Demystifying Combined Driving: WEG Day 1

Because eventing with one horse just wasn’t crazy enough, let’s do it with four (and a carriage.) Day 1: dressage.

Top photo: Netherlands’ Ijsbrand Chardon, a great fan favorite, starting off the day in the dressage ring.

Eventers and other equestrian thrill-seekers, don’t fret that the WEG has nothing left to offer you now that eventing wrapped up last weekend. Combined driving began today–and as though the three parts of eventing including dressage, cross-country and stadium weren’t bonkers enough for you, combined driving takes these three elements and modifies them for a carriage drawn by four horses. Yep, count ’em–four. One, I suppose, wasn’t enough.

Today’s first part of the competition consisted of dressage: half of the entered forty-six drivers and their four horses performed a dressage test in the outdoor arena area at La Prarie Racecourse. This section of competition is scored on performance of a prescribed test, including changes in speed and gait (halt, walk and trot only, cantering is not tested) as well as figures such as circles, diagonals and lines. Halts are timed and can occur in the middle of the test. Most terrifying interesting are the movements required to be performed with one hand–in today’s test, those movements included an extended trot across the diagonal and a right circle at the working trot. (Personally, I find it hard enough to drive one horse in a nice round circle at a trot with two hands, so how these guys were getting this done with four horses still baffles me. Skills.) Use of the whip is permitted, though can detract from the overall impression.

Great Britain's Dick Lane and his impeccably-matched Lippizaners.

Great Britain’s Dick Lane and his impeccably-matched Lippizaners.

Drivers are turned out formally as though for a pleasure driving class including a lap robe and teams are put to a show carriage. Four-in-hand competition requires two grooms, who sit in the back of the carriage for the duration of the dressage test and are not permitted to speak in the arena. Any assistance from the grooms results in penalty deductions (other than emergencies which result in their own deductions or eliminations.) Horses wear fine harness and will be braided for competition–which requires its own logistical scheduling to get four horses ready to go into the arena at exactly the same time. Turnout is judged as part of the overall score, so the driver’s and grooms’ attire should complement the carriage and the team. Ideal harness horses have free-flowing expressive gaits and drivers favor horses with knee action. Warmbloods are wildly popular among the WEG entries, though Australian Boyd Excell has his Arab/Friesian crosses that he calls “well suited” for the task.

Misdee Wrigley-Miller, one of only four ladies entered in driving, sporting a fantastic hat.

USA’s Misdee Wrigley-Miller, one of only three ladies entered in driving, sporting a fantastic hat.

Further complicating logistics, teams will use a different carriage for this weekend’s marathon and cones phases–so just to put this in perspective, teams traveled to Normandy from all over the world with four horses per team as well as at least two carriages. If a national team is made up of four members, that’s at least sixteen horses and eight carriages, which then also includes four drivers and eight grooms–so when the driving competition is referred to as a team sport, they’re serious about what that entails.

Back to today’s dressage competition: synopses and interviews of the day include such lines as “one canter break and a disturbance in the extended trot” or “one disturbance when his right leader was shaken by a moving camera.” Think about how quickly penalties can accrue in ridden dressage with its one-to-one horse and rider ratio–and now change the fraction to support four horses. The opportunities for things to go wrong and to pick up penalties are exponentially increased, making a flawless test a true thing of beauty.

Ijsbrand Chardon demonstrating a beautiful extended trot.

Dressage continues tomorrow with the other half of entries performing their tests.

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