From Rescue To Ribbons: Teen Horse Goes From Greenbroke To National Champion

Jan 24, 2023 - 3:00 PM

During the early days of the pandemic in 2020, the staff at the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals at Nevins Farm in Methuen, Massachusetts, was handling many new surrenders of animals whose owners could no longer afford their care.

One such request came from the owner of two horses: Due to COVID-related cutbacks, her income stream was dwindling, and she knew she couldn’t afford to keep both animals. She emailed MSPCA out of concern for their future well-being. Animal welfare specialist Sonia Williams was dispatched to assess the gelding, a green-broke 14.3-hand, 16-year-old draft type, who had not been ridden in at least three years.

“At the time, Nevins was doing what we called ‘adopting outside the program,’ ” said Williams, 26. “We would evaluate [the horse] in their current home, make a match with a possible adopter, and then send the horse directly to their new owner. If we could avoid the stress of the animal coming to Nevins, then we would.”

When Williams arrived at the boarding stable where Robin Of Locksley had spent the past decade, she found a sweet but unkempt older gelding, eyes peering out through a tangled mane that hung below his knees. Though up-to-date on basic care, his heavy feathers had trapped moisture against his hooves, causing issues leading to foot soreness, and he was extremely unfit. Despite allegedly knowing how to walk, trot and canter under saddle, “Locksley” was in no condition to provide it. Williams put him on long lines instead, asking just enough to determine he was willing but quite green.

 “We would have placed him as a ‘horse with potential’ but one who needed to go slowly, so his training could be evaluated fully and tuned-up, and to get his fitness back up,” Williams said. “That is what I counseled her.

“But the short of it is, I fell in love,” Williams admitted with a laugh. “I had never owned my own horse and wasn’t really looking. But then I saw Locksley, and I was like, ‘I’m in trouble.’ ”

Nevins facilitated the adoption with the owner’s endorsement, and in May 2020, Williams became Locksley’s proud new owner.

Locksley family
Sonia Williams with her corgi, Bagel, and “Lox,” as Robin Of Locksley is affectionately known. Locksley came into her life as a rescue surrendered to the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Photo Courtesy Of Sonia Williams.

Williams, a driver since age 11, was thrilled to take on the task of working with the virtually untrained horse bred for driving. She hoped to train Locksley to drive, though she had never done so on her own, nor had he ever worn a harness, blinders or even been exposed to a carriage. But perhaps what had most attracted Williams to the colorful black and white pinto was Locksley’s kind eye and calm demeanor.

“I liked that he was such a quiet, steady guy,” she said. “He had the potential to drive, and if that didn’t work, I knew he’d be a really fun riding horse as well.”

Williams started her relationship with Locksley by addressing a few nutritional deficiencies and squaring away Locksley’s hoof issues. Her farrier came out three times in the first 10 days, then visited every other week for several sessions before the foot soreness resolved. Once his feet and diet were on track, Williams began running Locksley through exercises in the round pen and at liberty. Not long after, she re-introduced him to tack and began hacking him on the trails near her New Hampshire home.

“Then I got a second-hand harness and fit it to him,” she said. “He didn’t seem to mind it, so I started longeing and long-lining him with the harness on. And when he wasn’t opposed to that, I figured we’ll just keep going.”

Finding A Mentor—And A Boss

In October 2020, while on the hunt for a second-hand cart, Williams saw a Facebook post advertising that Jacob Arnold, a combined driver who has competed in five FEI world championships, was looking for a groom at Hermitage Farm in Goshen, Kentucky. Williams was intrigued by the prospect of working in a top-class driving program and submitted an application. She assumed Arnold would be overrun with candidates and was shocked when she was invited to Kentucky for a working interview and subsequently offered the job.

“I just thought, if I don’t do this now, I’m never going to do it,” she recalled. “Plus, now I can get help breaking my horse from someone who is incredibly knowledgeable.”

As Williams adjusted to her new role in Arnold’s program, she also benefitted from his expertise with Locksley.

“Jacob started helping me to long line him a little better,” Williams said. “We worked on getting Locksley to understand the contact, and teaching him to steer and how to turn his body, just increasing his training from the ground up. That way, when we were ready to drive him, he would be safer and really understand what the aids meant.”

Nearly 17 years old, Locksley had never been truly fit, nor had he ever been trained to accept the aids. Williams spent most of the winter long lining him in harness and riding him under saddle, improving his overall fitness, increasing his suppleness and helping him to better understand verbal cues.

“I was somewhat concerned about his age when we initially started to break him to drive,” Arnold said. “But often, combined driving horses can have much longer careers than jumping horses because there is generally less strain on their joints. I think in some ways, having an older horse is beneficial. Even though he wasn’t experienced in the competition arena at all, there were certain factors—like judge’s boxes—that he learned to not be afraid of much quicker than a young horse.”

By March 2021, Arnold deemed Locksley ready to hitch to a drag, then shortly after, a carriage. But his training didn’t begin in earnest until that autumn, after the team returned from a summer competing in Europe.

In January 2022, Williams and Locksley made their competitive driving debut at a combined test at Grand Oaks (Florida).

“We survived, and that was our goal,” Williams said with a laugh.

