The driving discipline in the U.S. could use a boost for more participation

By Nancy Jaffer
March 21, 2017

This month’s Live Oak International driving event, which hosted four national championships, brought back memories from the era when the sport of combined driving reached its peak in the U.S.

Chester Weber won the national four-in-hand driving championship for the 14th time at Live Oak International. (Photo by Nancy Jaffer)

It built to a crescendo in 1993, the year that the World Pair Driving Championships were held in Gladstone. Maybe you were there and recall the impressive array of international competitors who came to New Jersey for an event that drew amazing crowds; 40,000 spectators, including Great Britain’s Prince Philip.

Enthusiasm about combined driving built during the 1980s, when Finn Caspersen supported the sport and started the Gladstone Equestrian Association. Its annual Gladstone Driving Event was a very big deal. The 1993 championship was awarded to the U.S. after the American team won the title meet in Austria two years earlier. Plans to host the World Singles Championships in 2000 had to be cancelled due to the West Nile virus threat, and things began unraveling to some extent for the sport here after that.

There was a small revival leading up to the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Kentucky. Four months before the WEG, 11 four-in-hands–an unheard of number for the U.S. at the advanced level–competed for spots on the WEG team in the Garden State Driving Event at the Horse Park of New Jersey. Having the WEG in the U.S. for the first time was a magnet not only for team regulars, but also for anyone who could put together a group of horses and give it a go.

But since then, the driving ranks in the U.S. have dwindled.

“We are in serious decline,” observed Heather Walker, who ran the GEA and serves on the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s Driving Sport Committee.

“There’s a lot of concern about our numbers shrinking,” agreed Lizzy Staller, the USEF’s director of driving.

That’s especially true in New Jersey, where the number of driving participants was reduced by competitors moving south, aging out or dying. The Gladstone event in May is a shadow of its former self, though there is determination to improve it. The Garden State Driving Event has been upgraded to a 2-star and is set for the weekend of Sept. 15. It should draw four-in-hands looking to compete at WEG next year (secretary/manager Wendy Wares said hopes are it will be a selection trial for the WEG and 2018 single horse world championships), though the odds are against a number of four-in-hands even approaching the 2010 turnout.

At the upper levels, U.S. driving ranks are thin for the most part, except in the single ponies and horses. The cost of the sport is a factor, as is the time and effort it takes. Competing in driving with a single animal generally requires help from another person, and more than one equine means more help, as well as extra animals that can fill in when necessary. Equipment also is bulky to transport and pricey; having both a carriage for dressage and cones and a marathon vehicle is a lot to buy and tote around.

Few have the wherewithal to compete in the four-in-hands, since the demands of that division increase exponentially from competing one or two horses. Tucker Johnson, a former national champion who was long a mainstay of the U.S. four-in-hand squad, retired after winning an individual bronze medal in Kentucky seven years ago. His perennial teammates, Chester Weber (individual silver medalist at the 2014 WEG) and Jimmy Fairclough of Newton, are still going, but there are less team candidates to choose from in the ranks of the fours, the glamour division.

Chester took his 14th national championship at Live Oak, held at his family’s farm in Ocala, Fla. While he’s one of the best in the world, having won individual silver at the 2014 WEG, there’s no one currently on the U.S. scene who can give him a real run for his money.

“The sport has been a little bit fragmented with some difficulties with the ADS (American Driving Society),” said Chester. He was referring to the fact that the USEF, of which he is the secretary/treasurer, and ADS parted ways over various issues earlier this year. This month, however, it was announced the two organizations had reached a preliminary agreement that could enable restoration of ADS as the federation’s driving discipline affiliate. Stay tuned for this one.

While USEF CEO Bill Moroney says he’s still learning more about driving, he commented, “We need to somehow to make driving more accessible, combined driving especially, and how to raise awareness of it. Instead of getting caught up in what exists now, look at it from the viewpoint of if you could create it however you wanted to, what would you do to attract people, encourage people, mentor people, make it more accessible, whether it’s financially or time-wise.”

He said what is required is having the interested parties “sit at a table and put in the hard work and figure out where this sport needs to go.”

