Tracey Morgan appreciated the challenges offered at the Live Oak CDE, March 17-20 in Ocala, Fla. The first of four selection trials for the 2005 FEI World Pair Championships and FEI World Combined Pony Driving Championships had a panel of five top European dressage judges, a brutal marathon test and a challenging, influential cones course based on new FEI criteria, including faster times and fewer points per ball dropped.
“Thank goodness there’s an event of this quality at the beginning of the year,” said Morgan, who won the advanced pony pair division. “It was a wonderful opportunity for those of us working toward international competition this year.”
Morgan, who drove her hardy Dartmoor pair, the 11-year-old gelding Gaylen Romeo and 9-year-old mare Lizwell Gambling Queen, pointed out that four of the five judges at Live Oak will also be judging the World Combined Pony Driving Championship in England in July.
The Beallsville, Md., resident found the new FEI cones format very challenging, with the course requiring several long gallops. “The speed is really fast for small ponies like mine,” said Morgan who cantered much of the lengthy, winding course. “I’m just glad the footing was good.”
She completed the course with 3 faults, bringing her overall score to 138.53. Her Dartmoors also won the Live Oak Hanzi Award, which is given to the best FEI horses or ponies.
Sara Schmitt, who won the advanced single pony division, blazed through the lengthy marathon with her Morgan stallion to the lowest score of the event at 75.1. “I knew he was fit, but I didn’t know how fit,” Schmitt said of her 9-year-old bay, High Country Doc. “He still had a lot of gallop left in the eighth hazard.”
Several of the hazards included six gates, and the final hazard spiraled tightly to a peak, where a final gate F was located.
Schmitt, a dressage trainer from Glen Gardner, N.J., has been traveling back and forth between New Jersey and Aiken, S.C., where Doc spent much of the winter in a fitness program.
When deciding upon her plan for a hazard, Schmitt usually thinks right turns over left, though as Doc has gained experience over the past three years she has been working with him it’s become less an issue. “Running and then turning was not so much an option in the past, but we’ve learned a lot. Doc understands what it is all about, and it’s all coming together,” she said.
Schmitt, who represented the United States at the 2003 FEI World Combined Pony Driving Championships, said Doc was green at the time. “Live Oak simulates what we have seen in Europe–the quality of the grounds, the quality of the judges, an international course designer for both the marathon and cones,” said Schmitt. “This is the most difficult of the scheduled selection trials.”
Schmitt finished with one of only three double-clear FEI-level cones rounds. Allison Stroud and her Connemara ponies, pony four-in-hand champions, also had one of the three double clears.
Stroud, of West Grove, Pa., has been competing four-in-hand teams just over a year, having been an individual pony pair competitor at the 2003 World Combined Pony Driving Championships. “We practice transitions, which is what you need in cones,” said Stroud, explaining the need for all four ponies to go forward responsively and then collect just as quickly without losing form.
Stroud describes her gray Connemaras, who hail from England and Ireland, as unique individuals. “You are dealing with differing personalities, different needs so far as bitting and tack adjustments, different strengths and weaknesses in ability.”
International trainers Georgina Frith and Boyd Excel, both of England, have helped Stroud over the past year. The heavy training schedule has obviously paid off as Stroud saw improvements throughout last year’s competitions.
“The hazards were very technical [at Live Oak] and offered a great opportunity to practice rein-handling,” said Stroud, whose team also received the fitness award.
Each phase took its toll on the 10 competitors in the FEI pair horse division. Veteran pairs whip Lisa Singer of Chadds Ford, Pa., driving Mimi Thorington’s chestnut Morgans Count On Me and Gali, executed one of the best dressage tests of the day with a score of 46.98.
“I was really very happy with the beasties’ responsiveness,” said Singer, explaining that test eight, which is also the test to be driven at the World Pairs Championship this fall, is tough in terms of the many transitions required.
Singer’s lead was momentarily lost as Lodi, Calif., whip Fritz Grupe stormed the marathon course with his pair of bay warmbloods to take the division lead.
But the new cones rules, which emphasize fast and clean, once again proved that “it’s not over ’til it’s over.” Thorington’s Morgan pair dropped one ball but made the tight time for 3 penalty points. “Your horses need to go and come back quickly on command,” said Singer. “I can shut down and make tight turns with my horses.”
Singer gave a prime example of this ability on a long gallop from cones 18 to 19, where she was one of only two advanced competitors to make a tight right turn that required precision and adjustability. Grupe encountered problems with the course, accumulating 27.5 penalties and dropping to fourth place.