During what has been the coldest week in Kentucky we packed the ponies and headed to the beautiful Gayla Driving Center in Georgetown, Kentucky. After some fast work by Pam Knisley of the carriagehouse.com, the harness pieces needed to put my boys together as a pair arrived last week, and we were ready for three days of lessons from Sterling Graburn, who in addition to being a long time driver and trainer, is also a familiar face at Dressage at Devon, a nationally recognized handler of sport horses. In 2009 he was on the selection committee for the USEF 2009 FEI World Combined Pony Driving Championships, and was also the 2004, 2005, 2008 FEI Top Driver Award, North American Challenge, Single Horse Champion. So we were in good hands and living in cozy comfort at the Gayla Bed and Breakfast “Coachman’s loft” studio apartment, close to the barn and indoor arena.
The first day was about putting all the equipment together. My vehicle is a Hardwick’s Tadpole, the smallest version of the popular and well built aluminum vehicles made by Russ Hardwick, who is located near our Florida winter home close to Ocala. The carriage is designed so we can switch it from a singe to a pair, with the pole I purchased for it last winter. Then came organizing the harness pieces; the new breast plates, reins and traces needed for driving pairs. A few adjustments still need to be made, and to be show ready more investing will be needed, but we were harnessed, hooked, and then for the first time together my Shetland ponies Dusty and Buddy began their drive in the beautiful and roomy indoor arena at Gayla.
Almost from the beginning they were in synch. They are different in color and slightly different in size, but move similarly and were wonderful for the first time together. Sterling is a super teacher, explaining what was happening along the way. Dusty who was given to me by my dear friend Dressage rider and trainer Nancy Rosen is not as experienced as Buddy who has done singles and pairs and competed with me at a few combined driving events. But he took to the situation with grace and willingness. More training with him will be needed to get him rounder and into the bit, something I am hoping Buddy will explain to him as they hand out together, but all in all Sterling was really pleased with the result.
On day two, we woke up to a beautiful sunrise overlooking the outdoor arena and cross country course covered in snow. Having been a gloating Floridian I am discovering that the winter time is not so bad at all. As long as you have warm clothing, and keep moving there are many advantages. One advantage I discovered as I clean the stalls (which my ponies share) is their poop freezes and is much easier to scoop into the muck bucket. They got to be turned out all morning in a huge field and had a blast galloping, rolling and making friends with their neighbors. Buddy is a Florida pony but has adjusted to the winter work of pawing at the ground to dig up something to nibble at underneath. I was afraid they would be reluctant to come in for their lesson, buy all it took was rattling the chain on the fence, and shaking the bucket with their favorite KAM Cookies, called “Stress Busters”, they came galloping from the far end of the field towards me and were ready for lesson two with Sterling.
Sterling’s assistant trainer Carrie Ostrowski who came to Gayla to work with Sterling via South Dakota, helped me with the harness challenge, but it all began to make sense as we readied the two ponies for their afternoon session. Now it was my turn to drive, and with my husband JJ ready with both still camera and video I stepped into the carriage, took a hold of the reins, and off we went. What an incredible feeling it was! Sterling stood behind me and held my shoulders giving me a vibration on my right and left arm as he explained how to work with two mouths as one. It took some adjusting to the way you drive just one, which is very much like riding dressage. Since both reins are coupled what you do affects them both.
Buddy was the one working harder, as Dusty still needs to learn to move into the bit an be more flexible. Sterling showed how the traces can let you know which pony is working harder than the other, and several other subtleties the driver needs to know for training. It takes strength and finessing to get them really in your hand, on the bit and moving through. With his lifelong knowledge of ridden dressage as well, his constant teaching as we went along was helping me develop the instinct needed to do things right, and I began to think, “we can do this!”.
So now I am ready for day three. We have plans to video the lesson from, harnessing, hooking, and driving to the steps for unhooking and removing the harness in a way which will make it easiest to begin again. That way I will hopefully be able to review the process several times before giving it a try on my own at home….