If you were to use an internet search engine to look up the most feared fences in racing, there would be one topic that you’d read about over and over again: the Grand National. The event, hosted at Aintree Racecourse on the outskirts of Liverpool each year, is one of the most loved races precisely because of how difficult it is and how open that makes the race in general, with the fences providing stiff competition for the horses.
Yet when you look at races around the world, you’ll soon discover that there are a number of other fences that make the list of being feared by jockeys and their steeds. The Grand National is noteworthy for the sheer number of difficult fences that it asks jockeys and horses to cope with, but other events put forward a test that often sees even the most hardy and experienced of participants fail to meet the standard.
Becher’s Brook – Aintree Racecourse
If the Grand National as a whole is a terrifying prospect for horses and jockeys alike then Becher’s Brook is the pinnacle of that. Not only do jockeys have to jump it on their way out, with the fence being the sixth that they need to get over, but they also need to contend with it again on their way home when it is also the 22nd fence on the course. It is arguably the most controversial fence in racing, with the landing side presenting a huge drop.
Jockeys have referred to jumping Becher’s Brook as being equivalent to ‘jumping off the edge of the world’, thanks in no small part to the six foot, nine inch drop on the landing side. The fence earned its name after the first official running of the Grand National in 1839, when Captain Martin Becher fell from his horse Conrad and took shelter in the brook from the onrushing horses, avoiding any serious injury as a result.
Originally the fence offered an eight-foot wide brook, which sat a yard in front of the fence and water, as well as a drop of three foot on the landing side. The National Hunt Committee was given recommendations about changing the fence in 1954, which resulted in slight amendments on the landing side, but it was after the deaths of Dark Ivy in 1987 and both Seeandem and Brown Trix in 1989 that the biggest changes occurred.
The result of the deaths of the horses led to the landing side of the brook being levelled off as well as the brook being raised by 30 inches, resulting in just one inch of water. On top of that, the outside running rails were altered to ensure that there was plenty of room for more horses to land wide of the fence. Several different changes were implemented to the fence in the years that followed, with 2011 offering the next major update.
Aintree announced changes to the fence in August of 2011, which came about as a review of the course following that year’s Grand National. Part of the review included a change to the landing side of Becher’s Brook, re-profiling it to reduce the landing side drop by between four and five inches. The difference between the outside and inside of the fence is now about four inches, whilst the height remains at four foot and ten inches.
Between 1960 and the 2019 running of the Grand National, Becher’s Brook has been responsible for 186 falls. During that time, nine horses suffered fatal injuries at the fence. That, perhaps more than anything else, helps to explain why the fence is as feared as it is by jockeys and horses that take part in the Grand National. It is a fence that asks serious questions of those taking it on and doesn’t always get the right answers.
Taxis Ditch – Pardubice
If the Grand National has a challenger for the most feared race in the world then it surely comes in the form of the Velká Pardubická. Taking place in Pardubice in the Czech Republic since 1874, this cross-country event is run over four miles and 506 yards. There are 31 obstacles that need to be jumped, making it a truly testing race that even the most hardy of horses have trouble getting around.
If the race itself is noteworthy then it is Taxis Ditch that takes the headlines, considered as it is to be the most challenging obstacle of the lot. It is so challenging, in fact, that more than 30 horses have died trying to jump it and it is only used once during the race. It is the third fence that horses need to get over, meaning that they’ve barely got into their stride when having to take it on and see how they cope with what is asked of them.
Historically, the fence was one and a half metres high, hiding a two metres deep and five metres wide ditch on the other side. Nowadays it has been changed to be one metre deep and four metres long, with horses forbidden from using it for training. The Velká Pardubická is the only race that features the fence during the year, with many animal rights activists not happy with even that concession, instead wanting it banned altogether.
When spectators arrive at the racecourse to watch the Velká Pardubická take place, you can hear a collective intake of breath as horses approach the third fence of the circuit. The fence itself is part of the reason why the Velká Pardubická has never had a running in which all of the participating horses managed to finish the event. The Taxis is where events begin to unravel, asking so much of horses that even if they make it over they suffer.
The jump is named after a prince from the 19th century who persuaded race organisers to keep it in place when they were considering removing it from the roster out of fear. Despite how many horses have died attempting to jump the fence, the race remains incredibly popular with racegoers. Whilst protesters attempted to get the 1992 race cancelled, the years since saw it took place in front of a packed crowd.
