Here is the first photo tour of our summer dog and pony show was off, on a tour that would cover 5 states in three weeks full of fun, competition, training, exploration, visits with friends and family. We loaded up three ponies, 2 carriages, 3 dogs, and 3 humans. We set off from our home base farm in south central Kentucky, on a relatively short drive Strawberry Plains, Tennessee near Knoxville, for a weekend at Riverplains Farm the training location for Hernandez Driving and Rachel Niceley, and the Niceley Family compound. While we knew something about the farm and location, not their website or any description about what we were in for could compare to the real experience we were about to have over the next three days.
Wayne Humphreys, Kate McIntyre, and myself, Mary Phelps were headed to Riverplains Farm for our first stop to participate in their first Driving Derby, the fast growing and popular form of fun and friendly competition in the sport of combined driving.
We arrived at the farm located around the bend from the popular River Glen Equestrian Park, which hosts 4 horse trials a year. We were greeted by Jose and Cristy Hernandez who helped us unload ponies and bags. We were all set to stay in the "Bed and Breakfast, the beautiful guest house overlooking fields in the valley along the Holston River.
The ponies all had their own stalls ready and waiting deeply bedded in shavings. Then we set off on a tour of the 400 acre working farm.
Jose and Cristy took us on a tour of the farm the golf cart, where we met the farm's patriarch State Senator Frank S. Nicely on his bush hog tractor working the fields.
Senator Nicely represents District 8 of covering six counties for the state of Tennessee, among other committees serves as the 1st Vice Chair of the Senate Energy, Agriculture, and natural Resources Committee. While the legislator is in session, Nicely travels to Nashville during the week, and all other times he can be found working the farm, along with his family and brother Bill.
In addition to being a full service carriage driving and fox hunting training facility, Riverplains owned by the Niceley family is a working farm raising several crops including non GMO corn. Grass fed Belted Gallowway cattle, Mulefoot hogs, sheep and chickens providing food for the family as well as being available for purchase in their region and on their website.
Over 60 horses many born and raised on the farm for 2 generations live the lives horses deserve to live, on rich pasture, hills and fields to gallop and grow. The classic American saddlebred mares have been crossed with Friesians producing quality sport horses for driving and fox-hunting. Since 1989, Riverplains has been a permanent fixture for the Tennessee Valley Hunt Club and for many years hosted the TVH Hunter Paces & Point-To-Point Races and for the first 16 years hosted the traditional Blessing of the Hounds on Thanksgiving Day.
Touring the property we were told of their goal of creating a complete CDE, Combined Driving Event. While such an effort is an ambitious undertaking, it was easy to see how it could work. In the early 1990's,it was the home field for the Sassafras Polo Club. Offering the Knoxville area a chance to view exciting polo matches at its finest along the Holston River. The huge field still with the tower overlooking it, could easily have up to 4 dressage arenas, and a complete cones course with room to spare.
The location for the Driving Derby was on top of a hill that overlooked the farm with a breathtaking view. Competitors could easily ship in, park their trailers near the competition area, and drive to the course. A Trace Pace course was clearly marked covering much of the farms over a 4 mile course which travelled along the river. We were told to watch out for an ancient indian fish weir (trap) a V shaped series of rocks where the fish would be channeled into the narrow end of the"V' where the Indians had placed a wicker type ramp or basket traps to catch them.
Rachel Niceley has successfully competed her pair of Riverplains bred mares at the Intermediate level, and now with Jose Hernandez is developing a team of four-in-hands, all born and bred on her family's farm. Rachel is a lifetime horsewoman who is a trainer, fox hunter, now teaching her four-year-old daughter Zsa Zsa. Her seven-year-old son Skylar is already a full time ranch hand who loves to mow and help his Dad Brian and grandfather Frank with anything that needs to be done. Both the lawe mower and golf cart have been tuned down in speed to assure safety when Skylar is on board.
After our tour, we were guests at Frank and Cyndie Niceley's home next door for dinner where we also were celebrating Rachel's birthday. We dined on homebred grass fed beef, biscuits and grits made from their own spelt grain, and vegetables from the garden. I kept Cyndie company in the kitchen while she made dinner. The rest of the guests were hanging out on the front porch on the warm summer evening visiting as an assortment of grandchildren ran and played in the yard. A variety of dogs, cats, chickens and guinea hens were wandering about. We all gathered at the dining room table enjoying laughter, conversation, and cheesecake for dessert. I never got to hang out with a Senator before, and over the next two days had the chance to ask all kinds of questions, about Tennessee which I learned is thriving on many levels. One of Senator Niceley's proudest accomplishments was passing legislation allowing the sale of raw milk helping dairy farmers in his state.
