When thinking about 2008, this was Chester Weber’s year. Most of you who are reading this column don’t need me to reiterate all of his accomplishments—they have been well documented, both in this issue (p. 180) and in many other publications—but for the record he won every competition in this country, including the USEF National Championship.
He also took top honors at Riesenbeck, Germany, and put the icing on the cake with his silver medal-winning performance at the FEI World Four-in-Hand Driving Championships in Beesd, the Netherlands, the best individual placing by a U.S. driver in this championship.
Weber has what it takes to be a champion, and when it comes to driving a four-in-hand at the level Weber does, it takes a lot. It takes great skill. It takes great horses. It takes money. Let’s face it. It does take money—your own, from someone else, or from many someones. And that’s not taking anything away from Weber, who has dedicated himself to his sport and continues to improve and excel. Money alone does not make a champion. But it would be extremely hard to be a champion in this sport without it.
Weber’s driving career is just getting started. Unlike some of the astride disciplines, a driver can compete successfully into his (or her) senior years. Just look at George Bowman of Great Britain, who is in his mid-70s and has won many medals, individual and team, nationally and internationally. Weber had better build a bigger
More Championship Moments
To compare the achievements of Weber with that of the disabled drivers is difficult.
Imagine training every day when you are at your peak physically and traveling across the country and across the ocean to compete. Now imagine that you are always going to have a physical handicap that you have to deal with while you are trying to get your horse into a frame, bend, rein-back, gallop through hazards and drive straight between the cones. And not only that, but imagine driving at a World Championship with a borrowed horse that you’ve only just laid eyes on and have driven twice before hearing the judge’s whistle.
Considering all the above, it’s impressive that the U.S. Disabled Drivers also came home from their World Championship with medals. The team won the silver medal, Meghan Benge won individual gold and Diane Kastama won individual bronze. Mary Gray was the third member of the team and has represented the United States at all five championship events.
The Championship, held in Greven, Germany, last June, was held concurrently with a national combined driving event, so the course these competitors drove was the same as able-bodied competitors.
Kastama shipped her own horse Jasper, a Welsh Cob, to Greven along with her specially designed carriage and equipment to accommodate her wheelchair. Benge and Gray drove borrowed ponies and equipment. Of the 27 competitors representing eight nations, Benge, Gray and Kastama placed first, second and third in dressage, all scoring in the 40s. Benge held her lead going into cones, after finishing the marathon, and even with a couple of balls down, maintained her position to hold onto the gold medal.
Benge’s leased pony, Jack, an 18-year-old Welsh Cob, was trained by Boyd Exell, so although Benge hadn’t driven Jack before, there was some familiarity with the way he responded.
Benge, Aiken, S.C., is currently a student at the Savannah College of Art and Design, majoring in photography and minoring in graphic design. When she graduates in May 2009, she hopes to find a job, hopefully animal related.
And I can’t let this opportunity pass without offering condolences to Diane Kastama, who lost her driving partner Jasper in October. While laying over between California and Arizona, on their way to the Grass Ridge CDE, Jasper along with Rupert, the other half of Kastama’s pair, were turned out in a pasture. They ran through a fence and were hit by a car. Rupert will recover, but Jasper was euthanized because of his injuries.
Kastama first drove Jasper in the 2004 World Disabled Driving Championships and then bought him and brought him home to California. Jasper returned twice to Europe, where he earned medals for Kastama. But medals don’t mend holes in the heart.
Singles drivers also competed at their World Championship in August in Jarantow, Poland. They did not achieve the ultimate goal of winning medals, but those who participated considered their effort a success. None of the drivers—three on the team and one alternate—had ever competed outside of North America.
Donna Crookston, Robin Groves and Bill Peacock comprised the team, with Leslie Berndl competing as an individual. They were surrounded by experience and all said that the expertise of coach Lisa Singer, Chef d’Equipe Ed Young and his assistant Jennifer Matheson, and USEF Director of Driving Eric Stauffer made all the difference to this “young team.” Young may be accurate to describe their lack of international experience, but all were over 60, calling themselves the AARP team.
Groves scored the best of the U.S. drivers overall, 25th, followed by Berndl, 27th, Peacock, 36th, and Crookston, 50th. The team finished 11th out of 20 nations. Each made a contribution to the team score, and all felt they drove their personal best.
Growth And Opportunity
Encouraging teens to take up driving is a bandwagon everyone wants to climb aboard. Claire Reid and Kelly Valdes have successfully provided opportunities for kids at Reid’s Big Sky Farm in Southern Pines, N.C., for five years. For the past two years, they’ve joined forces with the USEF and combined the camp with a training session for long-listed drivers who in turn help teach the youngsters.
