In October, the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, KY, sees a lot of action. Thousands of people and horses come for the United States Mounted Games Association’s Bluegrass Finale, the Octoberfest Horse Trials, the Battle in the Saddle Celebrity Team Penning Event, the Certified Horsemanship Association’s International Conference, the Kentucky Fall Classic Horse Show, the Annual National Mounted Police Coloquium, the Purebred Morab Association’s Fall Harvest Horse Show, the Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse Association Championships, and the prestigious National Horse Show. But one six-day event stands out among these as being a little different. At that event, you won’t see hundreds of horses being ridden in and out of arenas or down the pathways at the park. Instead you will see dozens and dozens of wheels from almost 300 recreational drivers. The National Drive is the largest gathering of recreational equine drivers in North America, and this year marked the 10th Anniversary of the event, which was held October 7-October 12.
With almost a week of clinics, demonstrations, private driving lessons, and open driving throughout the park, the National Drive had 292 attendees and 230 horses that shared the Kentucky Horse Park with the Kentucky Dressage Association Fall Classic I and USDF Region 2 Championships. All told that week there were around 900 horses in the park. The National Drive began two days after the Kentucky Classic Combined Driving Event (CDE) wrapped up. Some of the competitors stayed on from that event to participate in the National Drive, where they could then relax and spend time driving at will, learning more about driving, and socializing with other driving fans. National Drive attendees got to pick and choose what they wanted to do with their time. The only required activity was the required safety check.
National Drive President Mike Lyon said that each year about 20% of attendees have never been before while the rest are returning. He cites that around 50% have been there four or more years, and some attendees have been every year. Most come for the entire week of events. “I think the best thing from every year's drive, including this year's drive, is the appreciation we get from the participants,” said Lyon. “There was one guy that came up and said, ‘You know, this is the first time I have been here, and if I ever go to heaven, I hope it's like this.’”
Attendees trailer their horses in from as far away as Texas and mid-Canada. Lyon even said that people will come in without horses from as far away as California and Arizona just to learn, observe, and socialize. “A lot of these folks spend a couple days getting here and a couple days getting back,” he added. “We're very appreciative for their time and effort. It's a compliment to say the least. We receive really positive responses. And I think our return rate really shows it. As you well know, an event like this, where it's not a competition and you don't have to go to it, you wouldn't get people coming back to it if they didn't have a good time.”
“One of the reasons of its success is that it's not a competition,” continued Lyon. “People come to socialize and relax. That takes a lot of pressure off you. And a competition, as you well know, whether it's roping or dressage or a CDE in driving or a Rolex...when you are at a competition you are really zoomed in on what you and your critter are going to do, and you don't really have a whole bunch of time for socializing. This type of thing is ‘Do what you want to when you want to.’ There's no time restraints. The only must is a safety check-in. So your time is yours.”
Lyon said that every year after the event, the board of directors holds a conference call to determine how to make the next year’s event even better. One successful change involved the Sue Lyon Memorial Mimosa Drive, which is held on Saturday mornings. As a way to say thank you to all participants, a marked trail leads drivers to a spot where mimosas, orange juice, and small canapes are served. This social event used to happen on Sundays, but was changed so that those who were planning to leave on Sunday could participate. According to Lyon, the original idea for the Mimosa Drive came from a horse show that takes place in Germantown, TN.
Other social events include Tuesday night’s potluck-style chili dinner and wine and cheese parties on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings. This year’s parties were sponsored by Markel Insurance, Pleasure Thyme Carriages, and the National Drive.
Each day kicked off with coffee and donuts, provided by Driving Digest magazine, followed by a safety check, and then a short driver’s meeting. At 9 a.m. the marked trail opened. Then there were three hours of clinics every morning on a variety of topics. This year, the first presentation was on proper harnessing by international combined driving competitor and three-time National Single Horse Champion Sterling Graburn of Cynthiana, KY.
The next day Kelly Valdes of Southern Pines, NC, spoke about horse health and nutrition. Valdes is an international combined driver and won a Silver medal at the 1998 World Singles Championships in Ebbs, Austria. Lorin Nauman, of Warriers Mark, PA, and owner of the Central Pennsylvania Carriage Driving Center and a British Driving Society certified light harness horse instructor, spoke on one day about balance and bending the horse and then on bits and their function on another day.
