Demystifying Combined Driving: The Last Day of WEG
Because eventing with one horse just isn’t crazy enough, let’s do it with four. (And a carriage.) The final day at WEG: cones.
Eventing’s last component of stadium jumping is designed to test the horse’s obedience and fitness after a long day on the cross-county course. In similar format, combined driving’s final phase of cones is set up much like a jumper course, with up to 20 “gates” of cones topped with a plastic ball taking the place of jumps. In all other aspects, the two tests are nearly identical: competitors can accrue both time faults for traveling the course too slowly, and penalties for knocking down a cone or jostling a ball loose. Cones can be set up to be part of a complex of three or four gates, or as single obstacles. Drivers walk the course in advance of competition to plan their route–it takes a lot of preparation to line up four fast-moving horses AND a carriage for clean passage.
Competitors are back into the same formal attire and appointments from dressage day, meaning that the high-wheeled carriages that had previously been making lovely and gentle circles and diagonals are now performing the same drifts and slides that the all-terrain marathon vehicles were doing. I enjoy seeing what appears for all intents and purposes to be well-dressed Victorian men ripping it up around sharp corners as their braided and polished horses dig in and canter in their fine harness (though at the same time I’m holding my breath to see if there’s about to be a well-dressed wreck in the corner as well.)
The grooms continue to sit and look proper and don’t provide any assistance to the driver, which must come alternately as a sigh of relief after their hands-on role to keep everything from going to pot during marathon while simultaneously must also be gray-hair-inducing as they’re now supposed to do nothing while their carriage sways and drifts dangerously and they can see pandemonium just centimeters away. Such is the life of a driving groom.
France’s Benjamin Aillaud bending it into the last gate and finishing strong through the timer.
This year’s WEG cones phase was rendered extra-tense by the showdown between USA driver Chester Weber, the hands-down winner of the dressage phase, and Australian Boyd Excel, arguably one of the finest drivers in the world who commanded the lead with a masterful marathon performance. In the end, Excel took home the gold and Weber settled for silver.
Cones day, in summary, is the perfect combination of the formality of fine harness driving jacked up with a shot of crazy–like those Victorians finally let their hair down and loosened up the corset a little.
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