US drivers still in the medal hunt, and a field trip to the university of the Spanish horse

For those of you who aren't familiar with the sport of combined driving, here's a short tutorial. It's based on eventing, with a dressage phase, a marathon phase, and a cones phase, each testing similar aspects to the dressage, cross-country, and show jumping phases in eventing. The dressage phase is what it implies, though the test is done only at the walk and trot, and features movements such as circling using only one hand, and extended and collected work at both gaits. The tests are judged with similar criteria to ridden dressage, with the added ...For those of you who aren't familiar with the sport of combined driving, here's a short tutorial. It's based on eventing, with a dressage phase, a marathon phase, and a cones phase, each testing similar aspects to the dressage, cross-country, and show jumping phases in eventing. The dressage phase is what it implies, though the test is done only at the walk and trot, and features movements such as circling using only one hand, and extended and collected work at both gaits. The tests are judged with similar criteria to ridden dressage, with the added ...

Story originally posted by: Heather Bailey

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the sport of combined driving, here’s a short tutorial. It’s based on eventing, with a dressage phase, a marathon phase, and a cones phase, each testing similar aspects to the dressage, cross-country, and show jumping phases in eventing. The dressage phase is what it implies, though the test is done only at the walk and trot, and features movements such as circling using only one hand, and extended and collected work at both gaits. The tests are judged with similar criteria to ridden dressage, with the added element of unity and harmony between the horses (there are World Championships for singles and pairs, but the combined driving at the WEG is always only the four-in-hands).

The marathon day is a five phase competition, with the first four phases being timed walk and trot phases over country roads, totaling about 12 miles. Then they do the hazards phase. Each hazard is a series of gates, labeled with letters, that must be crossed through in alphabetical order. However, the gates are set among various other gates and obstacles so that what is required is to perform various complex twists and turns in order to get through all the gates with the fastest time. Missing a gate or going through a gate out of order will add penalty points to your score. The faster your time through each hazard, the better your final score.

Cones phase consists of driving through a series of cones with what are essentially tennis balls on top of them, placed only inches wider than the wheelbase of the carriages. Knocking down a ball is like knocking down a rail, and the time on course is also often a factor.

Before the marathon day yesterday out at Garrapilos, I’d only ever seen combined driving at the Fair Hill CCI*** event that runs in Maryland in the fall, and while I’d always enjoyed it, it had struck me as a somewhat small sport since many of the spectators were "incidental" from the three-day event running concurrently. I’d heard that driving is much more popular in Europe, but I was stunned to arrive at Garrapilos to find a crowd of more than 20,000 people. And these weren’t just casual observers-these were knowledgeable and rabidly enthusiastic fans. They carried flags of the nations they were routing for, wore t-shirts and hats with the team names of their favorite drivers-I even saw a few who had dyed their hair in team colors. These people sprinted from hazard to hazard in order to not miss a moment, and when their drivers would come through they would scream and cheer and yell encouragement (sample cheer: "Four Through Here, Four Through Here!").

These drivers and horses are just marvelous and amazing. The lead pair of horses is in charge of picking their way through the hazards, and at this level, they operate almost exclusively on voice commands and instinct. When they charge into a hazard you can see them prick their ears and look for their gates, then swivel an ear back to listen to the shouted commands of their drivers. The back pair, or wheelers, provides the power, yanking the carriage through tight spots, uneven footing, or other difficulties. On the carriage with the driver, are a judge who makes sure rules are followed in and between the hazards, and a navigator. The navigator has the craziest job of all-they hang off the back of the carriage, and are in charge of calling out to the driver where to go, telling them when they have cleared a gate or turn, and wildest of all, using their body weight to bounce the carriage through and out of tight spots or when a wheel gets caught on the edge of a gate.

Until you’ve seen it, you can’t believe the tiny spaces four horses and a carriage can go. These horses turn back on themselves like a snake, squeeze through gates with inches to spare, get banged around by the gates and carriages, and look like they are having an absolute blast while they are doing it. The hazards can be in water, on undulating footing, and in trees. It’s really amazing, and if you get a chance to see a combined driving event in your area, GO (can I say that enough times?).

Our American team of Chester Weber, Tucker Johnson, and James Fairclough were in the lead after dressage-our best phase, but did right by themselves with a strong marathon showing to only slip one spot to the silver. The Netherlands has slipped ahead to stand first, while Germany sits on our heels in third. Johnson stands 4th individually, with Weber right behind him in 5th. Fairclough missed a gate in the fourth obstacle, and stands 26th.

In the morning before the marathon, I went to watch a performance at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Arts (Real Escuela Andaluza del Arte Ecuestre) -the famous school in Jerez for learning the Spanish riding tradition and the art of classical dressage, including the haute ecole, or high school, movements such as the airs above the ground. The school also trains the state and military owned horses. Earlier in the week, the press was invited on a tour of the facility, which had been a lot of fun. The facility that houses the school was once part of a bodega, or sherry-making facility, and features the palace Recreo de las Cadenas, which was designed in the 19th century by famed architect Garnier, who also built the Paris Opera House (and was said to have gone mad, refusing to leave the Opera House when it was completed, and inspiring the famous story of The Phantom of the Opera).

