One of the highlights of Memorial Day weekend is the Devon Pleasure Carriage Drive from St. David's Church through the tree-lined neighborhoods along the 4-½ mile route to the Dixon Oval. The images of majestic animals pulling magnificently maintained coaches draw crowds of spectators and tailgaters alike, both at St. David's and along the Pleasure Carriage Drive route to the Devon Horse Show and Country Fair.
The event begins with competitors assembling in one of St. David's fields surrounded by throngs of tailgaters for the initial judging by division (Horses, Ponies, Light Commercial and Farmers) before they are permitted to begin their journey to the Dixon Oval. The judges are looking to see if the vehicle has the proper appointments, if they believe the turnout is correct, if the right horses are hooked up to the right vehicle, and if people are dressed reasonably, but not necessarily in period outfits.
Once the competitors begin their drive, they are judged on their performance by road judges placed strategically along the route. The road judges watch the competitors working on the road, and look for obvious mistakes like failing to stop at a stop sign, if horses gallop up the hill and have a problem, go too fast down a hill, or if they are crowding another carriage and don't use their whip correctly.
This 47-year old tradition is not only a crowd, but also a town favorite. Residents along the carriage drive route have a front row seat to a Concours d'Elegance with horses, and they took full advantage of it. Every possible type of entertaining from simple BBQ fare to over-the-top elegant could be seen on the front lawns of the stately homes, many of them flying Devon Hackney logo flags waving in the warm breeze throughout the route on this summer-like Sunday.
The route may have been the same, but this year's competition was taken to a new level by the addition of a particular four in hand team from Florida. Not just any team, this one was driven by the man who in September 2010 won both World Equestrian Games team silver and individual bronze medals representing the United States, and more recently, finished second at the Land Rover International Driving Grand Prix at the Royal Windsor Horse Show in May. His name? Tucker Johnson. A name which will now engraved on the Robert & Virginia Weaver Challenge Trophy for the Champion Drive Off for Best Turnout. Although Tucker has not shown at Devon for nearly 30 years, he remembers what horses he showed in the Tandem and that he won the class that year as well.
Johnson began riding ponies as a young child, which lead to foxhunting, polo, and ultimately driving "I saw driving happening and thought it would be a fun way to use my hunters in the summer in their off season, just for fun. One thing led to another and I got more aggressively involved from a competition standpoint.
There were a lot of different people who helped me figure some things out. I kept my horses at my own farm from the beginning, and made a lot of mistakes sorting it out there. Different people would give me advice over the years, and then in the end when I realized I needed more to pick up my game, I started working with Michael Freund from Germany, who has been a friend for many years. He took over managing my program. I kept some of my best horses in Germany year 'round, and he would come over once a month for 3 or 4 days and keep the program at home on track."
Tucker confides with a laugh that his family "seemed relatively tolerant" of his desire to pursue his passion. He recalls his "nastiest" childhood memory of riding "I had this pony named Susie when I was 7 or 8. The only time you could get her to gallop was when she was setting you up to drop a shoulder, spin and run back to the barn as you were crying."
At the other end of the equine spectrum was a mare named Esprit (aka Mary) who he competed until the World Champion in Hungary in 2004 "She was definitely a once in a lifetime Driving horse. She was just perfect all the time. She was 19 or 20 when she competed in Hungary."
Now retired from the world competition stage, Johnson shared what moment he would most like to relive and why "I like that part when they're clapping and there are a lot of people ... I like that a lot actually. It's funny, I think of it more as what I miss most about the FEI competition and I once said, I can do a lot of things fairly well, but very seldom do I get 50,000 people clapping for me at once. I would say at the Aachen World Equestrian Games (2006) having a stadium that big, and that full of people is pretty hard to replicate in normal life."
Johnson's advice for up and coming equestrians of any discipline "One has to set a careful goal and avoid anything that isn't productive towards it. That being said, some of my biggest successes have come from using combinations of very difficult horses, but stacking the deck against yourself is a mistake that many people make. These jumper riders now for example, they're riding so perfectly the 40th ranked rider through the 200th ranked rider is so much better than when I was in high school. At that point you think how do you distinguish yourself? I think it's by avoiding pitfalls. Don't make bad choices about difficult horses, when it's not right, move on to what is right and focus on that."
Johnson's career proves that his philosophy proved highly successful for him "I started driving in 1984, and I drove in my first World Championships in 1987. I competed them 3 times Preliminary and then I went to the top class. One was a three year old, one was a four year old and then I competed in the next available World Championships."
How fitting that someone who had burst onto the world stage so quickly should make his last WEG his best "The best drivers were there. The very, very best drivers were all there which is a good feeling considering the outcome for me personally (team silver and individual bronze)."
What brought Tucker Johnson to the Dixon Oval after a nearly 30 year hiatus? "I was thinking that would work out timing-wise really well. I don't have that many commitments this Spring, and this will be a lot of fun, I'll come down. I hope I can do more things like this and have a little fun with the horses, because I really view my involvement in this type of Driving as fun. It's different from the FEI Driving. We try to turn the horses out well, I try to drive well and I'm hoping that when I'm in the ring like that it makes the crowd happy and it's supporting the show."
Were Tucker's four seasoned veterans impressed with the Dixon Oval? "You know my right wheeler was acting like he was back at the World Championships, and my two leaders are like there are no marathon hazards here, so they were very quiet. They went well, they moved well, and the mare gave me a little canter leaving."