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June 25, 2010

The Journey From Leather To Synthetic

Our columnist reflects on the sport’s history and the modernization that will be showcased at the upcoming World Equestrian Games.

An advanced four-in-hand competitor contacted a show secretary and asked if the competition would allow him to enter but not do Section A (Section A is approximately 5km of any pace) of the marathon. His reason was that the track was “too rough.”

As the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games approach and U.S. drivers are working hard to make their last few competitions count before the team and individual drivers are selected, this statement really made me stop and think.

Isn’t combined driving supposed to be a test of agility, obedience, strength and endurance? Wasn’t it modeled after eventing, which in turn was modeled after games designed by cavalry officers to “simulate the kinds of athletic feats that a trained army horse might be expected to perform under actual battlefield conditions?”

It’s obvious that the sport no longer tests horses for battlefield conditions (although some might argue this point in a few isolated circumstances!). So how did we get from there to where we are today?

I looked back in time to the first few driving events in this country and read about some of the first few World Championships. The sport of combined driving isn’t all that old –about 40 years– and there are quite a few organizers and drivers who are still around and still involved who can document how the sport has changed. Jim Fairclough is one of those.

Jim’s father was a competitor at the first combined driving event held in this country, and Jim was on the carriage. It took place at Johnson Park in New Brunswick, N.J., in June 1970. Organized by Philip Hofmann, a respected horseman, founding member and first president of the American Driving Society as well as CEO of Johnson & Johnson, it was the first show to be run under the newly created Fédération Equestre Internationale rules for driving. The marathon was 15 miles long (24 km)!

Jim recalled that during the marathon, one of the horses lost a shoe, so they stopped (the marathon track was mostly on roads in those days), took the horse out of the team and finished with three horses! And they won the competition!

When the legality of this decision was questioned, someone actually phoned Prince Philip (who was the force behind the development of the original rules for combined driving) in England who verified that at the time, there was no rule stipulating that one had to finish with the same number of horses as he started with.

That rule was quickly added, along with other rules that said that you had to finish with both axles, all the wheels, etc. It was a rough and ready sport, in large part because there were no modern, marathon-specific carriages or harness, and things broke with terrifying regularity.

Like Matchsticks

Victor and Evelyn Shone held events between 1974-77, and several participants have endured to become leaders in our sport today as judges, drivers, clinicians, organizers: Deirdre Pirie, Craig Kellogg, Jean Kinsella, Macy Hill, Jamie O’Rourke, Holly Pulsifer and Richard Nicoll, to name a few.

When Deirdre Pirie convinced Holly Pulsifer that they should produce an event in Myopia, Mass., the two took a trip to the Windsor Driving Grand Prix (England) to look at their hazards, some of which were constructed of fence rails and hay bales—much different than some of the major construction that today’s obstacles undergo.

I remember in the late ’80s when Udo Hochgeschurz, a Canadian driver who won the World Pair Driving Championships in Hungary, in 1989, traveled to Metamora, Mich., to compete. He announced to the consternation of the organizers that he would make matchsticks out of the obstacles.

The first U.S. team to compete in a World Championship was fielded in 1980, and they finished last. Of the five drivers entered, Jim Fairclough, John Fairclough, Jamie O’Rourke, Clay Camp and Deirdre Pirie, only Pirie, competing as an individual, finished. (Incidentally, Germany and the Netherlands also failed to finish as a team.)

In the late ’80s, the dominance of U.S. drivers in dressage began. At the 1989 World Pairs Championship, Sharon Chesson placed first, Lana Wright fifth and Larry Poulin eighth. Unfortunately, the team was unable to capitalize on their achievement on the marathon. It didn’t take long before the Europeans took notice and closed the gap in dressage.

At the top levels (and even the lower ones for a long time) the marathon consisted of five sections, and B and D were walk sections. A was a trot section, C was a speed section where horses were expected to trot at 20 km per hour, and Section E contained the hazards (or obstacles as they are now called—a friendlier term than hazards, supposedly).

With a few exceptions, today’s marathons have been shortened to three sections, A, D and E, for a total maximum distance of 17 km with no speed section at all, even at World Championships.

So what sort of competition can we expect to see at the WEG? How have the horses and drivers changed over 40 years?

The equipment has changed exponentially. Four decades ago, all harness was leather. Today, many drivers still use traditional leather harness for the dressage and cones phases, but the improvements made to synthetic harness are so great that almost all use it on the marathon. The manufacturers have done such a good job simulating the look of leather that without close inspection it can be quite difficult to tell the difference.

