There aren’t a lot of surprises when U.S. veteran driver Larry Poulin enters a competition, and that’s just the way he likes it.
Poulin, who’s been to the World Pairs Driving Championships seven times already, had one last chance to impress the U.S. selectors for this year’s championships. And he undoubtedly succeeded in that goal at the Bromont CAI-A in Bromont, Que., June 26-28.
His impressive win in the FEI pair horse division was just one more tangible validation of the training program he’s been following for the past decade, and it silenced any doubts that he’s still at the top of his game. Driving Natasha Grigg’s pair, Poulin was rewarded with a score of 38.14 in dressage, the best he’s ever received with the combination.
“They were so relaxed and loose,” said Poulin, Petersham, Mass. He credited consistency as the key for these particular horses. Rivage, an 11-year-old, gray U.S.-bred Oldenburg, and Wiley, a 10-year-old imported Hanoverian, can work like one when they’re on, and they’ve been on more than off this past year. Poulin can’t say enough about Wiley, the newest member of the team.
“He’s learned so much this year,” he said of the dark bay drop-shadow to the grays Rivage and Cody (Wiley’s partner in the marathon). “He does all three phases now. In the marathon he’s equally as good as the other guys, and he listens, but he’s not strong. He knows what to do.”
A Sweet Sweep
Poulin won all three phases of the Bromont competition against two other drivers in the FEI pair horse class, Lisa Singer and Alan Aulson. He did hit a knockdown in the first hazard, which cost him a couple of points, but that was his biggest flaw all weekend.
“They were Lisa Singer hazards,” Poulin joked of the seven obstacles designed by Richard Papens of Belgium. “She does better in the technical hazards, while I do better in galloping ones.”
Nonetheless, he managed to win five of them, giving him a 13-point cushion going into the final cones phase.
“For the [hilly] terrain here in Bromont, the marathon course was very horse-friendly and well thought out,” Singer said. “Section A was a gradual downhill for at least 80 percent of the way—a little thick going in the meadow but hard dirt surface the rest of the way. The hazards were good, and even the one that I thought would catch a few people with the jump corner sticking out had no problems that I knew of. There was respect!”
The arena in which the cones competition was held had a sandy surface, causing the carriages to skid wildly as drivers tried to make their times. Designed as a two-phase course, drivers had to navigate the first 16 sets of cones without course or time penalties in order to be allowed to drive the final four, which were set wider to encourage speed.
None of the advanced drivers were able to complete the 20 sets, however. Poulin had no balls down, but he did incur time penalties, as did second-placed Singer.
Poulin rides all of his driving horses. Coming from a background in ridden dressage (Michael Poulin is his uncle), Larry knows the benefits of working them under saddle.
“They learn to do the work without it being work,” he said.
He’s also spent plenty of time driving his three horses as singles, believing that it gets them more active behind and elevated in front. It’s worked particularly well with Rivage. Poulin schools the dressage test with each put to an old Bennington cart of Grigg’s.
Unlike most driving horses, Larry’s have also proven their worth at ridden dressage competitions. Cody, the marathon specialist, is competing at Prix St. Georges, and Wiley and Rivage are doing fourth level. Wiley has been learning piaffe and other Grand Prix movements as well.
The World Pairs Championships will be held in Kecskemet, Hungary, in mid-August, and if he’s selected, it will be Larry’s eighth World Championship appearance. Each win for Larry and his pair is slightly bittersweet these days, however, as driver and horses will retire after the Lexington CDE (Ky.) in October.
Perfecting The Partnerships
Mary Mott-Kocsis, of Baptistown, N.J., won the FEI single pony class. Although there was only one other single pony entry in her division, she was thrilled with her win, earning the fourth-best score of the FEI divisions.
Mott-Kocsis drives Stanhope Express, or “Stanley,” a 10-year-old gelding out of her Lippitt Morgan mare and a stallion driven by former champion Norm Sutton.
“I’m very lucky to have Stanley,” said Mott-Kocsis.
She doesn’t have her sights set on the World Combined Pony Driving Championships; instead, she drives at the advanced level “because Stanley can do it.” Mott-Kocsis claimed she doesn’t have the drive or the skill, but she likes the challenge of the competition.
“The advanced marathon sometimes intimidates me,” she admitted. “I know my weaknesses.”
Mott-Kocsis’ caution may have something to do with the fact that she’s a volunteer EMT when she’s not practicing law or driving her pony. She works in a private practice and also acts as a municipal prosecutor for five towns in New Jersey.
Although she beat Leslie Berndl—who is hoping to go to the World Pony Championships—in dressage, Mott-Kocsis said her accuracy was a little bit off at Bromont.
“I had a hard time finding the centerline,” she said, noting that the arena was set up at an angle, which threw her off psychologically.
Berndl, Newcastle, Calif., drove Greenvale’s Fred Astaire and had the best marathon overall in the FEI division, scoring 68.70 with the 12.1-hand Welsh pony. She’s got her sights set on the championships, Aug. 13-16 in St. Martin, Greven, Germany.
Kim Stover, Smyrna, Del., won the advanced single horse class at Bromont driving Laughlin, an 8-year-old Conne-mara-Thoroughbred she bought out of a field as a 2-year-old.
Stover has brought “Lucky” along slowly, starting with light work under saddle and then in harness, always allowing lots of time off until he was ready to compete at the training level at the age of 4. By 2008, Stover wasn’t sure he was ready for intermediate, but they gave it a try and found success, so the duo moved up to advanced this year.
“The trot work is his weak link,” said Stover. “The Thoroughbred comes out.”
A marathon hazard was situated near the dressage arena, so when they drove the dressage phase, Stover said Lucky added some movements that definitely weren’t written in the test.
“I think he was doing a tribute to Michael Jackson,” she said. “There were moments he definitely wasn’t paying attention to me; he was looking at the hazard.”
Stover and Lucky won the marathon in their class and won the cones in their class and in the division.
“The track was set with wide open sets of cones that came back into tight, twisting sets of cones,” she explained. “There were also two zigzags. Fortunately for me, Lucky was nicely in my hand in the warm-up and remained there when we entered the main arena. Transitions were the key for us—that and a big long trot that I used until the last set of cones, where we galloped to the finish.”
They incurred just 1.48 time penalties.
Stover said it’s made a big difference having Lucky since he was 2. “I know him inside and out,” she said. “He’s not the kind I could have rushed. His attitude is positive, but he does have an opinion, as well as a wonderful sense of humor.”