“Hopefully, we can put the sport together with a cohesive line from the grassroots forward,” Chester commented. “We try to do our fair share at Live Oak and present the sport to a lot of people,” he continued, noting he also gives clinics and tries to help those who are interested in getting involved with driving.

Lizzy Staller called Live Oak–which hosted four national championships this year–the best driving show in the country, but noted other organizers shouldn’t be intimidated by it, thinking they have to meet the same expectations.

An elaborate circus party at Live Oak featured Chester Weber as a ringmaster and his sister, Juliet Reid, as another big top personality. (Photo by Nancy Jaffer)

“What we really need are local shows, where you can spend the weekend and not take eight days off. We need to grow the sport at the local level,” Lizzy said.

“We’re trying to figure out how to come up with funds to help organizers,” she added. “People aren’t giving back to the sport. There’s no other way to support it. You have to give to the (U.S. Equestrian Team) Foundation, or volunteer. You can’t just stand there and say, ‘I made a team. How much money am I getting?’”

Lizzy added, “Our developing driver program is extremely popular. I think that’s because it caters to people at the lower levels who want to move up but just need some help. Hopefully, we’ll be able to expand that program. People need places to compete where they don’t have to travel across the country or down the entire East Coast.”

Heather also noted it’s time to put the fun back into driving. Not everyone who hitches up a horse wants to compete at a high level; recreational aspects have to get their due, because that can help attract new people to the sport.

At the same time, “When you build up that group of people who do it because it’s such fun, then that tends to feed up to the elite level. That’s where we’re not getting the job done. We’re not focusing enough on lower-level drivers and people coming into the sport.”

She also likes the idea of promoting “the joy of horse sports,” which was the motto of the USEF’s annual meeting in January.

But Heather pointed out time is a problem, which wasn’t the case in the 1990s.

“People had a 40-hour work week so they could come home and drive their horses. Now, everybody I know is working 60-, 70-hour weeks.” She added that young people are often playing games on their computers instead of getting involved in horse sports, so an effort needs to be made to change that.

Chester, who puts on the Live Oak show with his sister, Juliet Reid, doesn’t think he’s always a shoo-in for the national title on his home turf.

“I never take any U.S. championship for granted,” he commented.

“In the days when Tucker and I used to fight it out to the 100th of a point, I never took that for granted, and I don’t take these for granted either,” he said pointing out that Misdee Wrigley Miller, who was second at Live Oak, and Allison Stroud, third in the four-entry division and the winner of the cones phase, both have world championship experience and are “doing better every time.”

The national driving champions at Live Oak–Tracy Morgan, single pony; Chester Weber, four-in-hands; Steve Wilson, pair horses and Katie Whaley, pair ponies. (Photo by Nancy Jaffer)

Chester uses the competitions in the U.S. a little like a “test lab” as he develops his horses, but noted that in order to make the top five or better in the world rankings, a driver has to compete in Europe, which involves more expense.

He sees the WEG in Tryon stimulating interest in combined driving, though there is a shorter run-up to it than the Kentucky WEG, because the venue was announced only last year. That doesn’t give people a lot of time to assemble a four-in-hand team if they are so inclined.

Jimmy Fairclough thinks part of the problem in stimulating interest in driving is that, “It’s become such a winter sport,” where everyone has to go to Florida to compete during that season. That’s difficult for people from other parts of the country who work for a living.

“Almost all the Northeast shows are gone or are at low levels,” he commented.

“The rhythm isn’t there.”

Once there were often 65 advanced entries at the big shows, he recalled.

“Now they get 25 or 30 across the board.” The problems are “financial support, number one, and number two, the economy has hurt it,” said Jimmy.

There were just three advanced pair horses at Ocala, where Steve Wilson won with his Lippizans, the perfect candidates for 2017 World Pairs Championship in Lipica, Slovenia, where the state Lippizan stud farm is located.

The pair ponies, where Katie Whaley took the national title, had only three entries as well, though the single pony section, topped by national champion Tracy Morgan, attracted nine starters. That is reflective of the fact it takes much less money and help to drive a single. The single horses had six entries, but their national championship will be contested this fall in Kentucky, so there was no U.S. title for them at Live Oak.

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