Gladstone Driving Event is making a comeback

By Nancy Jaffer
April 24, 2016
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Gladstone will offer a chance once again for combined drivers to test their skills at a venue with a long history in the sport

The Gladstone Driving Event, once the most important sporting competition of its kind in the country, is making a comeback next month at Hamilton Farm, home of the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation.

The event, admired all over the world in its heyday, has been held on and off over the last decade or so. It was not staged in 2015 due to a lack of entries.

With a later spot on the calendar this year, there is more enthusiasm from drivers as they have additional time to get their horses fit. Even so, organizers wisely are keeping it on a manageable small scale.

On Saturday, May 21, competition in the Pine Meadow section of the property will include dressage and cones for exhibitors in both the combined test division and the driving trials section. Competition that day should run from approximately 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. or a little later.  For the trials division, the Sunday will be devoted to the marathon, running from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. through the hazards (complex obstacles) that have proven a compelling challenge over the years. The horse-and driver-friendly route has been laid out by well-known course designer Marc Johnson.

Tricia Haertlein, president of Gladstone Driving, noted that 17 enthusiastic volunteers cleared the hazards of sticks and brush.

“The hazards are pretty well ready to go,” she said, adding trails through the area are still being cleaned up.

Pine Meadow was the scene of the World Pair Driving Championship in 1993, the culmination of years of building up the sport in this country. Under the direction and sponsorship of the late Finn Caspersen, European competitors were brought to Gladstone to give American drivers experience in facing the world’s best drivers and their horses. When the U.S. earned a team gold medal in the World Pairs Driving Championship in 1991, it offered an opportunity for the country to host the event two years later.

That was a fabulous show, with a record 23 countries participating. Everything after that was an anti-climax, however. As New Jersey drivers retired, died or moved south, the base of the sport in this area diminished and Gladstone downsized.

“We used to be a hotbed of local people driving,” said Tricia.

“Now we need to count on more people coming from a distance,” she explained.

“There’s people out there driving; we just have to get them interested in combined driving.”

Heather Walker, who ran driving events–including Gladstone–for years, noted the entire sport isn’t what it was in this country.

She said selectors who are picking squads for the world championships this year in four-in-hands and singles had only four of the former and six of the latter from which to choose.

In 2010, when the four-in-hand world championship was held as part of the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky, 14 fours tried out. And she recalled that in 1995, “there were 15 singles–there might have even been 20”–vying for slots on the U.S. world championships team.

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13-time national four-in-hand champion Chester Weber, seen here in 2003, was a regular at Gladstone, where he got his start in competition. (Photo by Nancy Jaffer)

While show jumping, eventing and dressage are thriving, driving has drawbacks those other disciplines do not.

Heather, chairman of the U.S. Equestrian Federation Driving Technical Committee, said “the culture has changed so much” and for kids, “that kind of activity is not what they do. Driving is not something you can do by yourself. When something goes wrong with a carriage, it goes crazily wrong. You need someone there with you.

“When you’re going to a show, you need transport of the carriage as well as the horse. It’s a more complicated sport.”  It can be expensive, too. And she pointed out, “the economy is a huge drain on people’s time as well as their money” especially when few people’s work week is limited to 40 hours.

So how to rebuild?

“We need events that are competitor-friendly and that people can start at, on a lower level, a casual level, where you don’t need two sets of harness and can get people interested,” she commented.

The four-in-hands that once were the stars of Gladstone but have become scarce in the U.S. these days aren’t on the program next month. It is limited to Training, Preliminary and Intermediate levels for singles and pair ponies and horses, as well as Very Small Equines (miniature horses).

“We’re hopeful. We’ve got a decent entry in each class,” Tricia said, saying organizers would like to have between 30 and 40 competitors who are looking to get started in the sport or move up to another division.

“Looking at who’s around here right now, this is the level of show we need to be doing. You have to build your own constituency.”

“Once they get here, we’re going to take really good care of them,” she continued, explaining an anonymous donor is providing breakfast and lunch daily for the competitors.

Tricia emphasized that it’s a competitor-friendly competition but while spectators are welcome at no charge, they should be aware that there won’t be food on the grounds for them.

The event, chaired by longtime volunteer Gayle Stinson, will be judged by internationally known drivers and longtime Gladstone competitors Sem Groenewoud and Lisa Singer, as well as pleasure driving judge Mary Harrison in cones. That segment will be staged against a backdrop of trees on the historic Main Drive lawn.

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