Combined driving or carriage driving is unlike most other equestrian sports in that it adds the challenging element of a carriage. Riders sit in the carriage and drive either a single horse, a pair of horses or a team of four. Similar to eventing, combined driving is a three-day event with three separate phases to test both horse and rider. The driven dressage portion takes place on the first day, followed by a cross-country marathon on the second and closing with a cone driving competition.
Much like the dressage competitions wherein the rider is atop the horse, driven dressage tests the obedience, suppleness, impulsion and ease of movement of the horse. The dressage takes place in a 100 x 40m arena in which the horses perform dressage movements.
Dressage is the foundation of many equestrian sports. If a horse and rider are not in sync with each other, they will not be able to effectively perform moves in any other discipline. Drivers and horses attain this sense of unity in dressage training. The driver will use verbal aids to communicate which movement ought to be performed at which time and the horse or horses will respond quickly and gracefully.
In the case where the driver has more than one horse, the horses are judged collectively. The scoring system relies on penalties. The movements of the horses are judged against standards of perfection, and each misstep results in a penalty, which increases the score number. The lower the number, the closer to a perfect score.
Horses will perform these compulsory movements in harmony with one another. The moves performed could include working, collected or extended trot, the canter, rein back or circular and diagonal movements. The horses must perform these movements with obedience and grace in order to receive top marks.
The second phase of a combined driving competition is the marathon portion. The marathon is the most exciting phase of the competition. The course is a maximum of 18km long and features many natural obstacles and hazards. This portion of the competition tests the horses’ fitness, agility and endurance. The first part of the marathon test is a long-distance drive, testing stamina. There is generally a walk section and a rest section before the hazard section.
In the final leg of the marathon portion, the drivers must navigate their horse/horses through a series of gates around obstacles and hazards. The horses are typically traveling at a full gallop and the gates, placed close together, are just narrowly missed. Speed is essential in that the marathon is a timed event. Penalties are issued for going over time allotment, knocking over obstacles, falling fro the carriage or other course errors.
The third stage of the combined driving competition is the cones, or obstacle driving, phase. Similar to the jumping portion of eventing, this test ensures the horse/horses have maintained their strength, obedience and suppleness after two rigorous days of competition.
In this phase of competition, a course is created using cones with balls balanced on top. Up to twenty gates are created using these cones. The level of difficulty determines the spacing of the cones, but at the advanced level they are often mere centimetres wider than the carriage itself. The slightest disturbance of the cones can cause them to topple, resulting in penalties. During this timed portion, the horses must move quickly to make their way through each set of cones without disturbing the cones.
Driver and Groom
One interesting aspect of combined driving that sets it apart from traditional ridden equestrian sports is the position of the groom. While the driver holds the whip, sits in the front of the carriage and controls the horses, the groom sits behind the driver and assists in a number of ways.
The grooms can assist in all three portions of a combined driving competition. During the dressage and cones portion of the competition, the groom assists in hitching the horses and can exit the carriage (incurring a penalty) if anything needs to be fixed. The groom cannot speak during these phases, but can assist in specific circumstances when necessary.
During the marathon portion of the combined driving event, the groom serves as a navigator. The navigator keeps track of the time and reminds the driver of the course. This allows the driver to focus on controlling and directing the horses. The groom will also utilize weight shifting to ensure the carriage does not tip through the numerous hair-pin turns. In a one-horse or two-horse competition, there is typically one groom. In a four-horse competition there is often a navigating groom as well as a secondary groom.
In combined driving, penalties are assessed in each round and scores are totaled from each of the three events. Dressage scores each individual movement with penalties for improper execution. The scoring system is from one to ten. These scores are subtracted from the highest possible score and the penalty score is totaled. Riders in the marathon portion are penalized for going over the allotted time, knocking over any part of the obstacles or tipping the carriage. During the cones portion of the competition, riders are penalized for knocking down the ball that balances on top of each cone, as well as for time penalties.
Most of the carriages used in combined driving are four-wheeled carriages. While many of these carriages maintain a classic appearance from the days when carriages were the primary form of transportation, the modern amenities equip them for the challenges of the 3-day competition. Carriages are now ergonomic with air suspension, disc breaks, hydraulic parking brakes, and speedometers. Most are constructed from wood, stainless steel and leather accents.
Different materials and accessories are sometimes used for different stages of the competition. At the lower level, drivers will use carriages that can be extended to create a wider axel width. At the professional level, many drivers will even use a second carriage for the marathon portion made of more modern materials for aerodynamics, speed and a better turning radius.
Whatever the carriage style, each carriage, horse, harness and driver are inspected at the beginning of a combined driving competition. During this presentation, everything is expected to be safe, clean and smart. The judges will test for the safety, but also for appearance. Improper equipment care or appearance can result in penalties. From the appearance to speed to agility, each aspect of combined driving is careful, calculated and impressive. Whether participating or watching, this sport will excite everyone in the arena.