What is a person, so obviously British, doing trying to make a spot on the US Four-in-Hand Driving Team? Well, truth be known, David Saunders has actually been a US citizen since 2001. But his roots are quite Royal. Former Coachman to the Queen of England and employee of HRH the Duke of Edinburgh, David was at the forefront of the early organization of Combined Driving as a sport.
You see, Combined Driving has its origins in the UK and was the brainchild of Prince Philip, who at 86 continues to pursue his passion for driving. He even competed with a team of his Fell ponies at the World Pony Championships in England in 1995. Based on Combined Training which is further based on prepping and testing horses for the cavalry, Combined Driving includes dressage and replaces Cross-Country with the Marathon and Show jumping for the cones or Obstacle phase.
Prince Phillip’s book, the Sport of Combined Driving, contains many photos from the early days of competition- before helmets were required and the modern day marathon carriage was invented. And, if you look carefully through the book- you will find a photo of a young David Saunders.
David competed for Great Britain at the first World Equestrian Games in 1990 and was the British National Champion Four-in-Hand Champion in 1988. He now resides in Morriston, Florida where he teaches people to drive and trains horses for Combined Driving. He also holds the title of USEF Steward General and FEI Chief Steward in addition to being a licensed American Driving Society judge in Coaching.
British as he is however, David’s equine partners are All-American. He is competing with a team of black Morgan’s owned by Alan and Maureen Aulson, owners of the Black Prong Equestrian Center in Bronson, FL. This is no doubt the American Morgan Horse Association’s only shot at breed representation across all of the equestrian disciplines that will be competing at the World Equestrian Games which includes Show Jumping, Dressage, Reining, Three Day Eventing, Vaulting, and Endurance. While Morgans are broadly represented in Combined Driving, the WEG only offers Team driving. Not singles or pairs where the breed if often seen in the US.
These Morgans have made their mark on the sport with owner Alan Aulson. They have been used for pleasure driving and in a pair in Combined Driving both in the US and Europe. Now former Brit David is doing a respectable job with the American horses. No small feat for the little Morgans as they duke it out with the larger equine competitors whose passports attribute their bloodlines to the Dutch, German, and Swedish. Team Morgan just completed a very nice showing in the FEI Teams division of the inaugural Little Everglades Combined Driving Event in Dade City, FL.
David, like many of his fellow team drivers, was out to qualify a horse or two in the four-in-hand friendly hazards at Little Everglades Ranch. His team there was made up of Nordby Coalie Duke (Duke), Nordby Coalie Coal Dust (Dusty), Nordby Shadow Sam Spade (Sam), In-Glen’s Priz Party (Socks) and Meddo’s Chief George (Chief).
David was in the middle of the pack of twelve competitors after dressage and was third on the Marathon phase behind the seasoned team of Jane Clark driven by Jimmy Fairclough and Josh Rector from AZ.
David’s Obstacle phase on Sunday was fast. Maybe a little too fast as he ended up with 12 penalties for balls dislodged. But he was well within the time allowed coming in 4th. Many of the drivers at this show had cones rounds that more closely resembled bowling as balls littered the course like pins in an alley after each go on Joe Gilliland’s tight and trappy course. Only Scott Adcox and Nifty Hamilton with Single horses were double clear until the Intermediate ponies came into the arena. But as remarked by the German, Michael Fruend it was a ‘normal’ course for the Europeans so the US drivers will need to step up their game considerably to prepare for the World Equestrian Games this fall.
Many places changed hands during the onslaught on Sunday. A few drivers were even knocked completely out of the ribbons. But David moved up to claim fifth place overall and finished as the third place American. Quite a feat considering that this team has no sponsorship- either individual or corporate.
In fact, David gives new meaning to the term “shoestring budget”. With borrowed horses, truck and trailer, David is trying to pull off making the driving team for the WEG on what he makes teaching lessons at Black Prong. He only has one full time helper- Mieka Wouters from Belgium- and Maureen Aulson lends her assistance for the Marathon. This skeleton crew makes competing four horses an almost impossible task and the antitheses of his fellow competitors, many of whom have one groom for each of the horses on their team.
So, if you are looking for an opportunity to root for the red white and blue horses in the Team Combined Driving. Team Morgan is for you! As the host country, the US will be allowed to enter up to nine teams. So far, David is looking good for one of those spots.
Visit www.davidesaunders.com to follow David and the horses as they make their way to the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games at the Kentucky Horse Park in October.