The World Combined Pony Driving Championships at Catton Hall, Derbyshire, was a real “blood, sweat and tears” driving trial that left everyone drained and dizzy after four days of ferocious competition.
Red-hot favourites Germany and Holland took team gold and silver, but, against the odds, it was the British squad that captured bronze, and the hearts of the loyal supporters.
Reigning champion Germany took an early lead, spearheaded by Steffen Abicht and Franz-Josef Lehmkuhl, with three sub-50 dressage scores to scoot 11.64pen clear of the field. The USA edged into second ahead of Holland, with Britain in fifth place.
After two afternoons of punishing heat, drivers were relieved when marathon day dawned overcast, and it could be seen why when their intentions became clear.
One after the other, competitors charged the Catton obstacles at hair-raising speed. The walkie-talkie traffic was soon alive with officials predicting crashes and spills, and so it proved. There were traps aplenty among the hazards, nowhere more so than at the first two, where tip-ups put paid to the chances of half a dozen.
The German team was relentless and consistent across country. British national champion Jo Rennison launched an uncharacteristically fierce attack on the course that was — crucially — sustained through all eight obstacles. When the dust settled — and there was plenty of it — Jo had beaten the world’s best on the marathon course, including reigning champion Steffen Abicht.
“The crowd was fantastic,” said Jo, who returned streaked with mud. “My left turns were fantastic but I missed a couple of rights, and my arm was going dead. I thought I should ease up a little and not be so mental for the next couple, but as soon as I got back on my left turn routes, I was woooo! Off again.”
In singles, marathon specialist Sue Denney clocked the top time through three of the eight hazards, but was kicking herself afterwards, having spoiled her round with a costly mistake at the third after agreeing to attempt an alternative route. Nevertheless, Sue finished third overall on the day, a whisker ahead of Sarah Howe, rubbing in the strength of the British marathon effort.
Britain’s Ursula Hirschberg had a lengthy enforced wait at the halt with her veteran ponies after fours driver Thomas Koeppen tipped over at obstacle one. However, she responded magnificently and held her nerve, rolling into fifth place to complete a Team GB marathon performance that was all grit and guts.
To their credit, the Germans were nosing away from the field, while Holland was going down without a fight. The British squad were happy on Saturday night, having climbed to third place, with a near 8pen lead over the Americans.
On cones day the German lead looked unassailable, but the silver medal was still very much there for the taking with a 12.09pen gap between the Netherlands and Britain.
Sue Denney drove into the ring with a fixed expression, and, for three breathtaking minutes, piloted Rolls Silver Spirit with immaculate precision to record a double clear that set the stands roaring in delight, catapulting herself into fourth place in the individual table, where she finished just 0.7pen away from a bronze.
In the pairs Britain’s Jo Rennison was breathing down the neck of World Champion Steffen Abicht, but unfortunately Jo’s claim on the title fell to pieces, with three balls dislodged on the way.
Rachel Stevens’s nerve held where Jo’s failed. Keeping her penalties down to a mere 10.08, she notched her first score for the team and Britain’s medal hopes were still alive.
For Britain, the team medal was still at stake and the domestic spotlight turned on to the fours drivers. Once again, Ursula Hirschberg and her “pony pensioners” rose to the occasion, going clear just a fraction over the allotted time, and, after some frantic arithmetic, the confirmation arrived that Britain’s bronze medal was in the bag.
1. Cefnoakpark Bouncer (Suzy Stafford) USA 130.40
2. Frits (Dirk van Beckhoven) NED 131.14
3. Knut (Ann-Christine Arvidsson) SWE 131.90
4. Rolls Silver Spirit (Susan Denney) GBR 132.60
9. Costa Llewellyn (Sara Howe) GBR 151.00
1. Steffen Abicht GER 139.11
2. Rupert Ganhör AUT 145.70
3. Lars Dau DEN 146.94
6. Jo Rennison GBR 148.31
10. Rachel Stevens GBR 156.18
1. Dirk Gerkens GER 156.77
2. Tobias Bücker GER 164.45
3. Aart van de Kamp snr NED 165.34
10. Ursula Hirschberg GBR 186.98
1. Germany: Sandra Broichhaus, Franz-Josef Lehmkuhl, Steffen Abicht, Peter Borgmann, Tobias Bücker, Dirk Gerkens, 428.03
2. Netherlands: Dirk van Beckhoven, Yvonne de Ruyter, Jan de Boer, Ewoud Boom, Aart van de Kamp Junior, Aart van de Kamp Senior, 433.72
3. Britain: Susan Denney, Sara Howe, Jo Rennison, Rachel Stevens, Sarah-Jane Cook, Ursula Hirschberg, 455.53