Celebrating two amazing years together with "The Gangsters", Al Capony and Bugsy Maloney we went to the beautiful Grand Oaks Equestrian Resort for their December Driving Trials event this year. After all these years covering equestrian sport for HorsesDaily, and working as an insurance agent for Markel, I am now a part of it; training, competing, traveling, and all that goes with it. We have just begun training with USEF Team Driving coach Thorston Zarembowicz after an amazing 3 weeks this fall with 3 time World Champion Pony driver Bram Chardon. We have been doing our homework, and this weekend it paid off.
Kate McIntyre HorsesDaily's new full time employee since May, whose second job is full time groom and manager of the Gangsters is a recent graduate in Equine Science from Morrisville State College. New to the world of Combined Driving, she was baptized by fire, riding as navigator with the ponies and Bram at The Hermitage Classic in Louisville in October. So the first time she ever navigated was on the back of the carriage of the fastest and fearless pony driver in the world.
We were on our own at Grand Oaks, with my little trailer requiring multiple trips from or Ocala location to deliver carriages, equipment and ponies. We brought he spare mare Kimba along ( her day in the sun will be coming soon). Thorston met us for a dressage lesson, and walked the course with us on Saturday, but he was not going to be at the event Sunday during our marathon. The ponies who had been training so well under Bram and Thorston had a bit of a meltdown in Dressage. Some outside distraction and maybe a bit too much L Carnatine, had them a bit on the wild side, and I tried to turn my disappointment into a positive perspective. But our cones course was good considering we had no practice lately. Just one ball down and some time.
As we walked the marathon course learning our route, I continued to marvel at the incredible beauty of the venue we were at. The Grand Oaks Equestrian Resort has it all, beauty, quality facilities, and RV Park, cottages, fabulous footing, a Bistro, even a Spa. With a full staff who are always smiling and treating us as honored guests, we had a roving bar follow us on the official course walk under the lights. The roving bar became a coffee wagon in the morning stopping as we were walking the ponies to offer a needed morning boost. It made me realize, disappointing result or not, how blessed I am to be in a world so special and how privileged I am to be living this life.
I had 6 obstacles to learn across the course, and had in the past had memory lapses, as all the gates seem to become a blur. With Thorston's guidance in picking the best route, my biggest concern was how strong my very fit ponies can get, and to be sure I can make the tight turns required and keep them going forward. For the first time since I have been competing I knew I had the course down cold in my brain. After my final walk, I found a quiet place and went into focus mode, using an exercise I learned from Laura King's book "The Power to Win".
I headed to the barn with one thought, for the next 2 hours its just me, the ponies and Kate. No distracting thoughts, we are going to get the job done. So it was our first marathon together Kate and I, and her second one ever. We were doing all the grooming, stall cleaning, equipment preparation, course walking and commuting an hour each way back and forth from the farm. We were in the Intermediate division with a great group of competitors. The only other pony team was the unbeatable Boots Wright who nailed another super dressage score and clean cones round. I had (and always do) the smallest equines in the group. At just 11.2 hands high, we get a lot of "Oh they are so cute." Yeah, just you wait and see, I thought as we walked around the starting box before the countdown to the marathon began.
We were off and after a short track to the first obstacle in the covered arena going over a bridge and spinning gates A,B,C,D,and E, the ponies were on fire. My only concern, could I hold them, thank God they are little guys. I remembered every move, 5 gates, 6 obstacles and going as fast as we could. What a rush. The Gangsters had it down, and Kate was perfect. She hardly had to say a thing to guide me, except "Great job Mary, go Gangsters." When we hit the water, it was as if they were so fast they didn't even hit the ground beneath it.
Kate knew every move holding the back end of the carriage in place as we spun in several elements. There was only one bobble, in obstacle 3 where we came out of a tight turn, and I accelerated into the last move. Al got so strong I had a hard time steering and I saw us headed right to a pole. But little Al, had had that happen this before, chesting a pole, and moved out of the way on his own. I had to circle them once to get control, and finish the last move at a gallop.
The final "Candy Cane" obstacle which will become a three day event water combination at the next event, was flawless. We wound around the poles and made our turns, with a long gallop out through the water to home. We had a slight misunderstanding in the times, and were over by a small amount giving us a bit more than 2 points. Several times during the course after an obstacle I would walk the ponies, as we kept getting ahead of time. But it wasn't even a disappointment. Heck this is the first time ever Kate even had to calculate the times. I still have yet to do it myself. Even though I am at Intermediate, I am not even sure how to analyze scores.
So after a good long walk, absorbine baths, washing the carriage, harness and packing and loading, we headed to the scoreboard. Everyone was crowded around looking at the results. As the only small pony pair we were in our own division, so we were first no matter what, but then I started looking at all the results from the Intermediate class. My score was the lowest on the board, so I quietly asked someone (because I should know this) "Is the lowest score the best?" Duh, yes Mary, its based on penalty scores so less is better. I looked again, mine was the lowest at 71. Without the added time snafu my marathon was a 68.
We won the marathon! The smallest ponies, with the biggest hearts, all by ourselves, our first marathon together, Kate and I kept hugging and screaming. The ribbon we picked up at the final award presentation in the Bistro is almost taller than the ponies are.
So there you have it, thanks to a lot of homework, and the great support of all who have been there for us, especially Wayne Humphreys who was there from the beginning, Joe Yoder who guided us through the early stages , Chester Weber for telling me we could do Intermediate, Bram Chardon for showing us they can do it, and Thorston Zarembowicz and the USEF Developing Driver program for recognizing these are not just cute ponies, the can kick some ass.