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February 7, 2011

Our Driving Programs Are Better Than Ever

On the heels of the WEG, our columnist sees new trends and programs shaping up to improve drivers at all levels

Now that the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games are over, the big question in the driving world is, “What now?” We concentrated so much of our attention and energy during the months leading up to the WEG that it was almost a letdown once it was over.

Of course one always dreams of a clean sweep—team gold and individual gold, silver and bronze. But team silver for Jim Fairclough, Tucker Johnson and Chester Weber and an individual bronze medal for Johnson was more than enough to make everyone proud.

Johnson chose the WEG as his last competition. Although he was asked repeatedly if winning two medals would persuade him to change his mind, he was quite firm with his answer, “No.” Several other drivers also indicated that they would retire from competing—at least at the FEI level with a team—after the WEG. That list includes Cindy O’Reilly, Gary Stover and Bill Long.

But at the close of the WEG, Weber was confident there would be an up-and-coming young driver to fill the hole left by Johnson. Throughout the lead up to the WEG, Weber has been the sport’s biggest cheerleader, encouraging young drivers like Joe Yoder of Montana and Josh Rector of Arizona.

The single drivers did not fare as well at their World Championship in July in Pratoni del Vivaro, Italy. Kim Stover was the top U.S. driver, finishing 19th, although she placed fourth in Christian Iseli’s demanding cones course. Robin Groves and Bill Peacock placed 47th and 53rd respectively, leaving the team in 11th place, the same as in 2008.

First alternate for the team Donna Crookston was eliminated for missing a gate in an obstacle. Bob Koopman also went as an individual, calling the trip a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” and finishing 55th. If the measure of success is winning medals, it was disappointing. But being able to compete against the best in the world and learn from the experience can also be considered a valuable—yet very expensive—effort.

Training Programs

Our four-in-hand drivers who year after year have represented the United States at World Championships have a depth of experience in Europe that our single and even pair drivers have not had. In preparation for the WEG, knowing that the host country would be able to pick several drivers to compete as individuals, the U.S. Equestrian Federation planned a comprehensive training program based in the United States designed for those drivers without international experience.

For the dozen drivers vying for a spot on the U.S. squad, the USEF hired Peter Tischer and Michael Freund, both of Germany, to make monthly trips here to work with them. Tischer made the rounds from Florida to North Carolina, Texas, Illinois and other locales to work with the individual candidates, while Freund’s focus was on those drivers most likely to comprise the team. Having the same trainers month after month, who really got to know the drivers, was a great success.

I don’t know the cost of this program, but it surely was less expensive than sending teams to Europe. And while there are those who believe there’s no substitution for that kind of experience, this is not a perfect world. And not all drivers have the time or the resources to make that commitment.

I hope this is a training model that can be repeated for our single and pair drivers. The USEF Driving Committee has, in fact, put together a program (with a significant budget) that mimics the one just completed for four-in-hands, and Freund has agreed to be the technical advisor. In 2011 the horse pairs and ponies (singles, pairs and fours) will have their World Championships, so the training effort will be directed toward them for the first half of the year and then the singles and teams will be targeted in the fall as they look to their 2012 World Championships.

This kind of program will strengthen and deepen our pool of advanced drivers and provide continuity to a training program that has been hit or miss in the past. Ed Young, vice chair of the USEF High Performance Committee for Driving said, “If we continue on the same road [as the past] we won’t have any more success than we’ve had.”

Strengthening The Base

Now that the WEG is over, let’s hope the pair division will grow again. At one time it was a strong and healthy division (and a medal winning one in 1991 when Fairclough, Johnson and Lana Wright won the team gold in Austria.) Between WEG fever and the popularity of the World Championships for ponies and single horses, the pair division is almost non-existent.

We can’t have a strong top of the pyramid without a solid base. Like much in life, driving trends seem to be cyclical. So it was great to see that the Katydid Combined Driving Event (S.C.), which was unable to fill classes at the training level in previous years (so stopped offering it), had a bumper crop in 2010. Enough interest was expressed to offer the lower level again. The result: 29 training level entries, with 17 in the single pony class!

