Faster than trail, dirtier than dressage, fancier than you think - the Live Oak Combined Driving Event is one of the world's most prestigious driving shows.Faster than trail, dirtier than dressage, fancier than you think - the Live Oak Combined Driving Event is one of the world's most prestigious driving shows.
Hundreds of spectators leaned forward to watch the team of horses thundering into the water hazard. A quick turn. Another quick turn… Splash! Go! Go!
Left. Right. Another right. Hold your breath. Go! Water splattered up past their bellies. Faster!
And the team of horses sprinted away. In less than one minute, the driver had navigated a beautifully matched team of four horses through a dizzying, water-filled series of twists and turns.
The crowd finally breathed.
Now that was serious adrenaline.
Forget what you think you know about carriage driving. Erase the images of plodding, cumbersome horses hitched to a big, awkward wagon. Forget leisurely afternoon jogs on old country roads. Think 21st Century. Think three-day eventing. Then add a sleek carriage, a highly skilled group of top competitors from all over the world with amazingly adaptable and pristine horses. Add camera crews, the royalty from England and thousands of people in the crowd watching.
And now, you have a tiny glimpse of what makes up the combined driving sport.
Every March, at the famous 4,500-acre Live Oak Plantation in Ocala, Florida, Chester Weber, one of the world’s highest-ranked combined driving competitors, hosts the Live Oak Combined Driving Event. The three days of international competition include Dressage, Marathon and Obstacle Driving.
Divisions for each day include singles, where one horse or pony is hitched to the carriage; pairs driving, with two horses or ponies, and the highly complicated four-in-hand. This year, the Live Oak CDE is a world championship qualifier for pairs driving, and in 2004, the event hosted the national championships for the four-in-hand division.
The Three Days
On Dressage day, drivers guide their horses and carriage through a complicated dressage pattern. Drivers and their teammates wear fancy duds and focus on precision and elegance.
Marathon day is the exciting day for most spectators. Horses blast through a series of cross-country hazards, racing against the clock. Drivers use sturdier carriages, often wear helmets, and drive very aggressively.
And finally, Obstacle Driving on day three. Here, teams navigate through a series of cones set up in a field. Similar to grand-prix jumping, the event is timed, but penalties are incurred if the carriage hits the cones.
There’s no doubt about the intensity of driving at this level.
As Weber says, "Driving is exciting to me because it is absolutely impossible to be perfect. All your horses have to be perfect at exactly the same time…it’s just not possible."
An afternoon at the Live Oak CDE is luxurious without being expensive. Admission is only $5, and picnicking spectators take advantage of the great Florida March weather. Local resident Katie Vinzant of Ocala attended the event in 2004 and was back for 2005.
"It’s a great event because it brings a lot of new people to the sport," Vinzant said. "We get a tailgating space right by the water hazard and invite our friends. The weather has been good, and it’s a good way to support the horse industry."
The Live Oak CDE also hosts a trade show, a classic car show, coaching exhibitions, Sunday brunch other spectator activities.
"We like to come to watch," said Don Hunter, a Thoroughbred racehorse trainer from Ocala. "It’s a pretty tough event."
Summer Best is the owner of SunHorse Media and Summerside Farm in Ocala, Florida.