The Driving Derby
This was the first of what Riverplains hopes to develop into a series of events to be recognized by The American Driving Association. Driving Derbies are a fun way to practice doing both Marathon type obstacles combined with a cones course. At the World Cup level, the sport is a huge draw in the indoor European circuit, combining navigating skills with speed. In a competition the fastest speed wins. Riverplains also had a Trace pace, a course laid out over about 4 miles, taking us out and about around the farm and along the river. It represented the first part of an actual Combined Driving event, Phase A which we treated like a warm up for the Derby part of the course. Rachael's husband Brian Beauchene started us out on our first run, with my pony pair "The Gangsters", Al Capony and Bugsy Maloney and Wayne Humphreys navigating on the back of my marathon vehicle. We began with a 20 minute walk, following the driveway along the barns as a mare and foal and two weanlings in an adjoining field followed us. We followed the arrows along the route, and sometimes there was an arrow pointing downward instead of ahead. Those were for the bumps along the way, which had been filled in, and we were glad we were prepared.
The river was beautiful and we saw the ancient Indian fish trap V formation in the river. We saw a place set up with coolers and a tent the destination for a group who had been dropped up seam earlier with floats. As we passed the Belted Galloway cattle, we weren't sure who was more curious, the ponies or the cows. My ponies are used to cattle, but they had never seen an "Oreo" version before and it was a slight cause of concern. There were other objects that perked their ears, plow equipment, and an occasional vehicle of various vintages. It made us wonder what happened and how long ago, that they had become a part of the landscape. After finishing the drive, it was time to head to the hill for the derby course.
The Gangsters have done over 6 competitions now, and know when they see red flags, cones with balls on top that something is up. We had an audience parked on the hill, tailgating. Rachel and Cristy we in the golf cart as timers and doing photos. Since this was not a recognized competition the rules were a bit more casual. I did the course first at a trot.
The course was fun, wrapping around hay bales, which were safe in case we ran into one, but we didn't. I was wearing my GOPRO head cam and actually remembered this time to push the button. I forgot though for the final and third round which was the fastest one. I am still learning how wide I need to go to make the turns at faster speed. After the first round at the trot, we lined up outside the start gate. One work "get" and the ponies launched into a gallop. We cleared all the cones which are set wider in a Derby class than in the CDE cones phase. A good thing as a few I entered at an angle which would have for sure been a knock down.
We negotiated the hay bales with gates A-D, red flag on right, white on left being careful not to go backwards through a gate we had not yet negotiated. Once you have gone through a gate, you can go through it again, an option others took on the course. After the hay bales, it was full speed ahead back through the cones going in the opposite direction, with the hammer down to the finish line.
Next it was Kimba's turn, the newest addition to our pony family. Kimba is an American Shetland Pony who was living at the Kentucky Equine Humane Center,in need of a new home. She was adopted by the Kentucky Horse Park and was a valued member of the park's equine staff, working in the tourist area of the park. Kimba was put up for adoption by the KHP and found a new home in Florida, but was not really working out. When a friend saw my ponies at a clinic, she told me about Kimba, but getting a third pony was not really on my agenda. However, when you drive a pair, it is good to have a "spare" which in competition you can actually switch ponies around, if they are better in dressage for example. My trainer two time USET Driving Team member Joe Yoder encouraged me to check her out, and from the moment I laid eyes on her I fell in love. I could see why she was not exactly petting zoo material for the Kentucky Horse Park being aloof and even a bit grumpy. This is a trait as a competition horse I actually liked. The moment I saw her move I was making plans to bring her home. In just 2 short weeks, she did the dressage test at my first Intermediate competition at Live Oak in Florida. Now home with me on my farm in Kentucky Kimba makes each one of the geldings a better pony when she is with them in a pair.
Kimba had never done a Driving Derby. She has only been driven cones a few times. We are still just conditioning her, working the hills and trails on my farm. The atmosphere was so relaxed and friendly at Riverplains, we decided to go for it, and brought along Kate to initiate her as a navigator. It was a perfect day with a beautiful breeze on the top of the hill. With Al as Kimba's guide we trotted the route easily and I decided to see what would happen at the canter. By the second run, she was getting the hang of it, and we all know a marathon pony star was born. Kimba is no longer just "the spare mare". When all the times were tallied for the event, The gangsters we the fastest at under a minute, and Kimba and Al were second fastest.
Doing a Driving Derby is great training for the marathon giving the driver and horse and ponies the opportunity to get comfortable negotiating obstacles as a speed. The downside can be if you have a hot one, like I do, is that they think every time the are at a competition the are expected to go fast. That is why when preparing for a CDE which begins with dressage, my ponies lay real low for 2 weeks ahead of the competition, only walking and trotting and doing dressage.
When the competition phase of our day was over, we all piled into assorted vehicles in shorts and bathing suits and headed to the river with chairs, fishing poles, a cooler of beer and other drinks, and sat in the water chatting, laughing, and visiting with the Niceley's and their extended family. The evening was topped off with another great meal prepared by Cyndi.
We are already trying to figure out how to fit in another visit this summer, and do some work with Jose. In addition to helping with the Niceley's horses, Hernandezdriving.com takes in horses and ponies for training. The fees are reasonable, accommodations horse and people friendly with all kinds of fringe benefits for having a good time.
Other coverage on Riverplains Farm
Riverplains Farm and the Niceley Family featured on WBIR TV