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September 11, 2009

Stafford Stands Out At FEI World Combined Pony Driving Championships

She brings home the only U.S. medal—a bronze—as Germany sweeps the gold medals.

In 2005, Suzy Stafford was selected to compete at the FEI World Combined Pony Driving Championships with Courage To Lead. But when the Morgan pony was injured just before the championships, Stafford had to quickly adjust to a new pony—Cefnoakpark Bouncer, whom she drove to the individual gold medal.

Fast forward to 2009, and Stafford returned with another opportunity to compete Courage To Lead, Beverley Lesher’s now 12-year-old mare, at the World Championships, this time Aug. 13-16 near Munster, Germany.

Coming into the decisive cones phase, Stafford stood in second place, but two balls down relegated her to the bronze medal.

“I had hoped to win the gold medal again this year with Courage To Lead,” said Stafford, of Coatesville, Pa. “She’s very consistent in all three phases and lovely to drive.”

Lesher, who is Stafford’s groom for dressage and cones as well as pony owner, might start breeding her mare, so Stafford may be looking for new partners.

“I’d love to keep competing with Courage To Lead, but if that’s no longer possible, I’ll consider moving on to drive a pair of small horses,” she said. “But nothing is certain yet. I like to keep all my options open.”

A bit of luck, a good deal of concentration and the cheers of her countrymen in orange helped young Melanie Becker and her pony claim the individual gold medal for single ponies.

Becker rose from ninth place in dressage, through a fast trip on the marathon course and a win in the cones competition, to an individual title.

At only 17 years old, Becker was fairly inexperienced at this level of competition and had not been chosen to compete on the Dutch team. As unexpected as her win may have been, she and the many Dutch fans were clearly ecstatic.

“I was very nervous, but I knew I had to concentrate,” said Becker of her feeling before the cones phase. “I was told to drive like the marathon, so I did that. It was great to hear all the Dutch fans cheer; it helped me a lot.”

Germany’s Franz Josef Lehmkuhl led the single pony drivers after dressage with a score of 44.80 penalties. Fewer than 2 points behind him sat Denmark’s Peter Koux, the defending world champion. Koux finished sixth overall, dropping down the ranks after the marathon, which he completed in 23rd place.

In looking toward the marathon, Lehmkuhl admitted that, at 61 years old, he is “not so fast in the marathon anymore.” He did, however, promise that he would try to keep up and that he would be ably assisted by his navigator of more than 15 years.

Lehmkuhl finished the marathon in 16th place, came in ninth in the cones competition, and wound up with the individual silver medal.

New Name In Pairs

Neither Daniel Schneiders nor his brother Dennis were chosen to compete on the German team. Both were representing their country as individuals in the pair pony division.

But they proved themselves among the best, with Dennis finishing in the top 10, and Daniel, a 28-year-old farrier, winning the individual gold.

Daniel started out with a dressage score of 51.20, which put him in fourth place. He then finished the marathon in second place and the cones phase in third place (clear but with a few time faults), which placed him squarely in gold-medal territory.

“It is a great feeling to become world champion,” said Daniel. “I have always dreamed of winning the gold medal, and I hope to be on the German team in the future to make a contribution to the team result as well.”

After his emotional win, Daniel participated in a radio interview and, somewhat shyly, accepted the many congratulations and handshakes from the German fans gathered around the radio broadcast booth.

Germany’s Stephan Koch had taken the lead after dressage, with a score of 40.83 penalty points, almost 4 points ahead of his nearest rival, fellow countryman Steffen Abicht.

Koch trained his ponies himself, and dressage and cones are his specialties. He said, “I don’t like taking too many risks in the marathon.”

And he was true to his word with a 22nd-placed finish in the marathon. But Koch finished the cones phase in ninth place and won the individual silver medal.

Tracey Morgan finished in fifth place for the United States, driving her Dartmoor mares, Farnley Coquette and Lizwell Gambling Queen. She climbed five spots by driving within the time allowed and dropping only one ball in the cones.

Unfortunately for the U.S. team, the defending world champion pair pony driver, Miranda Cadwell of Southern Pines, N.C., had a disappointing dressage test and scored a surprising 71.68 penalty points. She finished the dressage phase in 33rd place out of 34 competitors.

“I normally use another pony in dressage, but he was recovering from a tendon injury,” she said. “I wanted to spare him for the marathon. I knew it was not going to be perfect.”

