Sunday, May. 26, 2024

It Was Another Gold-Medal Year

"Pony Power” was strong last summer after the United States won medals at the World Combined Pony Championship held in Knabstrup, Denmark, in July.

Miranda Cadwell, the Chronicle’s Driving Horseman of the Year, won an individual gold medal with her pair of Welsh Cobs, and the team won the bronze medal. This is the second time that a U.S. pony driver has won an individual gold medal–Suzy Stafford did it in 2005 with Sybil Humphreys’ Cefnoakpark Bouncer, but this is the first team medal for the ponies.
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“Pony Power” was strong last summer after the United States won medals at the World Combined Pony Championship held in Knabstrup, Denmark, in July.

Miranda Cadwell, the Chronicle’s Driving Horseman of the Year, won an individual gold medal with her pair of Welsh Cobs, and the team won the bronze medal. This is the second time that a U.S. pony driver has won an individual gold medal–Suzy Stafford did it in 2005 with Sybil Humphreys’ Cefnoakpark Bouncer, but this is the first team medal for the ponies.

The pony drivers in the United States have their acts together. They work together for the common goal, to get selected for the World Championships and then to win medals. The drivers and their supporters sell and wear shirts, caps and vests throughout the year, not just after the selection, to help raise funds for whoever gets picked.

They’ve maintained an exceptional spirit of sportsmanship, cooperation and friendship that’s sometimes perceived as lacking in our other teams. That spirit bore fruit in Denmark.

Not everyone on this year’s team had stellar performances, proving that winning a team medal is a team effort.

Tracey Morgan missed a gate in an obstacle and was eliminated on the marathon, but she gave her teammates valuable help in cones. Stafford, driving “Bouncer” again, flung her navigator off the back of her carriage when she hit a post and incurred extra penalties.

But some drivers managed to pick the Championships as their moment to peak. Lisa Stroud’s game, which had been improving all year long, came together, and she finished just shy of an individual bronze medal. Back at home, she proved it wasn’t a fluke by winning at The Laurels at Landhope CDE (Pa.), then the USEF National Championship at Fair Hill (Md.).

Cadwell spent the summer in Europe with her sister Keady, who was training for the World Pair Championships. She credited her success not only to the dynamic duo that she drives, but also to the experience gained by competing earlier in the year on the championship site and by going head-to-head with her future World Championship competitors.

The pair horse drivers who represented the United States at the World Pair Championship in Warka, Poland, all had their share of disappointment.

One of Lisa Singer’s horses was spun at the horse inspection. Larry Poulin’s horses lost some of their bloom while training in Europe, but he was really deflated after dressage when the judges ranked him from third to 35th, for an overall 16th placing. One of Keady’s horses came up lame before arriving at the competition, and then another didn’t pass after the marathon.

In spite of adversity, all three drivers made the best of the hand they were dealt and soldiered on; the team finished seventh out of 17 countries.

Raising The Bar

Some people on the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s High Performance Committee are strong advocates of training and competing abroad, and the success of the pony team would seem to prove their case.

In a perfect world, all contenders would ship over to Europe in the spring and compete every weekend. And going head-to-head with so many of equal or superior skill would be beneficial.

Even I know from experience with a different sport (golf) that I score better when I play with someone better than me. But it isn’t a perfect world, and drivers have families and jobs that require their occasional attendance. And not many drivers have unlimited funds. Those drivers who are able to manage family, career and finances while training and competing are amazing people. And they are generous. Drivers who have never competed on European soil have nonetheless learned from those who have.  

With the lure of the Alltech FEI 2010 World Equestrian Games, we should see some new faces putting four-in-hands together in anticipation of participating as a member of the host team. So far, Arizona’s Josh Rector is the only new competitor on the scene.

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There are already rumblings about the participation of the European four-in-hands at the WEG. Without financial assistance, it seems doubtful that many countries will send full teams, and some many not be able to send any.

The cost to send four to six horses per driver plus equipment across the Atlantic is beyond comprehension to many Europeans. Perhaps countries with the best drivers and best shot at winning medals—Germany, the Netherlands, Hungary and Great Britain—might send one or two drivers. But for other countries like Italy, Spain and Slovakia, it seems unlikely that they’ll be able to or even be willing to raise the money to come.

Up-And-Coming Young Drivers

The members of the American Driving Society have taken the bit and become enthusiastic camp administrators and counselors. The number of camps for young drivers has continued to increase over the past four years, with the number of participants increasing as well.

The formats range from day camps to week-long sleepover camps with counselors ranging from local experts to Paul Sidwell, current World Champion single driver.

A study done by the ADS early in 2007 indicated that their largest demographic is women in their early 50s, so it’s interesting that so much enthusiasm has been directed toward the development and expansion of camps and training programs for our youth. It must be midlife maternal instincts of that demographic.

With so many drivers–very active drivers– eligible for AARP membership, it’s heartening to see many young adults in their 20s becoming serious competitors. Arizona’s Josh Rector made his four-in- hand debut in 2007 at the advanced level. He competed against the likes of Chester Weber, Tucker Johnson and Jim Fairclough, and while he didn’t beat them, if he sticks with his program, he probably will soon.

Speaking of AARP membership, a noticeable increase has been seen in the driving populations in the southern states in the past few years. As many are close to retirement, if not already there, more and more people are spending time in areas such as Aiken, S.C., Ocala, Fla., and Southern Pines, N.C. These equestrian communities are swelling as drivers are
buying property outside the more exclusive and historic equestrian areas of these cities and creating access for drivers between their properties for all to enjoy.

These regional Meccas provide more than warm weather for arthritic bones and an extension of the training year. Each of the areas mentioned above can boast a number of driving celebrities as residents, providing opportunities to train and drive with the crème de la crème.

