Thursday, May. 23, 2024

Josh Rector Has Broken Into The Big Time In Four-In-Hand Driving

At 28, he’s the youngest U.S. driver nominated for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.

Josh Rector drives through a mowed field, his four-in-hand team fit and fresh coming off their second-placed finish at the Bromont CAI in Quebec at the end of June.

Along the neighboring country road, a woman stops traffic to get out and snap a photograph of the team decked out in a custom camel and chrome harness and pulling a Van Der Heuvel carriage, which rattles and clinks. Old world craftsmanship is surprisingly loud.

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At 28, he’s the youngest U.S. driver nominated for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.

Josh Rector drives through a mowed field, his four-in-hand team fit and fresh coming off their second-placed finish at the Bromont CAI in Quebec at the end of June.

Along the neighboring country road, a woman stops traffic to get out and snap a photograph of the team decked out in a custom camel and chrome harness and pulling a Van Der Heuvel carriage, which rattles and clinks. Old world craftsmanship is surprisingly loud.

Rector is warming up the team, walking the hills around his temporary home at Richard and Marlene Sipes’ Liberty Corner Farm in Scottsville, Va. Flambo, the right lead today, flicks his ears back and forth, checking in with both Rector and the team. One of the smartest horses Rector has owned, Flambo is the main link in communication and always gives 100 percent.

To his left is Jag, with a full straight blaze, the flashiest of Rector’s team of bays. In the rear is the team’s baby, Freedom, an 8-year-old Dutch gelding with the most expressive movement and the least experience. And in the final slot is Janosh, Rector’s rock, and the one horse who doesn’t have to be driven each stride. Janosh is invaluable to a person trying to coordinate four horses simultaneously.

Back at the barn are Pit 57, the “Eveready Energizer bunny,” Nicastri, a quirky 18-year-old going on 3, and Dollart 14, a packer who sometimes gets bored at home. These seven horses make up “The Boys” and will hopefully be Rector’s ticket to this year’s Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.

When A Gamble Becomes A Priority

Rector’s been busy. His life for the past year has consisted of eight-hour days at the barn followed by hours working via laptop to catch up with his day job—senior vice president at The Bromont Group. The commercial real estate development firm is based in Scottsdale, Ariz., and only coincidentally shares its name with the Canadian equestrian venue.

At 28, Rector is the youngest U.S. driver qualified for the WEG and one of the few whips from the West. Combined driving is dominated by middle-aged men—men young enough to control a horse and carriage at a flat-out gallop but old enough to have the money to foot the bill.

Rector’s father, Walt, always told his horse-minded kids: “If you want to have good horses and be able to really advance in the horse world, the way to do that is to be able to support yourself in something other than horses.”

But this year Josh is gambling his life savings (he said the dressage equipment on the horses for his morning work alone totals more than $70,000) on a WEG team spot. Prioritizing horses over his day job for the first time, he moved his team of horses and grooms over the winter from their home, Nags Head Farm in Flagstaff, Ariz., to train at Canterbury Tail Farm in Ocala, Fla., before moving north to Virginia.

As one of the younger members of the sport, Josh is a physical driver. In the carriage, he’s a mountain of sloping shoulders topped with a ball cap and sunglasses. He has the solid feel of a football lineman, the sole counterweight to the horsepower surging in front.

“Upper body strength all the way through your back is definitely important,” he said, equating the pressure of the horses at their most intense to the weight of two hay bales in each hand.

“They’re usually the strongest going into or out of the first hazard,” Josh added. “Especially horses like Flambo who really know their job; they get really amped up for it. They want to race through the obstacle. It’s a whole lot of fun.”

However, to Josh, hand speed and mental dexterity are even more important than strength. The four horses and carriage are about 25 feet long, meaning he must know his route nearly 30 feet ahead of his leaders’ ears.

“I think that’s one of the things that Chester Weber helped me out with the most,” Josh said of his de facto mentor this spring. “He has a hazard at his farm that we drilled. He was always yelling at me, ‘Look ahead! Look where you’re going! Look at the next gate now! Don’t look there in five seconds, look there now!’ ”

While he might still be working on looking ahead physically, Josh has excelled in his more mental foresight throughout the past several months, which have amounted to an exhilarating time for Team Nags Head Farm. The team began the year unsponsored and on the WEG long list, but now they’ve picked up funding from local feed, supplement and tack shops and stand fourth on the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s Four-In-Hand Ranking List. Two farm moves, new harnessing systems, a new horse and a new navigator, Tim Palloni, are added markers of their growing success.

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“Once you start team driving you go, ‘Wow, look at all the things you can adjust!’ I think getting your arms around what to adjust and what makes the horses go the right way is one of the bigger challenges. But it’s not just a team of horses—it’s a team of people too,” Josh said.

Palloni, who hails from Detroit, Mich., took an unusual route to becoming an FEI groom and navigator. His initial introduction to driving was at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., where he drove draft horses around the historically accurate 19th century farm.

After years of plowing fields at the museum, later working as a hay farmer, and then spending time in the museum’s management, Palloni connected with friends in the combined driving world and joined Team Nags Head Farm this January.

“I’m always with the team,” Palloni said. “Since Josh and I work together every day, Josh can say anything, and I know exactly where to go. Truthfully, I love all of it. When it’s every day that you get to do what you love, you can’t complain.”

