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July 10, 2009

Will Combined Driving Survive In The Modern World?

With fewer competitors and competitions, our columnist sees the sport at a major crossroads.

A handful of combined driving events have gone on hiatus this year: Garden State (N.J), Iron Horse (Ill.), Ram Tap (Calif.), Lord Stirling (N.J). Not enough entries for some, a decline in sponsorship money for others, a little burnout for another. Hopefully, all will resume in 2010, but in these times, one shouldn’t take anything for granted.

In addition to these competitions, Gladstone (N.J.), Fair Hill (Md.), Georgia International all are gone for good, and all were once top competitions.

Some of these were lost before the current economic situation took charge, but I think it would be safe to say that if all of the above had enjoyed waiting lists of competitors, they would probably still be around today.

How do competitors decide which competitions to grace with their entries?

I did an informal Internet survey of about 50 competitors who are on my e-mail list. They covered the range from barely training level to World Championship competitors, from east to west coasts. I asked how they decided which competitions to attend, how much the current economy affected their plans, what sacrifices they made in order to keep competing, whether the list of officials or the show’s reputation affected their decisions, and how far in advance they planned their competition schedule.

Most said that they were choosing to attend competitions closer to home. But, remember, closer to home in the driving world still could mean several hundred miles–one way.

There are many competitions close to home for drivers who live in areas like central Florida, the Carolinas, or the Mid-Atlantic. For drivers in most of the rest of the country, “close to home” could be several states away.

If a competition has a strong base of local competitive drivers, the chance that they can meet their break-even point is greater than a competition that relies mostly on out-of-state entries.

Yet even in Florida where there is at least one competition a month from January through March, some were oversubscribed, others were below normal. By the end of March, some competitors said they had done enough already and chose to sit out Southern Pines (N.C.) and Georgia. The Georgia event canceled, and Southern Pines was down slightly.

I think the spring events that are qualifying competitions for advanced competitors have an advantage over later events. Drivers want to ensure their horses are qualified as early as possible, and they don’t want to risk waiting until a more convenient show.

When And Where

Scheduling seems to play a critical role too. In the case of Florida, it was almost an embarrassment of riches to have so many events spread over such a short time. For some who might have tried to enter more, time away from home and the cost were real deterrents. 

In the case of the Metamora CDE in Michigan, a pleasure show in Wisconsin on the same weekend and the Bromont CEI in Quebec (Canada) the following weekend, no doubt, affected Metamora by an estimate of 10 entries. With fewer and fewer events on the calendar, it’s truly sad that competitors who might have attended more events are prevented by scheduling issues.

The scheduling situation isn’t easy to resolve, but I think it behooves organizers to work a little harder by communicating a little more with each other and with competitors.

I know an attempt has been made to create tentative schedules a year or two out, but it takes more than that. It takes looking at the lists of competitors from all of the shows in the area to identify those potential competitors. Some are switch hitters (pleasure and combined drivers) and need to be considered.

Those who said the economy didn’t affect them were–no surprise here—the very wealthy. We all know that people who own competition horses and compete in combined driving with all of the equipment it entails are not destitute.

Nonetheless, many people have had to face significant hits to their investment and retirement accounts. Of those who work, some have faced reduced salaries and hours. And those who haven’t been affected—yet—are playing it safe, “just in case.”

Some respondents said they were cutting down on the number of competitions in a year. And, good news for those organizers still around, quite a few said they would support by making a financial contribution if they couldn’t compete.

Drivers at the highest level who have their sights set on World Championship competition did say they would choose selection trials and sacrifice other competitions in order to reach their goal.

One competitor said it had to be worth the trip to travel a long way to a competition, which is where reputation and organization came into play. Especially at the lower levels, competition is a vacation, and vacations are supposed to be fun.

New organizers must be encouraged and can be excused if things aren’t as smooth as they could be, but those who fail to improve or consider the needs and wants of competitors are sure to lose a few competitors. Several surveyed said they chose shows in order to see friends and fellow competitors. One respondent said her choice depended on if “very small equines” (Miniature Horses or Shetlands) were welcome.

A great deal of attention, particularly by the readership of the Chronicle, is paid to the advanced—or the highest level—of competition in this country, but the reality is that the number of advanced-level drivers has decreased steadily over the past 10 years.

A study of the number of advanced entries at Live Oak (Fla.) and The Laurels (Pa.) between 1999 and 2008 reveal interesting results.