The race’s history hasn’t always been tasteful, with part of the reason for the 1990s protest being that the organisers promoted it as a race to which because you might see a horse die. Changes were forthcoming after the protest, but even as recently as 2014 as many as three horses died at this fence alone. Every obstacle on the course is unique, but it is Taxis that challenges every horse that takes it on.
The Canal Turn – Aintree Racecourse
It’s back to Aintree Racecourse for the next fence on our list. The Canal Turn is jumped twice during the Grand National, first as the eighth obstacle and then again as the 24th. The difficult of the jump comes not so much in the fence itself as to its location on the course, sending horses off at pretty much a right-angle once they’ve made it over. Those that failed to turn quickly in the past would have ended up in the nearby canal.
Jumping obstacles at an angle isn’t actually as hard as it sounds in normal circumstances, but the way the Grand National works means that it’s much harder than it would be in other races. As many as 40 horses can take part in the race, meaning that it can be quite crowded when they approach it. So it is that horses regularly fall when attempting to make it over The Canal Turn, earning its place on our list.
During the 1928 renewal of the Grand National, there was a melee at the fence when Easter Hero, the favourite for that year, refused to jump it and ended up taking about 20 other horses out with him. The ditch in front of the fence was filled in after that, but similar such incidents have happened in the years that followed. Even so, the fence wasn’t bypassed until 2015, suggesting it’s not as hard as others on this list.
Double Hedge – Merano Racecourse
Merano Racecourse in Italy is home to the country’s most prestigious steeplechase event, the Gran Premio Merano. It has taken place at the Pferderennplatz Meran since 1935 and regularly welcomes as many as 13,000 people to watch it. The course itself is based over 5,000 metres and includes 24 obstacles over the twisting, figure-of-eight layout. Perhaps the most famous and intimidating of these is the Double Hedge.
This fence is exactly what it sounds like, presenting the horses with a literal double hedge that they need to get over, meaning not one fence but two close together. Whilst they are actually quite soft fences, meaning that horses that completely misjudge the jump won’t get too badly injured, it’s still an incredible sight to see the participants in the race running towards it and seeming to defy gravity by making it over the double hedge.
No list of the world’s most feared fences is complete without the famed Double Hedge, which comes in the middle of an obstacle course that includes the likes of hill runs and water jumps. It is an incredible visual spectacle to see horses jump this fence, with everyone involved holding their breath. More than a few jockeys have found themselves on the floor after guiding their horse over the fence unsuccessfully.
The Cottesmore Leap – Burghley
Ok, so this one isn’t technically used in jump racing in the same was as other fences on the list, but it is well-known by riders and spectators alike. Featured in one of the world’s greatest equestrian events, the Cottesmore Leap is as much a leap of faith as a test of a horse’s jumping ability. Perhaps the fact that the event is sponsored by Land Rover explains why the ditch is big enough to fit one through.
The ditch itself is three metres, whilst the fence boasts a maximum height of 1.45 metres of brush. Anyone hoping to get over the obstacle needs to ensure that they’ve got their horse into a good stride and taking a sensible attacking approach. Fail to do those two things and it will almost certainly be curtains for both horse and rider as far as the rest of the contest is concerned.
There’s a reason why a camera is positioned directly opposite the fence, which is that there are some genuinely jaw-dropping images to be captured as the horses take on this fearsome fence. Many a rider has wanted to take part in the event just to test themselves against one of the sport’s most famous fences, though not everyone who takes it on manages to be successful at doing so.
The Chair – Aintree Racecourse
Whilst Taxis is the most famous jump in racing, The Chair might be the one with the most intimidating name. There are only two jumps that are used during the Grand National that are only jump once, with The Chair being one of them and immediately preceding the Water Jump, which follows it. The reason for its infamy is the tallness and broadness of the fence, standing at five foot and two inches tall.
Not only is it tall, but the ditch in front of it is also noteworthy. The ditch itself is six foot wide and two foot, six inches deep, ensuring that jockeys pay it an appropriate amount of respect. The ditch was introduced to the fence in 1862 in the wake of Joe Wynne’s death. The fence takes its name from the fact that a judge would sit in a chair at the fence and make a note of when the horses had cleared the obstacle for the second time.
Originally known as the Monument Jump, it took on the moniker of The Chair during the 1930s. One of the challenges of the fence comes in the fact that the landing side is actually six inches higher than the side that they take off from, presenting horses with an opposition difficulty to what they face when jumping Becher’s Brook. The Chair is a fence that takes its fair share of horses down during the National each year.