With the selectors for the US Team for the 2009 World Pairs Driving Championships watching closely, seven time USA National Pairs Champion Lawrence Poulin started in the lead with the highest FEI Driven Dressage score of the event and never looked back. Poulin presented Natasha Grigg’s two grey Holsteiners, Cody and Rivage (by Hilltop Farm’s Riverman) and the bay Hanoverian Wiley (by Wolkentanz) to the ground jury on Wednesday to begin one of the key events to determine the US Pairs Teams which will be travelling to Hungary in August for the World Pairs Driving Championships.
Dressage is the Secret of His Success
For Poulin, who has competed at the World Pairs Championships seven times, this will be his last trip as a competitor. He intends to retire from competitive driving to devote more time to his training business ridden dressage career. Just two scores away from his USDF Dressage Gold Medal; Larry Poulin also competes his driving horses at the FEI ridden Dressage Level, a distinction which makes him unique in the driving world. Poulin and Cody were reserve USDF Regional Prix St Georges Champion in 2008, earning the title just one week after completing a grueling three day driving event.
Sara Schmitt, second in the Live Oak International FEI Pony Division who has competed for the USA twice in the World Pony Championships, is also a professional dressage rider, trainer and judge who competes in combined driving, but not with the same horse.
Larry Poulin’s uncle Olympian Michael Poulin who won the Dressage Team Bronze medal at the Barcelona Olympic Games in 1992 is Larry’s “mentor, and reason I am who I am as a horseman.”
Based at the Black Prong Equestrian Center in Bronson, Florida in the winter, Larry travels weekly to his uncle’s training center in De Leon Springs, Florida with his horses to fine tune what he does with them under saddle on a daily basis, as well as in harness conditioning for Combined Driving Competition.
Strategy and Support Pump Up the Volume
Poulin used the grey and bay combination at Live Oak of Wiley and Rivage for Dressage and Cones, and his power horse, Cody with Wiley for the marathon. The strategy paid off. Poulin’s uncle, Dressage Olympian Michael Poulin was on hand with a large group of fans and family including Sharon, Kate and Gwen Poulin to cheer him through the Marathon on cross country day. Larry, with longtime navigator Kristen Murphy, negotiated a series of seven difficult obstacles at top speed, maintaining their lead over Keady Cadwell, and Lisa Singer.
As navigator Kristen Murphy who has been with Poulin for 15 years is responsible for walking all the obstacles with the driver, and determining the best route. This year she purchased a GPS watch and together the team measured all possible routes through each obstacle. “This is a world class course which will determine who will represent the US at the Driving World Championships.” explained Poulin. “We have to take the fast route through all the obstacles to make the time.” For Murphy no matter how well prepared she is there is always the element of surprise. “He’s been known to change his mind at the last moment, and I have to be ready for anything.” she smiled. Scoring the fastest time in five of the seven obstacles, Poulin held the lead overall after phase two of the competition.
It All Comes Down to the Cones
But it all comes down to the cones, where on the third day of competition drivers, ponies and horses negotiate a twisty course of 20 cones with a tight time limit. There is an orange ball mounted on the top of each cone that when dropped adds 3 penalty points. The only clear FEI cones round was Poulin’s student, Samantha Orem. Orem who just turned 18 years old prior to the event is the youngest FEI competitor with her Haflinger pony Admiral John (AJ). With no time and no balls down, Oren earned the lead for FEI single pony, and got one step closer to her dream of competing in the Pony World Championships.
The cones had been Poulin’s nemesis for the past few events, and this time he had a secret weapon. Uncle Mike, who had never seen Larry compete in the marathon until the day before, made another trip to Ocala to warm Larry up for the final phase of the event. “It helped me tremendously having Mike there.” said Larry, even though Michael had never even seen this phase of the event in person. “I believe in him and all I have learned from him as my mentor.”
Larry went onto explain that the foundation of classical dressage and horsemanship is what really matters the most. “Classical dressage and the basis of the training scale; rhythm, supple contact, straightness and impulsion are the foundation of what we do with these horses whether it is in the saddle or under harness.”
The last to go in his division, the balls were falling and it looked as if the course designed by Christian Iseli, Austria, would be a shut out. When second placed Keady Cadwell dropped three balls trying to make the difficult time window, it moved US World Championships Pairs veteran driver Lisa Singer into third place and opened the door for Poulin a bit wider. With graceful synchronicity, the grey and the bay began the class, crossing a bridge to the first cones combination and starting the clock. With all balls in place after they galloped to the finish line, there were just a few time penalties keeping Poulin securely in the lead.
If It Takes a Village Then Natasha Grigg is the Mayor
Joined in the carriage in the winner’s circle with her trainer and horses, a smiling Natasha Grigg held her hat during the victory round. Grigg, a long time driver, breeder of Welsh ponies and former president of the American Driving Society has been the driving force behind Poulin’s success. “Thirteen years ago she sent me a short note with just one sentence” said Poulin. "All it said was 'I would like to help.' "
In the sport of combined driving where at the World Class FEI level quality horse flesh, as well as equipment, carriages, and the need for professional grooms and navigators are required, Grigg stood behind her word. “She believed in me and loves the sport.” Poulin added. “She stood behind her commitment for all these years."
Together they purchased fourteen horses and and travelled to many World Championships. Natasha flew navigator/groom Kristen Murphy and Rachelle Steabler in for the event. Like a choreographed pit crew in a NASCAR race, the pair managed the preparation of two carriages, harness, and care of three horses, along with Poulin’s additional duties as trainer for several other competitors.
“After this World Championships we will both be going in a new direction.” said Poulin. “For Natasha, she will have more time to enjoy her family and grandchildren. We have just finalized an agreement allowing me to continue with the horses in ridden dressage next year. I hope she will get as much enjoyment out of watching us in the dressage arena.” Regardless, Poulin knows how lucky he has been with such a partnership, where his talent and ability were recognized and supported for so many years. To be able to keep the horses they developed together is the ultimate tribute to their partnership.