What an amazing success! Anna Grayston has won the first ever gold medal for British carriage driving at the World Championships in Breda, Holland.
To achieve a gold medal with a pair reflects her skill and the high level of training she has achieved with her ponies, but then there’s not much Anna doesn’t know about successfully driving ponies.
She is unique in having been national champion with a single pony, pony pair, pony tandem and pony team.
For many drivers there is something especially exciting about the prospect of driving a pair. For a start it is easily the most horsepower you can achieve with just a single rein in each hand. Then there is the challenge, and satisfaction, of getting the horses or ponies working happily in synchronisation.
Anna believes the secret to success when considering ponies is: “Temperament, temperament, temperament! Good natural rhythm and stride, and for a pair the same work ethic as their partner.”
Then there is the need for consistent handling and carefully structured training. Anna’s big bay ponies are beautifully schooled.
Anna has weekly training sessions with Barry Marshall who she describes as: “A fantastic mentor, coach and friend. Barry was an FEI ridden dressage judge to World Championship level and chef d’equipe to the British Dressage team at the Barcelona Olympics. He has taught me so much!”
Training with a coach is really helpful at whatever level you are driving and possibly makes more difference more quickly for grassroots drivers even if it is only occasional. You are given focus and helpful exercises for the key areas to work on to improve both driver and equine. Anna herself is a Level 3 coach who enjoys working with all abilities and ages.
If you are competing, a good dressage result sets you up well for the rest of the competition. Anna’s performance had her leading the world class field for a long time. She was eventually pipped into second by just 0.51 pens.
It is worth remembering how good schooling also pays off handsomely in the marathon and cones where a responsive, well balanced horse can manoeuvre more tightly and cleanly, saving on time and other penalties. When driving a pair there is always the additional skill required to keep both animals working as one.
Like many national and international drivers Anna swaps a marathon specialist pony into the pair for this phase whose enthusiasm, acceleration and staying power will lift the performance of the other. This is even more important when the course is not only demanding technically but when the ground conditions are heavy.
The thick mud at Breda sapped the energy from the horses and made the courses very slippery.
Anna said: “The obstacles were rutted and deep where everyone was driving very similar routes. This problem was made worrse for us as we went second to last in the pony pairs and after all of the singles had already gone too. Most of the obstacles were like driving in trenches so it was really important to keep a good even rhythm and smooth lines. Any stopping and starting was very tiring for the ponies.”
It was thrilling for Anna to gain speed over the obstacles with no errors and come out with a score that put her at the top of the leaderboard with just the cones to go.
Fortunes change very quickly in the final phase and intense concentration is required. Taking tired ponies into the final phase is a special challenge for multiples.
The slippery course and many turn backs at Breda made the cones especially technically demanding and Anna credits her ponies for rising to the occasion: “With the cones running in reverse order and going into the arena last put us under immense pressure and the atmosphere was electric. The course drove much harder than it had walked seven hours earlier but my ponies were brilliant throughout and all of our hard work and training paid off. Thank goodness my ponies are so experienced as I think they got me round the course!”
Anna’s well deserved gold medal is the result of her dedication over many years of training and shows that with the right approach dreams can come true. It is an inspiration for our top drivers in their future World Championships but also for all drivers. It is wonderful to achieve your goal even if it is a more modest one.
For many drivers Anna’s high profile win has awakened the desire to drive a pony pair and I will report on an exciting new venture into pairs driving next month.