Inspirational riding at the Paralympics in Rio delighted everyone but of course there was no carriage driving! However the FEI World Horse Driving Trials Championships for para equestrian drivers in August at Beesd in Holland was equally inspirational and showcased the achievements of the disabled drivers at the top level of the sport. It was truly a privilege for me to travel abroad and assist Team GB members in their event.
The para drivers representing Britain were all Grade 1 drivers as they are wheelchair bound and all achieved personal bests at the championships. As a result the team came home with a bronze medal and Debbie Daniel (pictured top) a well-deserved individual bronze.
I have been lucky enough to represent Great Britain internationally three times abroad in the championships for young drivers and the format is the same. The planning and preparation involved and logistics of sorting travel abroad takes weeks and the actual journey can be over four days once you have crossed the Channel with the horses. Beesd was the closest venue to home yet for the British drivers for a World Championship, and despite threats of delays at the ports the team arrived safely and on schedule.
As team space was very limited I was based at a local B&B which also allowed for some sightseeing. Not much though, as timetabling is tight and there is so much to do on site for the actual competition.
Training on-site with both the turnout and off-carriage was important for getting familiarised with the arenas and the marathon obstacles. There were also slots in the very full timetable for official vet checks and trot-up plus various ceremonies as well as the different phases of the competition itself.
Everyone dressed up in their smart team kit for the opening ceremony and drivers on their quadbikes were accompanied by the team helpers on foot — all festooned in Union Jacks, to join the other nations and their national flags. The opening ceremony is always very special as it brings everyone involved together. There is the suspense and anticipation for the competition ahead but a friendly and lively atmosphere. The display at Beesd’s opening ceremony that we all loved most was the Shetland pony riding team. They were so skilful and the ponies and riders embodied a sense of enjoyment that was infectious. The manoeuvres were accomplished and the music uplifting. Many of the young riders were steering a Shetland ahead of the one they rode in tandem style. This is a real challenge in itself but with cheeky Shetland ponies doubly so! In Thelwell style a pony might misbehave – even snatch a grab of grass – but the young rider’s cheerful response as they got back on track with barely a falter kept a wonderful happy atmosphere.
‘Nations night’ is another social highlight where everyone enjoys mixing together and sampling the different food and drink provided by the competing nations. Good friendships are made and there is a great sense of camaraderie. Team GB was one of several nations who “adopted” Stefanie Putnam who was there flying the flag for the USA after an incredible journey of over 4,000 miles with her horse. This remarkable lady, who is also wheelchair bound, is one of the few drivers who has two backsteppers on board in the marathon.
The three days of actual competition were incredibly busy: cleaning and setting up carriages for presentation, plaiting and grooming horses with lots of scrubbing of white socks and detangling of tails! Then ensuring that drivers and grooms were also impeccably turned out in their smart outfits. After driving dressage, all changed into casual clothing for the final study of obstacles. They drove the routes with quadbikes, while helpers were back at base checking axles were brought into the regulated 125cms and carriages were set up properly for the marathon. The all-important timings and compulsory flags were double and triple checked by drivers and backsteppers! In the evening it was off to the dressage presentation where Debs got a rosette for third place in the Grade 1 class and we listened in for the all-important briefing for the marathon phase, followed by more socialising as darkness fell.
On marathon morning horses were warmed up, studded and booted. They were also harnessed and drivers were assisted into their carriages using their preferred system — often via a specially adapted winch. Lap strap systems were held by the backsteppers and everyone sorted themselves out while the helpers held the horses’ heads. Luckily the weather was kind!
The course was challenging with some obstacles on slopes but the Brits all drove superbly to come up well in the individual placings. There were eliminations – the most unfortunate being the Italian driver who tipped up in the water. His backstepper quickly got to him and held him up until help arrived but he suffered a very soggy end to his competition hopes.
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With Debs still in her third place it was going to be a nail-biting finale to the cones. Of course it was back to the required 138cm axle width and smartest clothes. For those using three-phase carriages, all the mud from the marathon had to be scrubbed off as well as needing to get horses and harness spotless again! Three of the four ponies were meant to be greys! There were enough turnbacks and questions asked by the course designer to make the cones course a proper challenge to get a double clear… but there were none and most people got more than one ball plus time-penalties.
With Debs winning an individual bronze and the team bronze too, the medal ceremony was very emotional and a thrilling conclusion to a great World Championship for the para equestrian drivers.