The Horse That Changed It All

Growing up, Josh was the most animal-disinterested member of a horse-crazy family. His parents were horse people before they married, and as a wedding gift, Walt bought his bride, Shirley, a dressage horse. That one horse soon turned into a barn full of them, some for Shirley and some for their daughter Wendy.

“Until Josh was 16, he wanted nothing to do with the horses,” Walt said. “He and I would drive the horse van with his mother and his sister’s horses all around. But he was more interested in the tractors than he was in the horses.”

As a teenager, Josh frequently claimed that allergies prevented him from feeding the horses and helping around the barn. But one particular horse would eventually change his mind.

During a trip to Indianapolis, Ind., with Walt, who was scoping out the vintage automobile racing circuit, Shirley found a horse. The gelding was working on the city streets as a carriage horse and had picked up a habit of rearing. Shirley offered $2,500, without a vet check, and brought him home.

Meanwhile, after being denied automobile racing clearance by his insurance carriers, Walt began driving with a pair of imported German Warmbloods. Always active in sports with his father, Josh decided to team up with Chaucer, who turned out to be one of the best horses the Rectors ever owned. Where Shirley and Wendy had dressage, Walt and Josh had driving.

Josh is a product of the combined driving community, as several established whips have taken him under wing. Early on, Hardy Zantke stepped up to mentor Josh along the path to team driving. As a member and chef d’equipe of the U.S. team at several WEG appearances, and having witnessed Josh and Chaucer compete through advanced on the West Coast, Zantke realized that the young driver had the necessary fundamentals for international-level competition. Rector was just 18 when Zantke decided to loan him his world-class pair.

“Simply having the responsibility of someone else’s horses, especially because I know how important his horses are to him, was a tremendous gift,” Josh said. “I will forever be in his debt.”

When Josh finally made the leap to team driving in 2007, Fred and Michael Freund were by his side. It was Michael who sold Flambo, Dollart 14 and Pit 57 to Josh, and Fred now serves as his coach.

“His show experience really helps,” Rector said of Fred. “There are times, when driving a team, that one of the four horses will have an issue you didn’t have at home. Fred is a big factor in being able to help with that.”

Though the three horses were part of a ready-made team at the outset, Flambo is currently the only one Rector plans to drive at the WEG. Dollart 14 and Pit 57 are kept fit and ready in the wings.

“When you make the jump into teams you have to learn some different levels of horse management,” Josh said. “Because you’re suddenly driving six horses, it becomes a little bit of a different sport in some ways.”

Josh works each of the seven “Boys” six days a week. It’s a daily mixture of singles, pairs and the four-in-hand working on dressage, cones and marathon.

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“Ninety-nine percent of my time is working, driving and basic human needs,” Josh said. “I’m energized by how much fun driving is. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it. It never gets boring. Packing trailers and loading hay gets boring, but the driving itself never gets boring.”

“Neither does kicking butt at shows,” Palloni added with a laugh.

Buildup To The WEG

Josh’s strength as a whip, according to USEF technical delegate and 2010 WEG Driving Chef d’Equipe Ed Young, is his work ethic.

“He works well with our coaches, has a very positive attitude and is willing to push himself when asked by the coaching staff,” Young said.

But compared to many of the top whips and sure bets for the U.S. WEG team, Josh still has plenty of miles to log and lessons to learn. Aside from being younger, Josh is also fighting nearly two decades of dominance by the top three U.S. whips, Tucker Johnson, James Fairclough and Chester Weber. Combined, the three men have more than 15 national four-in-hand championships and have comprised the U.S. combined driving team at the past three World Games. All three are making bids for this fall’s Kentucky competition.

“He does have some challenges he’s working through,” Young said. “He’s experienced some problems with having to replace horses and try new combinations at selection trials.”

As the hosting nation aims to be a serious threat in driving at the WEG, the USEF is giving a proverbial crash course for all the long-listed whips.

“Increasing the knowledge base in preparation of the WEG has been the biggest step forward for combined driving,” Josh said. “This is the most interaction I’ve ever had with the Federation. They’ve really spent the time and the money to have the team coaches in the U.S. provide clinics for the drivers.”

Heather Walker, who serves as chairwoman of the USEF Four-In-Hand Selection Committee and on the USEF High Performance Committee, agrees.

“Having the WEG in the U.S. is what prompted this long list of talented drivers in four-in-hand,” she said. “Getting this much participation in driving is a tremendous and exciting thing.”

The WEG combined driving team will consist of three drivers, and the best two scores from each section will count toward the overall team score. There will also be at least six drivers representing the United States as individuals.

“Since you take the two best scores from each event, we want someone who is really proficient at everything,” Walker said. “But you need an anchor person. You want someone who always aces dressage, or marathon. You need someone who saves the day in a particular event.”

As for Josh’s part, he’s been focusing on cones and marathon, as he thinks these are the strengths the U.S. team will really need at this particular WEG.

“It is really exciting to have a young driver like Josh,” Walker said. “We’ve had a lot of European judges look at him, and his dressage score is really improving. His marathon is great.”

After placing second behind Weber at the past three selection trials this spring, Josh knows he’s in contention for the third position on the WEG team.

“We thought for a long time that we had the horses for it, and we had the desire to be on the team,” Josh said. “I guess Live Oak [(Fla.), in late March] is when it hit me. When we [finished third] there, I realized that we really have been able to be at the top level and stay at that level. We just take each step at a time, because there’s always a new challenge.”

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. The original version of “Josh Rector Has Broken Into The Big Time In Four-In-Hand Driving ran in the July 23 issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.

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