Equine massage therapist Michele Haman of Equi-librium Therapy in Lexington, KY, showed attendees how to stretch their horse one day and then held a massage demonstration on another. Joanna Wilburn of Olive Branch, MS, owns Rollingwoods Farm with her sisters. The Wilburn sisters breed Welsh Ponies for driving and riding and have trained many national champions, as well as champions in combined driving. Wilburn spoke to those interested in being a navigator in combined driving events and about the cones phase in combined driving. Horse trainer and riding and driving instructor Johnny Ruhl of Woodbury, TN, spoke about proper hitching.
Every afternoon at the National Drive is left open for driving at will, private lessons, or special events, such as the Town Branch Distillery Tour, the Carriage Dog Class, who was won by Kathie Beeson, and the Trace Pace. The Trace Pace is an organized drive of three to five miles, in which attendees drove a measured course of varying terrain. The driver of a horse, the driver of a pony, and the driver of a “Very Small Equine” who finishes closest to the “secret” ideal time wins. This year that was Paula Gower in the Very Small Equine Division, Sharon Makurat in the Pony division, and Mary and Dwight Hanson in the Horse division. New to the National Drive this year was the Tack Swap and Sale.
Another great aspect to the National Drive is the campground at the Kentucky Horse Park. Lyon said that 60 campsites were rented. “The campsite is really great,” he said. “The people that run the campsite over the years have always been very gracious to us. It's a very well run and a very clean campsite. And it's so accessible to the park. It's a big plus to the Horse Park having that campground there.”
Lyon offered plenty of praise for the Kentucky Horse Park. “It's a beautiful place to go to,” he began. “I can't say enough about the people that work at the Horse Park. The people that work there, the full-time employees, are just phenomenal. They are very horse savvy. They are very people friendly. They are all professionals. I have not had one bad experience with a full-time employee at the Horse Park in the 10 years I've had the event.”
The event is typically put on by a five-person Board of Directors, although the board is currently at seven since two board members will be stepping down. The board includes Lyon as President; Lyle Peterson and David Sadler as Vice Presidents; and Pat Cheatham, Charley Lee, Thom Meznick, and Laura Nuessle as Directors. Christy Warrington serves as Secretary.
The event got its beginning 13 years ago when founder and board president Mike Lyon was appointed Recreational Chairman of the American Driving Society. He and other board members began to look at other driving events across the country to gather ideas for the National Drive, which didn’t officially begin until 2005. “The most important thing I can point out is that the National Drive is a bunch of ideas we borrowed from other people,” said Lyon. “There have been recreational drives in different parts of the country, in particular Pennsylvania. I just looked around and took a bunch of ideas and put them together with the help of Colonel Davis, Past President of the Carriage Association of America, who was able to get a date at the Kentucky Horse Park. One of our vendors took the idea to Northwest Canada, and he did a similar thing up there. So everybody kind of borrows ideas and does their own thing from it. And it's good for the discipline. There are no secrets.”
“So we had a ‘party,’” he said as he described the inaugural event. “And we weren’t sure if anybody would attend. We had 110 people show up for the first one, and it’s pretty much leveled off at around 300.”
The official number of attendees also included 12 people who came to just ride and not drive. Drivers were also seen riding at times. Lyon has been trying to get the word out and encourage riders to also come and enjoy the activities and ride around the trails at the park. “The more horses get used to carriages, perhaps that will induce more riders to think about driving,” Lyon explained.
“And the horses get used to the carriages. When we meet them on the trails in the different state parks, the horses won't be as shy. When a horse sees a carriage, it really puts them on edge. Once they follow a carriage for a little while and find out it's not going to hurt them, then they don't pay any attention. The more we can get horses and riders used to us and vice versa, it's bound to only help.”
Ironically, for all the hard work Lyon puts in to make the National Drive happen, he has yet to be able to hitch up and drive his own horses at the event in the past 10 years. “I'm just looking forward to next year and looking forward to some of my duties being passed on so I can start enjoying this,” he said. “Don't get me wrong. I have enjoyed what we created. It has been a lot of fun doing what we’ve done. I've met some absolutely wonderful people. But I'm 78, and it's time to pass the reins on to somebody else over a period of time.”
The 2015 National Drive is scheduled for October 6-11 at the Kentucky Horse Park. Clinicians who are already scheduled to speak include Elizabeth Keathly, Fred Merriman, Kelly Valdes, and Joanna Wilburn. Registration is only $115 per person for the entire event or a special three-day/two-night weekend package is offered for $95 per person. Stall rental is $40 per horse per stall per day; bedding is not included. All clinics, demonstrations, and activities are included in the registration fee.