Gypsy vanner to represent Britain at pony world driving championships

  • A gypsy cob who started life as a vanner is headed to France this week to represent Britain at the FEI combined driving World Championships for ponies (Haras Du Pin, 15-19 September).

    Woodie (Elwood) was spotted pulling a wagon near Kelso and was bought off the road from his breeder, Gary Davis. He has gone on to be an unexpected success in top-level driving trials.

    His new career direction began when his owner Caroline Church sent him to well-known tandem driver Carol Boswell for schooling.

    He did some work as an Riding for the Disabled Association pony and then returned the following summer for some more schooling, leading him to begin his career in driving trials with Carol’s daughter Rebecca March.

    “I got into a bit of a bet with Mum,” Rebecca said. “She was at the nationals with her tandem, that she competed with her ex-partner, and when he left there was a bit of a gap. I said to her ‘if you go and aim for the nationals again, Jamie [Rebecca’s husband] and I will drive next season as well and we can both try to qualify.’

    “Mum had other ponies but she thought I’d have the most fun with Woodie. He is so different to anything I was used to but she was right and we have had a ball with him.”

    Woodie pulling a wagon with his former owner Gary David

    Woodie put to a wagon with his former owner Gary Davis

    Rachel’s grandmother Gladys Dale bred Welsh ponies and Rachel had driven them “for fun around the field” but had never competed seriously, having had more interest in riding sport horses.

    She had to give them up because of work commitments but thought driving a pony “would be easier”.

    “That idea soon went out the window, as just the same level of training is required!” she said.

    They first realised Woodie may have the talent to go on in driving trials during their first ever lesson, which was with world four-in-hand champion Boyd Exell.

    “Someone cancelled so mum said ‘could Becs come?’” Rebecca said. “Boyd drove him and said ‘he’s got an extension, you’ve got something here to work with.’”

    Rebecca went on to buy Woodie and they tackled their first nationals at novice that year before starting to wonder whether it was feasible to draw up a World Championship campaign.

    “We aimed to get to these worlds but never really thought it possible,” she said. “Breaking it down into years helped and my trainer [former pony fours world champion] Jan de Boer also helped hugely.”

    Rebecca said that Woodie, now 14, has become a “very good marathon pony” and is also strong in the dressage.

    “On the marathon he has the heart of a lion. The girl that rides him for me events to intermediate level and she says he is faster than her intermediate horse, he has a serious engine,” she said.

    “You wouldn’t think he was sporty to look at him though because he has cankles as soon as he grows any hair — and his canon bones are so short and fat that we can’t use boots on him because none of them fit.”

    She added that he also had fabulous paces with a “fantastic” extended trot, and because he started life as a vanner, his “discipline is unbelievable”.

    “He has done a bit of everything and I think if we hadn’t driven him, whatever he would have done he would have gone to the top.”

    Rebecca said that her aim for their World Driving Championships debut, where they compete as individuals in the single pony, would be to finish in the top half of the field.

    “The trick is keeping the consistency in all three phases. We usually get two out of three but at international level you need three out of three,” she said.

    “It’s going to be our first time abroad because of Covid, so it’s a bit nerve-racking but a lot of other people are in a similar position as so many couldn’t go to the test event either.”

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