Although our columnist had her doubts beforehand, she ended up thrilled with the event and the legacy the WEG has left for combined driving.
The Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games are over, and from my perspective it was a great success. To be honest, there were times during the months leading up to the WEG that I was skeptical. Would ticket sales meet expectations or fall terribly short? Would the transportation system work? Would the vendors in the trade fair recoup the hefty upfront costs?
Hearing rumors from various souraces, some more reliable than others, added to my concerns. But as I headed to Lexington, Ky., I determined that I would put my skepticism aside and be an impartial observer.
From the moment I picked up my press credentials on Oct. 5, until the end the following Monday when I thanked the people who were stationed at my hotel to help with the media shuttles, I was nothing but impressed by the entire WEG effort.
My primary interest is driving, and I freely admit that I am not very knowledgeable about the other disciplines. Because of the vast distance between the driving stadium at one end and the indoor arena on the other, my WEG experience was somewhat limited. This might be my one criticism: the distance was daunting.
It was thrilling to see the stadium filled with spectators on the two days of driving dressage. With only 25 competitors, each of the four sessions took just 11⁄2 hours with a four-hour lunch break each day. But with the brilliant sunshine and warm temperatures, spectators weren’t so unhappy with the short days. There was plenty of time to make the long walk back and forth and still have time to shop.
On marathon day, media staff reported the attendance at 44,954. The first drivers started on Section E (the section where the obstacles are located) around 11 a.m. I wouldn’t say that all 45,000 people watched 25 drivers negotiate the eight obstacles all day, but I guess that a significant percentage did.
There were four obstacles located in the area behind and below the driving stadium. They were obstacle 7, The Wagon Yard; obstacle 4, Walnut Hill; obstacle 6, Squirrel Grove; and obstacle 5, The Stone Garden. If one wanted to follow a competitor through all four, it was doable, especially with the 10-minute spacing between competitors. Normal spacing is five minutes, but with only 25 competitors, doubling the time between them ensured that those who bought tickets would not arrive to discover that the marathon was already over.
I started my day at the Squirrel Grove, and at that time there were about 50 spectators around the perimeter. It looked like there was a fairly good crowd at Walnut Hill. With the hill and stream and sharp turns I guessed correctly it would be one of the most popular obstacles to watch.
I heard announcer Geoff Morgan giving accurate analyses of the drivers as they negotiated the first few obstacles. When the first driver, Germany’s Georg Von Stein, completed Walnut Hill, I saw something I’ve only seen at driving events in Europe: swarms of spectators heading toward me. They were coming to Squirrel Grove as well as The Stone Garden, which was the farthest away. More came down over the hill. All of a sudden instead of 50, there were hundreds surrounding the Squirrel Grove to watch a driver probably none of them had heard of before. As Von Stein completed the Squirrel Grove, the mass moved on to obstacle 7. Like flocks of birds, the crowds moved en masse throughout the day.
Among the 45,000 spectators probably 1,000 were knowledgeable about driving, and I occasionally overheard them answer questions and explain what is required by the competitor and the two grooms who must ride on the back of the carriage to successfully complete the obstacle. Geoff Morgan, also aware that the crowd was uneducated about the complexities of obstacle driving and scoring, was careful to describe the action in a meaningful way.
Promoting Our Competitions
Driving is one of the smallest of the World Championship disciplines and one of the most complex. There are few competitions in this country that adequately challenge the top echelon. And that elite group, if you include singles, pairs and pony drivers as well as four-in-hands, barely numbers 50.
Driving is already popular in Europe. Now this WEG has given the driving community the opportunity to show our sport to the United States. Our challenge is to capitalize on it.
All of us in the driving fraternity need to find ways to keep the spirit of WEG alive. Many competitions would welcome more competitors, but they also would like more spectators. Now that spectators have witnessed the excitement of combined driving, we need to let them know that it exists throughout the country. We need to renew our commitment to promoting our competitions within our local communities and beyond.
Not every organization has the wherewithal to put billboards on I-75 like Live Oak (Fla.) or run ads in equestrian magazines or local papers. But we can put up posters—and not just in tack shops or feed stores. We can encourage and support magazines such as the Chronicle to include coverage of driving. Spectators can be just as valuable to a competition as competitors. Spectators attract sponsors, and driving could not exist without sponsorship.
For many years, the Fair Hill International (Md.) included driving along with eventing, and it was a popular combination for spectators. Of course it was a challenge for the organizers and course designers to make it work, but I believe that cooperative efforts like this are perfect ways to showcase both disciplines.
A True Championship
We were all disappointed that more international competitors didn’t come to Lexington. Understandably it was a question of economics. For those who did not realistically have a chance for a medal, it just wasn’t feasible. In 1993 when the World Pair Championship was held at Gladstone, N.J., trans-Atlantic transportation was subsidized, and many horses were sold in the United States following the competition and didn’t make the return trip.
There are those who question whether this was a true World Championship. In my opinion it was. The world’s best drivers came and won. As long as the number of countries satisfied the rule requirements, it qualified officially. What was missing was the middle of the pack. With 25 more drivers nipping at the heels of the eventual medal winners, who knows whether the final placings might have been reorganized. Anything can happen. Those who came and played deserved what they won.
I was also proud of the driving spectators. It was interesting that few brought their American flags. The Germans had their flags, and the Dutch wore their orange. With great spirit and hospitality the predominantly American crowd cheered for all the drivers regardless of nationality.
Borders between countries, even those separated by large bodies of water, have become transparent in our small driving world. In the last few years, the American drivers have benefited from the assistance of some of the top European drivers. As examples: Koos de Ronde of the Netherlands worked with the single drivers leading up to and during the 2010 World Singles Championship in Italy; Michael Freund coached the U.S. team along with Peter Tischer, who spent the last two years flying back and forth from his home in Germany to work with the U.S. drivers on their journey to WEG; Boyd Exell has worked with various American drivers.
To reciprocate, pony driver Allison Stroud loaned her van to the Dutch drivers for the WEG, and single driver Bob Koopman drove to Cincinnati to pick them up at the airport and transport them to Lexington. Mark Schmitt of Montana, whose team of horses were qualified to compete at WEG, made them available to Polish driver Piotr Mazurek. Keady Cadwell loaned him a marathon carriage, and Wendy Ying provided the presentation carriage and harness. It isn’t surprising that the American spectators felt a close connection to all the European competitors.
I’m sure I’m not the only one to discover that after years of anticipation, I feel somewhat sad that it’s over. I know everyone has their own WEG experience, and in the short time since, it’s been wonderful to exchange those experiences with competitors, volunteers and spectators.
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.