In Southern Pines, a series of one-day CDEs throughout the fall, winter and early spring often have 40 or more entries and provide an opportunity to tune up for upcoming CDEs.

In Aiken, on short notice, some pony team hopefuls held a fundraiser combined test on a Wednesday because all of the weekends were committed. Amazingly, they had more than 45 entries and many advanced drivers.
Sometimes it’s easier to wallow in the problems facing the driving community (and there will always be problems of varying magnitude and urgency) than to break out and say “get over it” and put effort into building on our strengths, celebrating our achievements and enjoying each other’s company.

If you walked into a room and there were two groups and one was laughing and obviously having a great time and the people in the other group looked worried and miserable, which would you want to join? Let’s get back to having a good time.

Will the 2010 WEG be as meaningful without a full cadre of driving competitors? 

If there are few four-in-hands in competition, there are equally few pairs. Ever since the 1993 World Pair Championship in Gladstone, N.J., the number of pair drivers in this country has decreased.

When the Fédération Equestre Internationale created a World Championship for pairs, some drivers who would never be able to develop the skill nor the financial resources to drive fours, took up pair driving.  Earning a spot on a World Championship team seemed an attainable goal. But once World Championships for singles and ponies were created, many pair drivers found that goal even more attainable and affordable. Competing a pair means keeping at least three, and often four or five horses in training, qualified, and ready to compete.

It would be hard to argue that four-in-hands do not provide breathtaking excitement for spectators, and pairs, being more compact, can go even faster in the obstacles. But if you want to see the sport of driving in its purist form, it would be with a single horse or pony. There are no dressage or marathon specialists. There is no substitution if one goes lame or has a bad day. The single horse or pony has to pull all the weight—literally.

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Pair and four-in-hand drivers are either professionals with sponsors, or independently wealthy amateurs. Single drivers, while surely not destitute, can still manage to compete–and have fun–on a comparatively modest income.

Increases In Intermediate

The American Driving Society has always offered four levels of combined driving competition: training, preliminary, intermediate and advanced. The advanced level must, according to ADS rules, be sanctioned by the USEF. For many years, competitors and organizers alike skipped over the intermediate level and offered preliminary and advanced at the same competition.

Now, with some well-thought-through rule changes that came into effect a few years ago, the intermediate level is well-filled. For many competitors who were comfortable staying at training and preliminary levels, changes made those levels too easy and less challenging. Reducing the number of gates in obstacles and not allowing training level to canter in obstacles are just two examples that have encouraged competitors to enter the next level.

Organizers who were not inclined to offer intermediate found that these rule changes also made their jobs easier. Intermediate-level dressage tests were written that could be driven in a 40 x 80 meter arena like the lower levels instead of 40 x 100 meters, which created additional work when there were only two or three drivers. The marathon now could be made more difficult with just an additional gate in the obstacles without lengthening the course.

These changes are definitely in the best interest of the drivers and their horses and ponies. In the past, many drivers found jumping from preliminary directly to advanced didn’t make them competitive with others who truly belonged at the top level.

Blaming the success of the intermediate level for the decline in the number of competitors at the advanced
level may be justified, but another reason may well be the additional fees, registrations, reports and more required by the USEF for competitors and organizers. Many competitors and organizers weigh benefits versus costs before deciding to drive at or offer an advanced level.

The Base Of The Pyramid

Combined driving events seem to have weathered the soaring gas prices without a noticeable change in entries. For many, competition equals vacation, and competitors plan accordingly.

A lack of entries seems to have affected pleasure-driving shows more often, but more so at smaller shows. Successful pleasure shows seem to rely on more than just bare necessities—a ring, a judge and good organization.

Unique venues, such as Iowa’s Harvest Moon’s Living History Farm, and Wisconsin’s Villa Louis Carriage Classic in Prairie du Chien on the Mississippi River, and social extravaganzas such as Walnut Hill in Pittsford, N.Y., are the ingredients that attract competitors. A little self-promotion doesn’t hurt either. The “if you build it, they will come” theory doesn’t always work with new, small competitions.

While it’s hard to pinpoint the number of drivers that are happily enjoying just going down the road, alone or with a group of friends, it seems that there are vast numbers of them. The National Drive, an independent organization founded solely to produce one non-competitive weekend gathering of drivers at the Kentucky Horse Park, has reported significant increases in participants in each of the three years that it’s existed.

These grassroots, silent majority, base of the pyramid members of the driving fraternity see little need to join a national organization. The challenge to the ADS and Carriage Association of America is convincing the non-competitive driver and one-carriage owner to join their associations. There’s no doubt that there are great benefits to be had from both groups, but the recreational drivers are an independent lot and resist being force-fed.

Independent instructors and trainers have reported that they are quite busy giving people and their horses and ponies a good driving foundation.

“Intro To Driving” and “Driving 101” clinics are held throughout the country by local driving clubs and are well attended. Attendance and interest at regional horse expos, where driving demonstrations are held, is strong. Booths set up by regional directors of the ADS and CAA, as well as local driving clubs, provide additional resources.

It’s important to keep track of these neophytes and give them the encouragement they need to stay interested in driving long enough for it to get into their blood. We can help them stay involved by helping them find good, affordable equipment and safe yet enjoyable horses and ponies.

Then there’s the additional challenge of finding enjoyable places to drive. It behooves every driver to become involved with local and national organizations to protect land for equestrian use. The needs of carriage drivers are different than those who ride astride. It may mean making friends with off-road ATV groups! If drivers of all persuasions can band together we won’t have to look forward to a future of driving
in circles.

Ann Pringle

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