In 1999, Live Oak and The Laurels had 19 and 41 advanced entries, respectively. Forty-five was the highest number for Live Oak in 2005, while 44 was the highest for The Laurels in 2000. In 2008, The Laurels had its lowest advanced entry with 18. The numbers have fluctuated over the years depending on which World Championships were held, but there’s no denying that the numbers are dwindling.

A bright spot in an otherwise bleak scenario is that the number of non-sanctioned, one-day driving trials and arena driving trials seems to be increasing. These activities aren’t listed in any national calendar but are organized by local driving clubs. A number of my survey takers mentioned that they were taking part in these events as an alternative to formal competition. This is very encouraging, but when the time comes, will there be a place to take that next step?

We Must Communicate

Another reality of combined driving competition is its complexity. It takes more acreage than any other sport except possibly endurance. Entries are limited due to the length of the dressage tests and time on the marathon.

A few events have tried to run 100 entries when times were better but mostly did it just to say they could. In reality, 80 competitors is about the maximum that can be accommodated in three or four days of competition. Therefore, it’s nearly impossible for a competition to run in the black based on entry fees alone.

The thing that bothers me, however, is that with half a dozen fewer competitions, that means there are fewer competitions “closer to home” to attend. There are fewer to support. Could this become a Catch-22?

Competitors say they are going to competitions close to home. But if those competitions don’t exist, where will the competitor go? If there are no competitors, how can there be any competitions?

Once an organizing committee has lost its rhythm, and volunteers find something else to do on that weekend, it’s hard to start up again. And those sponsors who would have given support may find another “charity” to support, leaving yours out in the cold when you ask again the following year.

There is a rhythm to organizing a competition, as those who have done it for years will attest. You unconsciously know that it’s time to hire judges, complete the Omnibus forms, reserve tents and stalls. You know that a certain number of weekends or more are needed to work on the course, mow, add new elements to hazards, and make minor upgrades to make your show even nicer for your competitors.

It’s amazing how much things can deteriorate over a year with no attention. Trails overgrow, hazard elements rot, paint peels and what once took just a weekend or two to clean up is now a big project. 

I wish I could offer a magic solution. The economy seems to be stabilizing, and many of us feel more confident that our investment and retirement accounts may start to grow again. Opening the mail doesn’t require a stiff drink.

In my humble opinion, the competitions that have been canceled for insufficient entries and not enough financial sponsorship require our complete attention. Every facet of a competition should be examined. As an organizer, communicate with as many of your constituents as possible to find out what you can do to make it possible for them to come to your show.

Competitors often plan their schedules a year in advance, so organizers should be encouraged to examine their budgets and make plans as soon as possible for next year.

If you don’t have a competitors’ party, perhaps you don’t need that tent or tables and chairs. Several in my survey said they wouldn’t attend the competitors’ party anyway as a way to save money. Can you find club members with extra cars or trucks for officials to use? Are you able to house officials in private homes instead of hotels? Think about shorter ribbons or fewer trophies to save money. But try not to scrimp on the important things—officials might be enticed to charge less or waive fees for events that they like. 

Let your potential competitors know what you are doing to cut costs so they’ll know that the lack of amenities means they have a competition to attend.

One respondent said that he’s formed a club whose purpose is to support the organizers, landowners and competitors. “We raise modest amounts of money, and we do extra work for our organizers so that we can pay it back and forth. What do we expect to gain for ourselves? The joy of continued driving competitions, nothing more. (But we get lots more in the bargain!),” he said.

Linda Evans in Florida went on record to say, “I have been involved with this sport for over 25 years, and I see it slipping away from people like me due to the expense involved. I wish we could go back to the days when you didn’t have to have a silk purse to compete.

“I believe mushrooming costs are definitely hurting the sport,” Evans continued. “It is nice to be judged by European judges, but it incurs a tremendous expense that should be reserved only for advanced-level competitions. There are many qualified judges in the United States who can be had for far less.”

Evans added: “There are other ways costs can be cut to make it more affordable for competitors. I hope organizers will take heed and look for those options to lower entry fees to encourage more competitors to come. The most elite competitions are not lacking for entries, but the smaller events are suffering. I think the American Driving Society and organizers need to brainstorm how to make the sport available to competitors of all levels of the economic spectrum like it once was, orwe will die a slow death.”

I believe that competitors and organizers must tighten their belts yet at the same time broaden their horizons. Competitors can’t exist without competitions, and competitions can’t survive without competitors. 

Ann L. Pringle


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.