With a taste of competition under their belts, Williams was eager for more. They tried—and won—a combined driving derby before entering their first full combined driving event, a schooling competition in Kentucky with a shortened marathon phase, that spring. Locksley seemed to love the new challenge of marathon.

“He really ate up the course,” Arnold recalled. “Driving horses have to be forward naturally, because we don’t have legs or a seat to encourage them. I have always said Locksley is the most forward Gypsy Vanner I have ever driven.”

Training For A Marathon

When Williams and Arnold entered Locksley in his first American Driving Society-sanctioned competition, they knew the preliminary level marathon phase would be his biggest challenge. They started a serious fitness regimen to prepare him.

Locksley marathon
Williams and Locksley, who wear coordinating cow print at shows due to her jokingly calling him her “sport cow,” navigate a marathon obstacle in competition. Alyssa Murphree Media Photo

Williams added one day of water treadmill work to Locksley’s weekly routine and committed an additional day to interval training in the carriage, using the typical format of the marathon phase as a model.

“In the [first] section, you usually trot a track for 15 to 20 minutes,” she said. “I would give him his warm-up walk, as though we were walking to the start of marathon, then we’d trot for 20 minutes straight, then I’d give him a leisurely walk for 10 minutes to mimic the vet check.”

After this, Williams added fitness sets of 2 minutes trot, 1 minute canter, 1 minute walk, building up to eight sets, to mimic the number of obstacles on a preliminary marathon course.

“You slow down in between the obstacles; that is our time to recover,” Williams explained. “You incur penalty points for every second you’re in an obstacle, so the goal is to get in and get out of the start gate as quickly as possible. Once we’re back out, I often return to the walk briefly to let Locksley recover.”

Williams went into the August competition with no expectations beyond safely completing the experience.

“I am going into the show with a green horse, and there are people who have been competing their horse in that division for years and drivers who have been competing in this sport longer than I’ve been alive,” she said. “But I have access to good training, and I have a lot of appreciation for that. And I put a lot into his conditioning, so we were as prepared as we could be.”

The team again finished in first place.

“It was a big step up for us,” Williams said. “Locksley really tries in the dressage, but it isn’t the easiest thing for him. He gives you his heart on marathon, and he really enjoys cones.”

Tackling The Championships

After completing a second ADS-sanctioned competition a few weeks later, the pair found themselves—in their first season of competition—qualified for the U.S. Equestrian Federation Preliminary Single Horse Championships, to be held at the Garden State CDE (New Jersey) in October.

In New Jersey, Locksley faced the most technical marathon of his career, challenging his fitness.

“Gypsies are bred for driving but pulling a caravan, not running and turning at extreme speed,” Williams said. “They are not bred to be amazing movers, though now there are plenty of people breeding for that modern, more versatile, horse. But that is not what the breed was originally intended for.”

Williams becomes a little emotional remembering the moment they crossed the marathon finish line.

“It was, by far, the most challenging show I had ever competed at,” she said. “I was just so happy we had survived marathon, and that Locksley had recovered well afterwards.”

With just one phase to go, Williams and Locksley stood in third, competing in reverse order of standing. She felt “naively calm” while Arnold and her twin sister Isabelle Williams (who had traveled from New York City to support her) crackled with nervous energy.

“I just thought, ‘We are just going to go in there and drive; it’s just another cones course, ‘ ” Sonia said. “Locksley likes cones, and so we’re going to do all the things we’ve done in training and remember the things Jacob has told me, and whatever happens, happens.”

When she and Locksley went clean, a grin spread across her face as Sonia realized that her 18-year-old rookie horse would finish no worse than third in the country. When the remaining two horses completed their rounds a few moments later, and she saw Arnold and Isabelle turn around with “ridiculous grins” on their faces, Sonia knew that the placings had changed. Robin Of Locksley—who was first hitched to a carriage barely 18 months earlier—had just claimed the 2022 USEF Preliminary Single Horse National Championship.

Locksley team
William, center, and Colten Parker of Hermitage Farm accepting Locksley’s prizes as the 2022 USEF Preliminary Single Horse Combined Driving Champion. Photo Courtesy Of Sonia Williams

Arnold credits Locksley’s temperament and his relationship with Sonia for their quick success.

“I think his character is a major asset,” he said. “He is calm and cool but also a trier at heart and wants to please his driver at all costs. He trusts Sonia completely and always listens when she is in the box seat.”

Sonia is grateful for all that she’s experienced and learned from Locksley. She is looking forward to competing at a few venues in Florida this winter and continuing to polish their skills.

“Locksley doesn’t owe me anything,” she said. “I never thought we’d achieve any of it, and I’m happy to have him happy and healthy.”

Sonia believes that Locksley is testament to the accessibility of combined driving to a wide range of horse types.

“I have a draft horse, but we still did it,” she said. “That, to me, was a huge win for the sport itself, and that made me even more excited to win at the championships.”

And finally, Sonia is grateful to Locksley’s former owner, who made the hardest call of all when she asked for help.

“I am still in touch with her and share updates and photos all the time,” Sonia said. “I’m still thankful she made the right decision and got help when she needed it so she could do what was in the best interest of the horse.”

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