In 2010, Denice Klinger attended the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games (Kentucky) and became fascinated with combined driving. A veteran of many horse sports, she’d never seen anything like this, and she absolutely had to try it.
Klinger grew up as a “feral child,” riding and driving horses and ponies across the countryside. She even took her beloved pony to college with her in Florida. As an adult, she rode and competed hunters for several decades, entering rings from Lake Placid (New York) to the Winter Equestrian Festival (Florida). She did everything herself, from training to hauling to grooming at shows, employing trainers occasionally to help her troubleshoot.
Klinger, who is based in Alpharetta, Georgia, had mostly ridden off-track Thoroughbreds, having worked on the racetrack and for a surgical veterinary practice managing lay-ups. She had already had her “horse of a lifetime” in Kings And Vagabonds (“Robbie”).
“I used to joke that we were like an old married couple going around the ring,” she said. “We’re having a fight, or we’re getting along, but you can’t tell the difference, although we can.”
Robbie died of colic just a few years into his retirement. Her young prospect, a beautiful mover named Throwing Copper, sustained a career-ending injury. Klinger suddenly had an empty stall in the barn she leased and no horse to ride, so she got to thinking again about that combined driving competition.
“I always thought I’d get back into driving one day,” Klinger said. “I’m not going to lie, a lot of that dream included having a Hackney pony doing the roadster class and terrifying the juniors at Devon [Pennsylvania], because that seemed like a lot of fun.”
So, Klinger did exactly what a very old saying warns us not to do; she put the cart before the horse.
“I sat there and thought, ‘You’ve had it on your bucket list to get back to driving when you’re too old to jump sticks and all that; what the heck are you waiting for? And if you’re going to tap into your bucket list, I think you also have to tap into your 13-year-old dream horse list and think about a Fjord pony,’ ” Klinger said. “I found a carriage for sale and thought, ‘This is the right time.’ ”
Klinger searched for a young Norwegian Fjord for sale, but she had a hard time finding one on the East Coast. Finally, she discovered Margaret Bogie’s listing for a 3-year-old “halter broke-ish” Fjord in Rixeyville, Virginia, named Ironwood Xander. “Xander” wasn’t broke to ride, and when Klinger went to look at him, he quickly provided her with a crash course in how Fjords operate.
Walking around and over a tarp was no problem. Longeing at the walk was easy. But then she asked him to pick up the trot on a long lead.
“That’s when I learned that Fjords leave,” Klinger said with a laugh. “So I went and got him from the other side of the arena. He wasn’t rude about it; he was just like, ‘Goodbye now!’ He was the first one I’d looked at, and I wasn’t going to tell the seller, but I knew he’d be the last one I’d look at. I wanted to look like I went home with a brain in my head.”
The Fjord mentality is a unique and beautiful thing, according to Klinger. Xander is extremely intelligent but also kind and in your pocket. Novel things that bother other horses don’t seem to alarm him, and he grasps new concepts quickly. But he can also be somewhat single-minded and very stoic.
“All my life I’ve worked a balance of, ‘I ask, and you give, and I release, and if you give just a little, I release,’ and eventually we come to a meeting of minds about how one should carry oneself and where the engagement should come from,” said Klinger. “This was just like, ‘Psh. Me Fjord. Me go like me want.’ You have to be, on a good day, as smart as they are. And sometimes I’m not, but I try.”
Klinger worked up to training Xander to drive gradually, but she had some doubts about whether he would take to it when she packed him off to Blanchard Poole at Poole Training Center in Swansea, South Carolina. Within a few weeks, he was hitched to a cart in the small arena, and Poole handed the lines over to Klinger after three months.
Klinger and Xander had to learn the basics of combined driving together. The sport is similar to eventing with a dressage phase, a marathon course of obstacles in the field, and a cones phase, which requires tight turns akin to a jumper course.
The cones phase has long been Klinger’s nemesis because of the precise, sharp turns. The technical and strategic elements of combined driving align much more with the jumpers than the hunters, Klinger admits.
“Hunters is sort of like the pursuit of perfection,” she said. “I enjoyed doing hunters. But there’s not a day that I don’t think, ‘Why didn’t I make this switch 10 years ago?’ I’ve never enjoyed anything as much as I enjoy driving.”
Although their initial competitions did not go as planned—they were disqualified in their first CDE after going through the wrong gate at the beginning of their marathon—Klinger and Xander worked up the levels quickly, progressing from training to preliminary to intermediate. This year, they qualified for the USEF Preliminary Single Pony National Championship (Florida), and they finished with the reserve championship.
“Me and my little Fjord pony! It was a pretty awesome feeling,” Klinger said. “I’ve been in some nice classes and ridden some great horses, but this was a pretty sweet moment. I didn’t think I was going to be doing this at this level. And of course when I went shopping for a Fjord, a lot of smart people pointed out they’re not necessarily the best for combined driving. A lot of Fjords don’t have a lot of go, and I will say endurance is a challenge, and dressage is certainly a challenge. But by sheer dumb luck I ended up with a Fjord with so much engine. Riding him is a lot like riding my Thoroughbred, except that my arms get more of a workout.”
In the off season, which for driving is the spring and summer, the pair has competed in western dressage, trails and conventional dressage.
Klinger juggled Xander’s conditioning with her work schedule at a major health insurance carrier for many years, leasing her own farm and driving over twice a day to feed, turn out and do stalls, finishing up conference calls on speakerphone in the car. She joked that it’s difficult to find the space and accommodation for driving at a conventional boarding barn, where she’s apt to spook dressage riders or hunters in the arena. Klinger’s position was eliminated a few months ago, so she’s working on transitioning to a part-time consultancy or maybe even a new job altogether.
Klinger had to wrap up their combined driving season a bit early due to COVID-19, but she’s working on second level dressage with Xander during their downtime. Klinger’s ultimate goal is Live Oak (Florida) in 2021.
“Going into this winter I started thinking, ‘I may have had the horse of a lifetime, but I honestly think I now have the pony of a lifetime,’ ” she said.