The main stables are designed like the spokes of the wagon wheel, emanating out from the main tack room and arena. Each spoke holds twelve stalls, and is named after the most famous horses from the school’s history: Ruisenor, Vendaval, Garbos, Valeros, and Jerezano. In addition to the main barn, there is the Museo del Enganche, which is a "living" carriage museum. It features a museum room of meticulously cared for antique carriages and harnesses, but is also attached to the driving wing of the school, featuring barns of the dark bay driving horses, whom we were told are all related and descend from the same four stallions, leading to their uniform appearance and color. This section of the museum is a working training and exhibition barn, and we saw several trainers and grooms scrubbing away at the miles of harness.

The buildings are huge and ornate, and carved out of white and mustard stucco. The ring is set up for its weekly performances, and is long and rectangular, with porthole windows, arched entrance ways, tall polished wood kickboards, and, of course, a royal box at one end with a huge painting of the king as a backdrop. The stables by and large were meticulously clean, especially considering the facility houses between 95 and 110 horses, with only 18 grooms for the lot. The horses were spotless also, and I couldn’t imagine the work that must go in to keeping so many white or nearly white horses spot free-I have enough trouble with my bay and chestnut horses’ white socks. But these horses are so clean they glow almost a slivery white.

The building is filled with tile-work, in white and cobalt blue, and each with a different bit emblazoned in the middle of it. The main tack room is tall and circular topped with a glass cupola. The main floors feature the everyday and show tack for all the horses, and the top levels are filled with glassed in cases of the antique tack and appointments used in the past. In the center of the tack room, growing up nearly a full story, is a live palm tree, which was placed there to help eliminate humidity and sweating in order prevent the tack from molding. (I’m thinking about trying this myself, but am not sure a palm tree can survive a Virginia winter).

All the horses at the school are purebred Spanish stallions, chosen through a careful and stringent selection process from local breeders. In addition, the all the horses from the military stud are sent to the school for training, but stay with the school for only six years, rather than the near lifetime of the other horses there. The Spanish tradition is to leave the babies at pasture until they are four years old, the bring them in and put them to work. While the are at the school, they aren’t turned out due to lack of space, but when they are retired, usually at the age of 17, they are sent back to the fields to spend their later years in peace and comfort.

Again, as you walk around and down these rows and rows of stallions, you are struck by how well-behaved and quiet they are, especially because many of them are actively breeding. They were uniformly kind, quiet, and gentlemanly. I saw them standing quietly, untied, while being tacked and untacked, standing next to each other outside the training ring, all with nary a peep or threat. At one point a large tour group came rumbling through, walking in and amongst a group of stallions waiting for their riders, and the horses stood quietly as these strangers poured past and around them.

We were able to watch about 20 minutes of a training session, consisting of trainers in blue shirts schooling younger horses, and students in green shirts being schooled on older horses. To be a student at the school you must be 28 or younger, and a citizen of the European Union. There is a riding and written exam, and only 3 or 4 of the hundreds of yearly applicants are accepted for study. There are 13 students, and 18 instructors at present, and there is a uniform kindness in the atmosphere there. Students clearly respect and revere their mounts, and when a young horse performs something correctly he is praised lavishly by his trainer.

Spanish team members Ignacio Rambla and Raphael Soto were former students of the school, and are now trainers there. When we came out of the session, we saw Rambla getting ready to school one of his younger horses, a charming gray with dark points and a pink nose. When he saw us gathering for photos, he raised his hand and his horse immediately began offering his hoof the way a dog offers a paw to shake. The horse’s eagerness to perform his special trick was adorable, as was Rambla as he praised him lavishly for showing off so well.

Down a nearby barn aisle, Soto’s WEG mount Invasor, and Rambla’s WEG mount Granadero sat dozing their stalls across from each other. The groom kindly brought Invasor out for pictures, and in a spare moment I reached out and patted the big horse on the nose. The groom looked askance, but I didn’t care-I’d been admiring this boy for weeks, and I was dying to get up close to him. He is massive and the power radiates off him even standing still, but he has the eyes of an ancient wise man. Really awe inspiring. Granadero has the mischievous eyes of a pony, but he too is placid and powerful. Seeing those two, and petting Invasor, was definitely one of the highlights of this trip.

When that tour ended, several of us expressed the feeling that we wanted to see more of the riding, so decided to come back for the Friday morning performance. It cost about $18.00 for preferred seating. The performance is called How Andalusian Horses Dance, and features Spanish music and costumes and tack from the 18th century. It starts with a demonstration of the domo vaquero or "country dressage" which was the training used for cattle herding. Many of the moves are not unlike those found in reining, even the sliding stop, but there is a certain classical flair. The show then progresses to classical dressage work, airs above the ground in-hand, long-lining demos, and a carriage demonstration. The finale is the carousel, or a ten-horse musical ride. The biggest surprise was to see Rambla and Soto riding in the performance, though of course not on Invasor and Granadero. The whole thing was lovely and elegant, and a lot of fun.

There was, of course, a convenient gift shop, and I bought a shirt, and some picture postcards, since photographing the performance is prohibited.

After the performance, we visited a tack store across the street, and contemplated whether any of our horses would be interested in authentic Spanish tack with tassels and balls, but decided not. We had some trouble getting a taxi back to the stadium, so elected to take a horse-drawn carriage ride. Two steel gray Spanish horses pulled the carriage, and their cool-headedness in traffic was amazing. It was a lovely way to see the city, and a fun way to end our morning.

There are only two days left here in Spain, and while I’m ready to go home, it’s been fun to be a part of this experience. After the drivers do their cones in the morning, only the jumpers and reiners will still have medals waiting to be awarded.

Cheers,
Heather Bailey
English Content Director