Competition among drivers and their horses began ages ago, but the organized sport of Combined Driving of today bears little resemblance to the chariot races of old. The sport we know as combined driving is relatively young on the world scene, the first comprehensive and standardized rules having been laid down in the early 1970s under the leadership of HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. Combined Driving has been patterned after ridden Three-Day Eventing which in turn has its roots in the exercises of comprehensive mounted military exercises.
Tradition and modern innovation are melded in these resourceful competitions. Combined Driving is one of eight equine sports governed at the international level by the FEI and at the National Federation level by USEF. Nationwide, the American Driving Society provides for graduated levels of experience – Training, Preliminary, Intermediate, and Advanced levels for both drivers and equines as they begin and as they become more adept at the sport on local and regional levels, perhaps even on to participation in national-level events.
Rules in Combined Driving are aimed at safety, welfare, and fairness for all concerned. The ADS Rulebook tells us that “at ADS-recognized events, the purpose of all Competitions is to match the talents of horse and driver combinations against each other under fair and equal conditions.” It is in ADS arenas that drivers of all talents and equipages may find their levels of comfort or challenges of advancement in order to develop into perpetually better drivers and horse persons. Rules and scoring are precise in Combined Driving, based on a system of “penalties,” so the lower the score the better.
Together, drivers and equines of any breed or size form cohesive partners. Equines in singles, pairs, tandems, unicorns, and four-in-hands may compete in Combined Driving. Just as essential to these partnerships are the grooms or navigators, those second or third persons on the carriage who, though they never touch the reins or whip, provide brains and support as well as balance and ballast.
Sometimes likened to a team triathlon, a Combined Driving Event consists of three competitions – Dressage, Marathon, and Obstacle/Cones -- that are held over one, two, or three days. The sport is intended to showcase the versatility, training and talents of both horse and driver. Through participating in ADS events, drivers and horses or ponies may develop in increasing levels of proficiency.
The Dressage competition can be said to be the foundation for the rest of the sport. In Dressage, horses or ponies and their drivers drive individually in specified patterns and gaits to demonstrate the skills, obedience, and development appropriate to their levels of training before the watchful eyes of one or more judges. Dressage develops and displays polish, discipline, and athleticism of equine and driver dancing together.
After the showcase of beauty and control that is Dressage, the next competition is often the cross-country Marathon. Here, the driver tests his mettle and that of his horses or ponies in control of paces and speeds, agility, obedience, and endurance over distances of eight to eighteen kilometers. Not only do competitors cover distance, they also negotiate challenge “obstacles” every kilometer or so, in which they choose their paths to go through “gates” in the correct direction and sequence. At Training level, these marathon obstacles are geared toward being a learning experience, and as levels of competence increase, so do speeds and numbers of obstacles and gates. It is in this competition especially that the partnership of the “navigator” becomes critically important, as this competition requires thinking. In this competition as in Dressage, ADS rules encourage a careful development of horse and driver as each level brings new and greater challenges in speeds, distances, and complexities. It is on Marathon that Dressage training really pays off, and thrills abound.
Having proven their mettle in the control of Dressage and the jubilation of Marathon, pony or horse and driver must finally find that combination of boldness, agility, energy and precision that is Obstacle/Cones driving. In this competition, drivers and their steeds drive between precisely spaced pairs of cones over a prescribed course of up to 20 “ obstacles” driven in correct sequence and direction and within an allowed time based on the size of equine and level of advancement. Here again, as drivers and horses develop and move up in “levels,” speeds increase and clearances between cones decrease, making for challenges and fun that never stop. Cones may be seen as that meld of elegance and thrills that consummates the competition set to demonstrate the fitness, mind and training of the horse following the more physical challenges of the Marathon.
Whether your goal is to “just have fun” with your equine partner or to take the driving world by storm, the ADS can help you get there. We encourage you to learn more about Combined Driving, and to give it a go yourself. To get started,