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March 26, 2010

We’re Seeing An Unstable Driving Pyramid

Our columnist worries that the time and money required to drive, especially at the advanced level, has jeopardized the stability of the sport.

With the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games creeping ever closer, all eyes in the combined driving world are focused on the four-in-hand division which, because the WEG is being held on U.S. soil, is the largest it’s ever been.

After October of 2010, however, what’s now one of the largest divisions at the advanced level will likely become the smallest. I like to think of myself as a realist not a pessimist, and what I optimistically hope is that the loss of some of the four-in-hands will be a gain for the pairs and even single horse classes.

But the fact of the matter is that the entire advanced level in combined driving is shrinking. Last year about this time, I worried that the sport as a whole would be reduced as a result of the dismal economy. Happily, driving seems to have weathered the uncertainty well. So now it’s time to look ahead and try to grow the sport again.

We often use the pyramid analogy to explain that in order to support the top echelon of our sport, we need to have strength at the base. But over the past decade, the base hasn’t grown, and I don’t think we can afford to wait.

Even if the number of competitive drivers at all levels was to double, advanced drivers would still number fewer than 200, and membership is un-likely to double anytime soon. Yet there are some things that can be done to fertilize this languishing division.

Several years ago the American Driving Society made changes that made the steps up through the levels—training, preliminary, intermediate, advanced—logical and progressive. Before that time, few competitions offered an intermediate level. Drivers went straight from preliminary to advanced, and usually without good results, mainly because the dressage training was lacking.

By making the preliminary level easier (limiting the number of gates in an obstacle to four, for example) many drivers who’d been satisfied staying at the preliminary level were persuaded to move up. The requirements in the intermediate dressage test asked more, but not too much of the horse.

Today, intermediate classes are well filled with drivers ready to move up from preliminary, but also with those who could—or should—move up to advanced. But they don’t, or won’t. Why?

I asked a variety of drivers of various levels, from all corners of the country to share their thoughts on this topic. Their responses were strong and surprisingly of one voice.

Their short answer: time and money.

For a first-time advanced competitor, who probably will go to at least one event that’s sanctioned by the Fédération Equestre Internationale as well as the U.S. Equestrian Federation, the out-of-the-box costs will exceed $500 before making the first entry. Passports, High Performance fees, membership fees, horse recording, drug fees, etc., make people feel like they are being “nickel-and-dimed to death.”

 A Costly Endeavor

An advanced competition is often longer by one or sometimes two days. Clinics are often tacked onto the front or back of a competition—another few days away from home. A weekend is now a week or more, and that means not only food and lodging expense, but also loss of income if one is employed plus other expenses involved with leaving home.

Many competitors report that in order to be competitive, extra training is required (more fees). Even without outside training, the time it takes to train a horse or pony to have the strength and fitness to do the collected movements that the advanced dressage test requires and complete the marathon in good shape is significant.

Competitors also mention the need to have two vehicles and harness—one for dressage and cones and another for the marathon. Two vehicles and perhaps several horses or ponies require one huge truck and trailer or several smaller ones. Then one needs at least one (for a single, more for pairs and four-in-hands) good friend or paid staff to help.

For many drivers who just want to move up a level because they feel they’re ready, the cost just isn’t worth it if they don’t have World Championship ambitions. That’s not to say that the talent might not be there—there may be a medal winner in our midst who will forever remain undecorated.

Perusing the Driving Statistical Review in the Chronicle’s American Horses In Sport issue (Feb. 5), I noted that a significant number of drivers listed are either relatively wealthy, considered professional or occasionally both. There are, of course, exceptions.

Many years ago, when the World Championship was only for teams of horses, the National Federation requirements for driver and organizer were much simpler. Membership was required, and a drug fee per horse was collected by the organizer. The organizers produced a prize list, paid a low fee to be recognized, hired NF-approved judges and filed the results along with the collected fees at the conclusion of the competition. Looking back, those were the good old days!

Besides drivers, we need organizers who are willing to put on competitions that include the advanced level. Current rules require that the advanced level must be recognized by the USEF and quite a few even seek recognition by the FEI.

Going from being an ADS competition to a USEF competition for an organizer is a huge step. The fees aren’t so horrendous, but the paperwork is daunting. And the addition of a recognized course designer (there are just a handful in the United States) and properly credentialed judges and other officials can add up.

And an event that isn’t in the Southeast in the spring or fall may not get enough entries to warrant all the extra expense and aggravation. It’s a vicious circle. Some competitions have dropped their FEI sanctioning while others have dropped USEF recognition and offer only intermediate.

A few organizers have found ways to avoid being USEF-recognized and yet offer something for their local advanced drivers. By hosting a horse driving trial, these organizers can offer advanced level under the umbrella of the ADS.

Usually held over one or two days, the HDT doesn’t include a horse inspection, drivers can do the advanced dressage and cones but drive only Section E of the marathon. Fewer officials are required—a cost savings to the organizer. For the driver, the standard track and weight requirements are waived—a cost savings for the competitor who doesn’t have the latest carriage.

A rule change proposal has been submitted to the ADS, which, for lack of another name, is called “interadvanced.” If adopted, competitors would be able to drive the advanced dressage test, drive the advanced cones width, but do an intermediate marathon. There would be no horse inspection.

Is this a perfect solution? Probably not. It may be a Band-Aid, but sometimes a Band-Aid is what’s required. Am I being overly dramatic? Maybe, but let’s get a dialogue going before we lose the advanced division altogether. A stepping stone may be just what our sport needs.

Respect Is Vital

I’m bringing up this issue so that we can talk about it and find ways to preserve the highest, best, most exciting, inspiring, send-chills-down-your-spine level of combined driving. It’s not much fun to be the only one in a class, even if you do score well. It’s been such a thrill these past two years to watch so many four-in-hands go head-to-head hoping to drive at WEG.

We need a strong advanced level in all six classes: single horse, single pony, pair horse, pair pony, four-in-hand horses and four-in-hand ponies. These are the competitors that spectators come to see. These are the classes that big sponsors want to support. Maybe in order to grow the base, we need to grow the tip.

In 2000, 27 single horses were entered at the Live Oak CDE (Fla.). That was the year that the World Singles Championship was to be held at Gladstone but was cancelled due to the West Nile virus threat.

Obviously, the United States can’t host a World Championship just to boost our numbers, but why can’t we make our own National Championships important enough to attract drivers? So far, I’ve been unable to even find out when and where the 2010 National Driving Championships will be held, and we’re well into March!

The National Championships haven’t received the respect that they deserve, not only from the driving media, but sometimes also from the organizers of the competition that hosts them.

There’s been much discussion in the past about the National Championships. In a country as large as these United States, it’s hard to assemble every one of the top drivers, so there have been times when it’s been believed that the best drivers didn’t participate, diminishing the importance of the championship.

When the WEG is over, the driving world will be left with a world-class driving venue with world-class obstacles. Kentucky isn’t the center of the United States, but it is not East Coast or West Coast. It’s not in the backyard of any one international driver who can claim any homefield advantage.

Perhaps now is the time to lobby for a permanent site for the USEF National Combined Driving Championships beginning in 2011 and make it a big deal. Offer significant prizes. When the dust has settled from the WEG, we should concentrate our combined efforts to support something that would be a true National Championship, one that would receive the respect it deserves and provide an incentive for drivers to set their sights higher. 

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. "We’re Seeing An Unstable Driving Pyramid" ran in the March 26 issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.

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