The lower levels have always been the bread and butter of combined driving. In the effort to strengthen our advanced level, we need to ensure that our shape remains a pyramid and doesn’t become a column.

Unfortunately, combined driving limits participation in some ways, with a limited number of hours that a judge can judge—about eight, not including breaks. Depending on the length of the test, this equals 45 to 50 competitors. Thus, a competition can’t accept more entries unless it holds dressage over two days or has a facility that can accommodate two rings and the resources to hire more judges.

If dressage tests could be written for all levels that could adequately test the training of the horses and ponies, but be driven in much less time, the number of competitors could increase. And the boredom factor for spectators would be significantly reduced!

Not all driving events attract a sufficient number of entries in advanced classes to offset the additional expense and effort of being recognized by the USEF. (All advanced events are required to be USEF sanctioned, and that requires hiring a USEF-approved course designer, additional officials, strict reporting requirements, additional insurance coverage and additional fees for competitors.)

Some organizers have been creative in finding ways to offer advanced drivers the opportunity without the expense of being USEF sanctioned. In 2010, The American Driving Society decided, on a one-year trial basis, to allow those shows that cannot fill an advanced division, with approval from the ADS Combined Driving Committee, to hold an “intermediate II” level. Competitors at this level drove the FEI dressage test and used the FEI distances, speeds and widths for cones, but drove an intermediate marathon (fewer gates in the obstacles being the most significant difference). Several events took advantage of this opportunity and reported favorably.

Walnut Hill Continues In 2011

On the pleasure driving front, we had the passing of Bill Remley, the founder, organizer and driving force behind the Walnut Hill Carriage Driving Competition (N.Y.). Bill’s passion for the history, tradition and elegance of carriage driving was channeled for 38 years into what became the country’s premier pleasure driving competition.

The question was: Can it continue without its skipper at the helm?

The answer for 2010 at least was a resounding “yes” as friends and family of Remley, Walnut Hill and pleasure driving came together to make the 39th annual competition something that Bill would be proud of. Bill’s daughter Tricia took over as chairman, with her mother Sue and brother David at her side, along with Ed Young as manager. Announcer Peter Doubleday, during a brief tribute to Bill on Friday evening, reiterated the sentiments of the organizers that this Walnut Hill was not to be a sad occasion, that Bill would be the first one to say, “The show must go on.”

And the show did go on. The drivers turned themselves out to the highest of standards as personal tributes to Remley, his family and everyone involved with Walnut Hill. The organizers have assured the driving community that there will be a 40th annual Walnut Hill Carriage Driving Competition in 2011.

Spreading The Word

The National Drive, a non-competitive, weeklong, “unorganized” gathering took their show on the road from the Kentucky Horse Park to the Hoosier Horse Park (Ind.) this year.

While some drivers who attend The National Drive shun competition and anything akin to it, many of these non-competitive types took advantage of the opportunities available, including practicing their skill in the cones courses that were set up and could be driven at will, without being scored, timed or placed. The combined driving obstacles, still flagged from the Indiana CDE held a couple of weeks earlier, were also well used. There was often a line of carriages waiting their turn to practice in the water obstacle.

Noteworthy was the large number of people who listened attentively to talks on proper use of the whip and rein handling using the Achenbach style and to the style show put on by Hats’ Off Boutique. All of the professional clinicians found their dance cards full with drivers wanting lessons. This tells me that in addition to those who come to The National Drive just to drive and socialize with like-minded people, a significant number of people also come because they don’t have opportunities to learn where they live. They are welcomed with open arms regardless of their somewhat less than traditional turnouts. One driver even used a golf cart put to a horse as his “carriage!”

With the extensive exposure that the WEG provided driving, I hope an interest will be sparked, particularly in equestrians of other disciplines, to give driving a try.

Carriage driving has tradition, elegance, excitement. It’s a family sport, even if your family extends beyond blood relatives. It’s a sport that can be shared with non-horsey friends. Spread the word, share the fun.

Ann 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., in the summer and Southern Pines, N.C., in the winter. She began contributing to Between Rounds in 2004.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. "Our Driving Programs Are Better Than Ever" ran in the Feb. 7, 2011 issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.