Emily Ham’s driving blog: Talented Mr J is a perfect gentleman

  • On Sunday at the Mid Wales Indoor Driving Trials affiliated event Mr J (Crossfield Glory) proved he is not only a talented pony, but also an absolute gentleman.

    It wasn’t looking good for this competition as I was feeling so unwell I was collected from Aberystwyth and given a later start time. It would have been very easy for my opinionated pony to have taken advantage, but he was extremely sensitive to how weak I felt and resisted any temptation to have a bit of fun at my expense.

    He stood beautifully in the stable so I could wash his tail and socks and smarten him up after his gallivanting around the muddy paddock the day before, loaded straight away and travelled without any enthusiastic shouting to the horses we passed or lively bouncing about.

    I was prepared to take the day as a training run, but Mr J had other ideas! Remaining saintly while I harnessed him up and adjusted settings to allow for the weight he had gained from good home living without driving work, he worked in beautifully on long reins. There was plenty of distraction with all the lorries, carriages and ponies but he tried his very best to focus on his work and forgot the usual chatting and showing off.

    Mr J has the attitude: “Hey guys I’m here! Watch me strut my stuff!” He adores going out competing and can be quite a handful, but on this occasion was on his very best behaviour.

    I was so pleased with his dressage as he focussed intently on my aids, responding immediately to voice aids and allowing me to touch his sides with the whip without getting tense to achieve better bend through the circles and serpentines. It has taken a long time for him to accept the whip as a schooling aid. I think it had bad associations as he used to tense up rigid and shoot off. He relaxed more as the test progressed and I was absolutely delighted with his rhythm and engagement throughout the later working trot sections.

    Mr J can always be relied on to do a great extension so often achieves a 9 for these, but to get a 9 for the paces in the final working trot and halt was proof he was pulling out all the stops to give me a great drive!

    In the indoor driven dressage tests marks are awarded separately for paces and precision for each movement, which enables the driver to achieve half the marks for their accuracy. I usually do drive accurately enough for 8s and some 9s, but with my pony being so obedient I was able to gain extra marks here as well as his marks for paces being better.

    I was absolutely thrilled to get a dressage test score of only 18.5 penalties which equates to 81.5%.

    After the dressage the cones course was set up and walked. It is very important to walk the cones and obstacles as if you are driving your carriage — to build in the smooth turns and right approach and exit to avoid clipping a cone with the carriage once the horse has gone through. The time for the cones course is set at 220m per minute and the optimum time is worked out by a steward using a trundle wheel to record the length of the course.  In indoor driving you get 1 penalty for each second you are over or under the optimum time.

    At my last indoor event in October, I got 12 penalties in the cones for driving too quickly, so I was determined to control my speed and drive a clear round with far fewer time penalties this time. Mr J loves cones and adopts his big ground-covering cob trot, which I maintained with no cantering, and the result were much improved … a clear round with just 2 penalties for being fast.

    There was just one double clear and quite a few experienced drivers clear with 3 or 5 time penalties, while some of the less experienced had balls down as well as less accurate judging of the pace required.

    Going into obstacles on a score of just 20.5 penalties felt fantastic as I knew that I wouldn’t have to go flat out to maintain my lead. I didn’t want to put Mr J under any strain as I knew he hadn’t been worked in the carriage for a long time.

    We long reined as our warm up and I planned routes through the obstacles that would take advantage of his manoeuvrability and responsiveness. He wears really good protective boots for all 3 phases, which I think are an absolute must to help support the legs and suspensory ligaments. I have always used Equilibrium Training Wraps and find them excellent as they are very light and breathable, yet offer support where it’s most needed.

    2 obstacles are set up at the Mid Wales affiliated events and each obstacles is driven twice making 4 recorded times in all. You can opt whether to drive them once and have a breather while someone else takes their turn or choose to drive all 4 in succession, which suits some horses. I choose the first option, even when my pony is competition fit, as Mr J is only 13.1 hands and is pulling a carriage and 2 adults.

    Driving a 4 wheeler at speed, you have to have a good backstepper who skilfully positions their weight to hold the carriage to the ground. If they lean the wrong way or misjudge their timing in taking up their position, the wheels can lift meaning you lose control or worse the carriage can tip over. This season John Shutt has been amazing in helping me out as backstepper for this phase. It’s a great feeling to be confident in your pony and backstepper and means you can focus absolutely on driving smoothly.

    Mr J is very enthusiastic and has been trained to respond to half halts and specific voice commands that enable us to fly round at canter. I strongly believe that schooling a pony to be well balanced and to enjoy going forwards without needing the whip pays handsomely at all levels. It’s a fantastic feeling to achieve a flowing round at high speed and Mr J did not let me down recording the fastest times of the day through the obstacles!

    What fantastic day it turned out to be with Mr J winning the Best Dressage, Open Pony and Best Score of the day and being a perfect gentleman throughout.


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