The year 2009 turned out better than I expected. The mood of the country at the end of 2008 was depressed by the plummeting economy yet hopeful that President-elect Obama would pull a rabbit out of his hat and fix things–fast.
We were good to worry. It helped us to make some difficult choices, learn what’s most important, and how to stretch our limited resources. Life goes on. Competitions were held (most of them), some even had increased entries. World Championships were held and medals were won!
Suzy Stafford won her second individual medal, bronze, at the World Combined Pony Driving Championships held in Greven, Germany, in August. Stafford drove a Morgan mare, Courage To Lead, owned by Beverly Lesher. Stafford’s first medal, gold, was won in 2005 driving Sybil Humphreys’ Welsh gelding Cefnoakpark Bouncer. Her second medal was a team bronze in 2007, driving Bouncer again. That year, Miranda Cadwell won an individual gold medal with her pair of ponies.
The pony driving community certainly has its act together—or at least they give the appearance of working together when it comes to international competition. And the proof is in the number of medals they’ve won in the short six years since a World Championship has been held for ponies.
Tracey Morgan is “delighted to hear that the pony drivers have a reputation for working well together because it can be–and it is–a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Morgan, who has competed in every World Combined Pony Championship with a pair of Dartmoors, was instrumental in gathering the pony drivers together early in the decade to develop a concept they called the Pony Team Network. Now called Pony Team USA, Morgan explained that it’s not an organization but a concept. Active participants change with the years, but their purpose is to keep themselves informed, be inclusive and raise funds.
“Do we always get along? Well, no, even families have some disagreements and personality conflicts,” explained Morgan. “Plus, each pony driver who is long listed is trying to make the team by beating the other drivers in selection trials. Then suddenly you’re teammates instead of archrivals!”
Morgan noted that having seasoned international competitors in the roles of chef d’equipe and coach has made a tremendous difference. These people have been successful in making the pony drivers understand the importance of putting aside their differences in order to focus on competing for the team.
“And we have,” said Morgan. Success leads to the expectation of more success and makes the goal of winning a team gold medal burn more fiercely.
The pair drivers at their World Championship in Kecskemet, Hungary, in August weren’t successful in their quest for medals. If ever there was a year to expect Larry Poulin to win one, this was it. His pair, owned by Natasha Grigg, had earned wonderful scores from the international judges at Live Oak (Fla.) and Bromont (Que.) earlier in the season.
Then he lost his best marathon horse, Cody, to a major injury during the summer. They borrowed a horse from Alan and Maureen Aulson—Dusty, a Morgan gelding, to take to Kecskemet.
Poulin placed sixth in dressage, 25th in the marathon and went into cones standing 10th. Then he went through a set of cones backward, and any hope for a medal, or at least a top-10 finish, disappeared.
Lisa Singer and Keady Cadwell, along with Poulin, were the U.S. team. Miranda Cadwell competed as an individual. As a team, they placed 12th out of 17 countries.
Earlier in the year, Poulin announced that he, along with the horses, would retire from combined driving competition after the Kentucky event this fall. It was bittersweet to see him take a final victory lap, winning the USEF Moore Trophy for the eighth time over his 25+ year driving career. Poulin and the horses will continue competing, but instead under saddle in dressage. The horses have shown great potential so I predict we’ll be reading about them soon in another section of the Chronicle.
Poulin’s retirement leaves a large hole in the ever-diminishing number of advanced-level drivers, and, in particular, pairs. That number can be counted on one hand, not including the thumb.
If the number of pair drivers is falling, maybe it’s partially due to the approaching Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. Many of the 2009 events saw more than the usual number of four-in-hand entries as anticipation builds. A record number of drivers have managed to find five and six horses to make up a four-in-hand plus spares, along with the equipment and sponsors necessary.
The Kentucky Cup, or WEG test event, held last October, answered some questions and asked others. Quite a few international drivers, chefs d’equipe and media were present to scope out the situation. One of the concerns expressed was the great distance between the stables and the driving arena. At the test event, drivers and even spectators were allowed access to the driving arena and could use golf carts and ATVs. This will not be allowed at the WEG; access will be by bicycle or on foot only.
There was some grumbling about the distance between the obstacles too. At many World Championships they are grouped in a way that is possible for spectators to see several obstacles from one vantage point, or at least be able to chase their favorite drivers in order to see them in all obstacles.
While several of the Kentucky obstacles are set at the bottom of a gentle hillside, with the thought that spectators can sit on the hill and view more than one, it will be almost impossible to follow a competitor through all eight obstacles.
