The countdown is on. In a couple of weeks’ time, the European eventing circuit kicks off in Barroca d’Alva, Portugal, and continues on at full-speed until the traditional season closer, the French CCI4* at Pau in the beginning of November.

Plenty of top riders are heading to Portugal for a warm start to their year, including New Zealand heroes Tim and Jonelle Price, Ireland’s Jonty Evans, and new Japanese star Kazuma Tomoto. All roads in 2018 lead to the World Equestrian Games (WEG) in Tryon, and that quartet—among others—will be chasing good results to set them on their way to North Carolina in September.

For British-based riders, and many from Europe and America, the Badminton CCI4* is the big goal in the first half of the year. The great Gloucestershire event (really the founding father of the modern sport) takes place at the beginning of May, and there is no margin for error in the preparation timeframe for a CCI4* so early in the year.

Some Europeans will fly to Kentucky the week before, and it is the #1 aim for all U.S.-based riders. Under new sponsorship from Land Rover this year, how many commentators will slip up and refer to it as ‘Rolex’?

Badminton 2017 produced a thrilling and emotional win for New Zealander Andrew Nicholson and his legendary chestnut Nereo. Neither horse nor jockey are in the first flush of youth—Andrew was 53 and Nereo 17!—and Andrew narrowly escaped paralysis in a terrible fall 18 months prior. Theirs was an enormously popular victory and the icing on the cake for an exceptional partnership between man and horse.

This year, all eyes will be on Andrew’s great friend Oliver Townend. Oliver showed immense skill and horsemanship to win Burghley in 2017 on the inexperienced 10-year-old, Ballaghmor Class; the pair will be expected to deliver another first-class performance at Badminton to secure their seats on a flight to WEG.

The two principal CIC3* series get underway in April and May. The FEI Nations Cup series, which has been particularly targeted by the Germans and the British to ‘bring through’ horse and rider combinations to the championship level, begins in April at Vairano in Italy. And the Event Rider Masters (ERM) series, now in its third year, has its first leg at Chatsworth in Derbyshire in the middle of May.

ERM is hugely popular with the riders because it offers a level of prize-money well beyond what is standard for the CIC3* level, and because its television coverage-friendly format is exciting. An ERM leg was originally planned for America this year, but that has been shelved for 2018 and there will be three ERM events in the UK: Chatsworth, Barbury, and the series finale at Blair Castle in Scotland at the end of August; there are also three legs in Continental Europe: Wiesbaden in Germany, Arville in Belgium, and Jardy in France.

Germany’s CCI4*, Luhmuhlen, is traditionally considered a softer test than Badminton, Burghley, or Kentucky, and is a popular option with riders wanting experience at the level. Possibly, the more interesting class at the event is the CIC3*, which serves as the German championship, and is likely to be contested by the top Germans with an eye on WEG and taking back their gold medals from the Brits, who returned to the top of the table for the first time in several years at the European Championships last August.

The WEG dates (September 12-16 for the eventing competition) mean that there will be a considerable effect on the traditional European autumn circuit. The Event Rider Masters final has been moved from Blenheim Palace to Blair Castle because Blenheim clashes directly with WEG, and is, therefore, earlier than probably desired. Burghley will be largely unaffected in terms of riders, but obviously, the very best horsepower will be heading to the U.S. instead.

Here’s a long-sighted tip: Andrew Nicholson is still estranged from the New Zealand team set-up and is particularly brilliant around Burghley’s uniquely demanding, undulating track. How about a sixth win for the understated Kiwi, possibly on one of his younger horses, such as Jet Set IV or Teseo?

Riders hunting down CCI4* qualifications for 2019 will turn their attention after Burghley to Blenheim, Ballindenisk, and Boekelo, and the latter—renowned for hosting the best parties on the circuit—hosts the Nations Cup final as well.

The young horses are the focus at Le Lion d’Angers in October, which provides world championships for six- and seven-year-olds, and then it’s a long drive down to Pau, located in the Pyrenees in the very south of France, for a last stab at a CCI4* before winter closes in.

-Photo credits: Shannon Brinkman; Erin Gilmore; Thomas Reiner.