Four-in-hand horse teams must pull a carriage weighing a minimum of 600 kg (over 1,300 pounds) so manufacturers have been faced with the challenge of producing a carriage that’s strong yet not a kilo more than necessary, remembering that three adults will add several hundred more pounds to the total weight.

In the “old days,” carriages were made of wood, and the wheels had hubs that got stuck on posts and trees. Equipment failure was a common cause of retirement or elimination. The grooms sat in whatever kind of back seat the carriage had, with little room if any to maneuver the carriage.

And then there was the referee, who sat in front next to the driver, counting breaks of pace, checking off course and obstacle gates, and basically providing a distraction for the driver.

Few vehicles had brakes, and those that did weren’t practical for the situation. Modern carriages have disc brakes on both the front and back wheels.

Probably the biggest change has been the addition of delayed steering, which allows the horses to turn before the carriage turns, thus increasing the driver’s ability to make sharper turns at greater speed in the obstacles. Without delayed steering, the driver had to be much more precise with his turns in the obstacles. Perhaps this change alone has helped less-talented reinsmen achieve success.

The quality of the horses has improved significantly, and the costs have risen accordingly. Many of the top drivers choose imported European warmbloods, which have the ability to perform the ever more difficult dressage movements on the latest FEI tests, such as shoulder-in and one-handed 15-meter circles, but also have the strength and stamina for the marathon.

For a while there was a trend toward smaller, lighter horses. The Hungarians were successful, particularly in the marathon with their smaller, agile horses, but the trend didn’t last. The American Morgan has been the exception to the rule and has been successful in singles, pairs and now four-in-hands with David Saunders handling the reins for Alan and Maureen Aulson’s team.

Today, instead of spending hours on conditioning and fitness, drivers can spend time training for dressage. A driver who has a substantial lead (10 to 20 points) is hard to beat on the marathon alone. Good dressage training serves the team well in the obstacles and later in cones.

Perhaps what’s being asked of the horses in dressage and in the hazards is the trade-off for the physical demands of strength and endurance of years past.

Personnel on the carriages wear protective headgear, protective vests and even the latest airbag vests in case of ejection from the vehicle. The only protection the horse has is the sympathy of his driver and, hopefully, the course designer and officials who are charged with looking out for his welfare.

A Good Impression

FEI officials have taken big steps to ensure the welfare of the horse is paramount. Excessive use of the whip isn’t tolerated, and in fact this has almost gone to the other extreme so that a driver hesitates to use it even when he feels it’s necessary.

Even with the reduced distances and speeds on the marathon, officials are vigilant to pull horses who look fatigued off the course. In the days of five-section marathons, horses were often already tired, visibly so, before they began the final section with the obstacles.

The sport is also much more of a test for the drivers—more difficult movements in dressage, diabolical turns in cones, improved design in obstacles with more options to consider and remember. Sharper, tighter turns require better rein handling skills. These are skills that must become instinctual. Younger drivers have sharper minds and more courage than the old guys, but those who’ve been around a while know which risks will pay off and which ones aren’t worth taking.

Richard Nicoll, the WEG course designer, had some thoughts. “Obstacle design has become much more uniform in dimensions compared to earlier times when we were still working out what was feasible for both drivers, horses and carriage. We should be testing the training level of the horse, the skill and judgment of the driver, teamwork of the driver and grooms and the physical fitness of the horse over a full marathon with all the obstacles. The obstacles should be safe, yet each one provides a slightly different challenge.”

The use of knockdowns (which incur 2 penalties each) encourages drivers to avoid running into posts and other parts of the obstacle with either the carriage or the horse. In the past, it wasn’t unusual for a driver to “bounce” his carriage off a post rather than avoid hitting it altogether.

With a large audience expected at the WEG, with many people who have never seen a combined driving event, it’s vitally important for the sport to leave a good impression. Richard has planned the position of the obstacles for easy viewing and to make each visually different.

“The obstacles will, I think, challenge the drivers and yet be gated in such a way so that they can choose a variety of routes and with the marathon course as a whole be an exciting and challenging course,” he predicted. 

Ann L. Pringle, currently the editor of The Driving Digest, was executive director of the American Driving Society for 20 years and editor of their publication, The Whip. She currently splits her time between Metamora, Mich., and Southern Pines, N.C. She began contributing to Between Rounds in 2004.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. "The Journey From Leather To Synthetic" ran in the June 25 issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.

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