years ago. Sometimes I look at the courses I did 20 years ago, 10 years ago, five years ago, and I don’t love them, and sometimes I like them. I think I’m building totally different.


I learn a lot from watching other course designers, especially with different styles and flairs from the one I have. It intrigues me the way they get results and the way they do their jobs. It’s always a learning curve. You drink a little bit from here, drink a little bit from there, and then you evolve. You always evolve because there’s always someone doing something fantastic.

When it comes to designing for an indoor competition like the World Cup Final, what factors do you consider?

The main factor is to try to get as much space indoors as we can—try to make a fair test, but at the same time tough enough. Always give a way out for the horse because there’s not much room for them to get out. We try to create space, my team and I. I’m lucky enough that I have a great team with me, so even if I’m not having a great day, they will help me to get the level up.

[The goal is] to create space, to test them fairly, a little scopey here, a little delicate there, a variety of the tests, and an even play field for everyone. It sounds cliché, but it’s the truth, it’s exactly what we try [to do]. If we want to put the big oxer somewhere, give them space to get to it because the difficulty by itself is already difficult, and liverpools, we want to try not to spook them and surprise them on the last stride.

One thing that we all know is that when something doesn’t go according to plan, although it looks good on paper, and sometimes it rides tougher than it felt when we walked for example, the person that gets more annoyed is the course designer. That’s not what we aim for at all. We want a fair test, and sometimes things jump a little unpredictable, so we try to avoid that. That’s why it takes so much time to produce three courses for the World Cup Finals.

How long have you been working on the courses for Omaha?

After World Cup Finals last year in Leipzig (Germany), where I was fortunate enough to be. Frank Rothenberger was kind enough to let me be around there and take a look—I admire the simplicity of the way he built. Then I started, but I changed so much. You start working with things, and then you start having some doubts. You produce three or four different courses, and you’re not sure which one is the best one or the worst one. You need to print them and take a look at them, but then you need to let them rest for two weeks, three weeks, and then you look at them again. It’s an evolving process.

The shape of the ring in Omaha is a bit unusual. How does that affect things?

A lot because one end is a little shorter. I don’t know yet the exact measurements to the centimeter, but I hope it will be similar to last time when Alan Wade did it in 2017. I’m basing my plans on a similar shape of the arena, but it’s a little short in one end, so it actually narrows the space at that end to have turns and the options to turn.

How do you approach making the courses for the three days? Is there a different way you look at each one?


The first day it’s a Table C. It has some options, but it’s a jumping course, so it has to be technical enough with lines and something for the horses and rider to ride and get the result, and then OK, a little option here, a little option there. Being indoors makes the options harder, so if it’s not an option I think they can ride safely, it’s better to not have it at all. It’s better to make it a fair test with a little bigger fences. That’s my aim. I think I have a couple options that will be fine, and they can turn wherever they want. It still will have some doubles and some lines to get the rideability of the horse and for the riders to have something to test to ride to.

The second day, it’s probably the one that will have more jumps and has the jump-off. I’ll have 13 or 14 obstacles. That doesn’t mean the number of efforts; obviously, the doubles and triples come into play. That will be the more complete course, the more technical, because the third day, it’s two different rounds. They’ll jump twice over two different courses, so each course will not be as long and as tough as the second day because there’s two of them.

Then we just create variety of the tests. One day we’ll have three doubles and the other two days will have a triple. Obviously it will be in a different place, a different effort, a different rein, so as to create variety during the week, so they are tested almost evenly. It’s never the same or balanced 100% to jump everything different from each day to the other day, but the average will be there. The diversity will be there on efforts, on construction, on liverpools.

Championships have riders with a variety of experience, including some that are doing their first one. How do you balance that in your courses?

Well, it’s still the World Cup Finals. But for us course designers, the welfare of the horse is paramount. With less experienced riders or with some riders who are doing it for the first time, and they are a little anxious, we try to get them in a way where they’ll have a vertical down or they’ll push a front bar of a spread fence, make it in a way that they’ll just override it a little bit, and the horse always gets out with a positive attitude. Because you can have eight faults and get out with a good experience, or 12 faults if it doesn’t take the heart out of the horse.

We shouldn’t just ask scope after scope after scope; that’s not what we aim for in course design. A little test here of scope, and then a little height there, and then the time a little short, make them turn a little short. It’s all about details. It’s still hard work for the rider, because they have to pay attention to so many details, but for the horse, he has to do that height obviously, but you have to give an escape route to the horse. They can have four faults or eight faults, but we want them to have a good experience. That will catch a few of the less experienced riders. Even the experienced ones, with the pressure, and if I choose the material correctly and I do the heights correctly, the fine tuning of the course is correctly done, then it can be delicate. It can be not many clears and still be a good experience for the horses.

How do things like the crowd sitting close to the rail or overhead lighting affect your design?

There’s one thing that helps me a lot; I don’t have to worry about sun. When we start jumping very early in the morning all the way into the afternoon, that’s always a problem with the sun. Here, the light is fantastic to be even throughout the whole venue.

An indoor, the public is always close. Some horses react worse than others, but it’s always close, and we have some safe distance from the wall where we build the fence. It is what it is. We don’t put fences where physically they can’t get to. With the quality of the light there and the public being up high on the stands, I think it will be very interesting because they will look down on the horse not at the same level. I think it will be fine.

This article appears in the March 27-April 17, 2023, issue of The Chronicle of the HorseYou can subscribe and get online access to a digital version and then enjoy a year of The Chronicle of the Horse and our lifestyle publication, Untacked. If you’re just following COTH online, you’re missing so much great unique content. Each print issue of the Chronicle is full of in-depth competition news, fascinating features, probing looks at issues within the sports of hunter/jumper, eventing and dressage, and stunning photography.



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