The Carriage Barn in New Hampshire also holds day-camps for younger children. These organized gatherings have all been successful in inspiring both old and young. But the reality is, unless the bug bites hard, young adults often put their equestrian pursuits behind them as they finish their education and start careers and families.
The true test of the success of the efforts to encourage driving for our youth may not come for decades when we’ll see if these, now middle-age, campers pick up the reins and climb on the box seat. Surveys, formal and informal, indicate that the largest demographic is the 50-something female. Case in point–our singles team!
Before the world economy hit the skids, gas prices were the hot topic of conversation. Organizers wondered how $4-a-gallon (more for diesel) prices would affect their entries. The shows I was involved with seemed to enjoy normal, and even higher entries, so it was obvious competitors were cutting back on other things. Some shows reported fewer out-of-state entries but more local entries. Others chose to enter competitions I term “destination” shows, such as Live Oak (Fla.), The Laurels (Pa.), and Walnut Hill (N.Y.). My prediction for 2009 is that organizers might experience slightly fewer entries, but competitors will continue to find ways to compete.
I think 2009 will provide challenges for the entire equestrian world with the uncertainty in the economy. Even those who we think don’t need to worry about how to pay for the groceries are practical and frugal when it comes to non-essential spending. (Although many probably consider their horse activity as essential as food!)
Show organizers are going to feel the biggest challenge as they begin their fund-raising campaigns. Raising money is going to be tough. Hopefully, sponsorships won’t dry up completely, and contributors and advertisers can be persuaded to give something, even if not as much as they have in the past.
Someone once said that driving was the fastest growing of all the equestrian disciplines. Many have reiterated this belief over the past 15 years or more, but the reality is that driving is just holding its own. High numbers for the American Driving Society were hit in the early years of this decade with membership reaching slightly more than 3,200 and recognized competitions approaching 100. While these numbers have dropped over the past few years, they seem to be holding steady. Holding steady over the next year or so will be considered a success.
Numbers are an important indicator of trends. Studying the number of competitors who competed at the advanced level at The Laurels event between 1999 and 2008 tells an interesting tale. I used The Laurels for this comparison because they have offered these classes and attracted a consistent entry each year.
In 1999, 24 competitors were entered at the advanced level in anticipation of the World Singles Championship, which was to be held in the fall at Gladstone, N.J., (and was subsequently canceled). When the pony championships were introduced, entries in all of the advanced pony classes jumped. Interestingly, the numbers for all of the classes spike every other year when a World Championship is scheduled.
The total number of advanced entries at The Laurels hit a high in 2000 with 45 and has declined since, with only 18 competing in 2008. Even if this number is tripled to account for advanced competitors throughout the rest of the country, this is still a staggeringly small number compared to other disciplines. What do these numbers mean to the future of our sport?
Several things may be responsible for this decline. Because drivers have four (five including the disabled drivers) World Championships compared to one for the other disciplines, perhaps the novelty of competing at World Championships has worn off. (Of course, the opportunity to compete at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games is causing a temporary growth spurt in team driving.)
The cost of campaigning year after year undoubtedly takes its toll. The increasing bureaucratic requirements and fees from the USEF and FEI combined with the increase in number of shows offering intermediate level at ADS competitions is another. Many former advanced-level drivers are finding they can have just as much fun with less hassle at the intermediate level, and they are competing against many of the same people as before. In 2009 the economy will surely have an effect, although how much remains to be seen.
Even though our challenges are many, our accomplishments are significant.
Chester Weber is one of just a handful of four-in-hand drivers in this country considered to be of international caliber. In the United States, they have only themselves to compete against. Compare this to one of the European countries where four-in-hand drivers can compete head-to-head, weekend after weekend.
For Weber to win the silver medal is indeed an achievement. Our drivers are grateful for the support of the USEF, realizing that their expenses are great and the pool is small. Our disabled drivers have noticed a significant improvement in the quality of the drivers and their horses since the inception of their championship in 2002. These drivers are now driving horses and ponies that will compete well anywhere, and our drivers are competing successfully with their own horses and ponies in open competitions in this country.
Driving has made our country smaller. We are familiar not only with the stars of our sport, but also with the beginners. Our officials encourage all organizers, and clinicians encourage all drivers because we need them all for our sport to thrive.
I look forward to the start of the show season each year for the simple reason of seeing my friends from Maine to California, and that first time usually takes place in Florida. We’ll greet each other not as acquaintances from across the country, but as neighbors.
Ann L. Pringle
Ann Pringle, currently the editor of The Driving Digest, was executive director of The American Driving Society for 20 years and editor of their publication, The Whip. Pringle enjoys photographing driving horses, working at carriage driving shows and assisting her husband Richard who is a popular scorer at combined driving events. She currently splits her time between Metamora, Mich., in the summer and Southern Pines, N.C. in the winter.