She and her mixed pair of ponies flew through the marathon on Saturday, finishing in seventh place, but it was difficult to overcome her dressage score and course and time penalties in the cones. She wound up in 19th place overall.

Gold And Silver For German Four-In-Hands


The winner in the four-in-hand division led from wire to wire. Germany’s Tobias Bücker, a favorite among the German fans and a local hero from a town only a few miles from the competition site, had been on several gold-medal teams in the past but had never won an individual gold.

Following his beautiful dressage test, for which he received 42.75 penalties, Bücker showed himself to be a true team player. He said, “To become team world champion is more important than to become individual world champion.”

In the end, though, he managed both.

“My dream of becoming world champion has come true,” he said. “In the past World Championships, there always was something preventing me from winning the individual gold with my four-in-hand, and this time, everything was right. I drove for my team, not myself. Although I have reached my goal, I will stay loyal to the driving sport and will continue to compete with my ponies.”

The defending world champion in this division, Jan de Boer of the Netherlands, began the competition in fourth place after dressage and finished fourth overall, with a second-placed finish in the marathon.

Germany’s Steffen Brauchle earned 50.30 penalty points for his dressage test and, in the end, won the individual silver medal.

Brauchle reveled in the raucous applause and cheers that greeted him at every turn. Standing in second place after the marathon, he was next-to-last to go on Dr. Wolfgang Asendorf’s difficult, fast cones course. After a nearly double-clear round (no balls down and just .24 time faults), he secured the team gold medal for Germany and took a jubilant lap of honor while Bücker waited to start his round.

Belgium’s Tinne Bax was standing in second place after dressage (44.67) but finished the weekend with an individual bronze medal.

U.S. Team Finishes Fourth

In addition to two individual gold medals, Germany won the team gold medal. The Netherlands drove into silver-medal position, and Belgium won the team bronze. Although more than 10 points separated the U.S. team from the Belgians, the U.S. drivers maintained fourth place.

The U.S. team (Sara Schmitt, Stafford, Cadwell, Tracey Morgan, Laurie Astegiano and Allison Stroud) started out with high hopes for a medal. After dressage, the U.S. drivers stood in fourth place, a mere 1.01 points behind the Dutch team. Ahead of them were the Belgians and, securely in the lead, the Germans, who were defending their team gold medal from the previous World Championships in Denmark in 2007.

Individually, the U.S. drivers had finished the dressage with promising scores as well. Stafford was in fourth place (48.51) among the single ponies, and Morgan (53.50) and Katie Whaley (57.34) finished in sixth and tied for 11th, respectively, among the pairs of ponies.

Tidbits

•    90 drivers competed.

•    18 nations were represented.

•    Held at the Riding and Driving Center Greven-Bockholt near Munich, Germany.

•    Two of the three gold medalists—Melanie Becker and Daniel Schneiders—hadn’t been selected for their teams but were competing as individuals.

•    U.S. final placings included: single ponies: Suzy Stafford, third; pair ponies: Tracey Morgan, fifth; Miranda Cadwell, 19th; Katie Whaley, 20th; four-in-hands: Laurie Astegiano, 11th; Allison Stroud, 16th.

On marathon day, the crowds were thick around each obstacle and on the hill in the center of the main viewing area, with six of the eight obstacles laid out before the spectators in a large circle.

Sadly, though, several of the U.S. drivers ran into problems on the marathon. Morgan, of Bethesda, Md., had trouble turning her pair of Dartmoor ponies in the first few obstacles, and she and her navigator finally realized that one of the ponies had her tongue over the bit. Things improved for them after they corrected that problem, and they finished that phase in 16th.

Schmitt, of Glenn Gardner, N.J., and her pony Batman missed a gate in obstacle 2 and were eliminated. Sherri Dolan, competing as an individual, had a problem with Smoke’s harness and ended up receiving time penalties. The next morning, Smoke was lame, and Dolan didn’t compete in the cones phase.

“I’m very pleased with the results of Suzy Stafford and Tracey Morgan,” said U.S. chef d’equipe Chester Weber. “We’ll go home and get some work done to be able to be back in the top 10 again in two years. Our focus will be mainly on marathon and cones. We have a few young pony drivers who are coming along so we will hopefully be able to create new talent and have an even wider choice for the future.”

In an elaborate awards ceremony featuring cheering, singing and flag-waving fans, antique and classic automobiles, a double-decker party bus with a band on top dressed in red sequins and playing swing music and an enormous German flag, the ecstatic German fans helped to crown this year’s world champions. 

 
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