The number of countries participating is another concern. The Fédération Equestre Internationale requires nine nations (including the host country) to present horses at the horse inspection in order to be considered a World Championship. Those in the know report that this requirement may be hard to meet.
Even if a country sends only two competitors for its team, that will mean shipping 10 horses plus equipment by air (except Canada) as compared to two horses, saddles and bridles for the ridden events. Without a good shot at winning a medal, some countries may decide it isn’t worth the expense. So unless the individual drivers can pay their own way, we’ll have to hold our collective breath until May, when entries are due, before we’ll know whether it will be a real World Championship.
Regardless of how the WEG turns out, driving in the United States will have benefited from the experience.
We’ve seen the largest group of four-in-hand drivers ever in this country. It would have been easy to assume that the three drivers to make the team would be Chester Weber, Tucker Johnson and Jim Fairclough, the same three who have been our team for the past decade. And it would have been easy to just let the other three individual drivers allowed for the host country (or six, whatever the final ruling is) fend for themselves.
The USEF training program has resulted in enormous improvement in the depth of our four-in-hand drivers. Peter Tischer of Germany has been making regular trips to the United States, stopping in Florida, North Carolina, Texas, and other places to train WEG hopefuls. Watching the improvement of horses and drivers has been inspiring. And the final competitions leading up to the WEG may be as exciting as the WEG itself!
I heard a phrase many years ago that comes into my mind occasionally, particularly when I’m embarking on a new project: “You fail forward.” Whenever you try something new or set a goal, it’s rare, even when that goal isn’t achieved, that you haven’t learned something or improved in the process. Some of these four-in-hand drivers who will not make the team will have benefited exponentially from trying.
Friends And Fans
This was the year that we all became “friends.” Even though social media—a new term to many of us—has been around for a while, it went mainstream. It keeps us connected to one another between competitions; it makes us realize we all have lives off the box seat; it makes us care about each other, and, yes, it makes the world smaller.
Many of us have become “fans” of companies and associations such as The Driving Digest magazine and The Carriage Association of America.
The CAA introduced the Driver Proficiency Program last year, and it’s been met with success. According to the CAA, so far 73 drivers have passed the Level I evaluation, 60 drivers have passed the Road Driving evaluation, eight have passed Level II, and two have passed Level III. Three evaluation sites have been planned for 2010.
Plans are well underway for Highways And Horses: Travel And Transport By Horse-Drawn Vehicles, co-presented by Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (Va.) and the CAA, which will be held in January.
The ADS seems to have its financial house in order after a few years of belt tightening. They’re making more use of the Internet to decrease printing, mailing and other communication costs. In an effort to bring more educational opportunities to their members, ADS officials introduced the webinar in December 2009, which was well received.
After years of debate, including members and non-members alike, the ADS finally passed a rule change that will allow organizers the option of basing the cones clearance on a standardized track width. Those opposed believed that the option penalized those who did not have a modern competition vehicle with the latest track width. Those in favor believed that it would lessen the chance of error in setting each set of cones for each competitor, as well as reduce the number of volunteers required.
My prediction is that just as presentation on the move has become standard at all levels (does anyone remember the heated debate that went on about eliminating standing presentation?) so too will standardized cones clearance.
In order to attract recreational drivers to the ADS, “rules” for such activities as sleigh rallies and continuous drives can be found in the 2010 Rule Book, and recreational drives can be approved by the ADS.
Both national carriage and driving associations plan to have a presence at the WEG. The CAA is conveniently located in the heart of the Kentucky Horse Park, so they’ll be spared the high costs and logistical issues of operating within a space the size of a small horse stall. The ADS is planning a booth in the Equine Village, offering educational materials to the crowds, conducting a Driving 101 Clinic and possibly holding driving demonstrations.
Without a doubt, the story of 2010 will be the WEG. The driving community will be anxiously watching and waiting to see who will represent the United States, and which and how many countries will enter teams.
Never before in this country has there been such an opportunity to showcase combined driving to such a huge number of spectators. Many of these will be equestrians, not just from the seven FEI disciplines, but also from every facet of the horse world.
Obviously, not many, if any, will try a four-in-hand as an entry into the sport, but hopefully they’ll be bitten hard enough by the bug to start with a single horse or pony. So from that point of view, driving is already a winner.
Ann L. 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. "This Year Prepared Us To Move “Four-ward” Into 2010" ran in the February 5, 2010 issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.