The 2011 Hermitage Classic HDT, held September 23-25 at the legendary Hermitage Farm in Goshen, Kentucky has clearly established Kentucky as a center for the world ranked equestrian sport of Combined Driving. With its international caliber facilities, cross country course and top notch management team, this property has successfully made the shift from the glory days of thoroughbred racing to the rapidly growing sport in North America of combined driving for all levels. Preserving the large piece of historic property north of Louisville, Kentucky owner Steve Wilson purchased the property together with his wife, Laura Lee Brown, putting into action a plan to nurture it as a multi disciplined training and competition facility where he could share his newfound passion of the land hungry sport of Combined Driving. It was at the Hermitage Classic we competed in our first recognized event with my pony pair, and we had a blast.
A lifelong horseman, Wilson was first introduced to carriage driving and coaching by his good friend the late and legendary horseman Dinwiddie Lampton. He then became enamored with the sport of Combined Driving just one year before the 2010 Alltech/FEI World Equestrian Games, and used the recently purchased Hermitage to host several international competitors who traveled to Kentucky where the event was being held for the first time on US soil. In just a short time under the guidance of farm managers and trainers Jose and Leslie Hernandez, Wilson is now competing at the Intermediate level and has recently purchased a pair of Lipizzaners who finished fourth at the World Pairs Championships from Hungary. “They don’t know any English yet,” admitted Wilson of his new horses, “but we’ll figure each other out.”
Hermitage Farm Preserved
Characterized by its red and black barns, the Oldham County, Ky., the farm lies off of a scenic byway along Hwy. 42 north of Louisville, Kentucky and has roots that span generations which tie it to Kentucky’s rich thoroughbred breeding and racing history. Once the home of the thoroughbred elite, entrepreneurs and philanthropists Steve Wilson and his wife, Laura Lee Brown, known for their support for art, music and environmental protection acquired the Hermitage in 2010 in order to preserve the historical property, which is now surrounded by encroaching suburbia.
Slated to be developed there was an offer on the table by a developer to turn the 700 acre farm into 600 one acre lots, but the Brown-Wilson couple, stepped in to add the Hermitage acreage to their nearby Woodland Farm properties overlooking the Ohio River. With the property now placed in in an environmental conservation easement, Wilson and Brown share their passion with driving enthusiasts and their region by creating a new sports venue for the central United States as well as preserving some of Kentucky’s most beautiful and melodic landscape.
History Evolves as the Australian Returns
The Henshaw-Waters family originally owned the Hermitage from 1825-1935. Then the 700 acre property was purchased by Warner L. Jones Jr., who had a distinguished career in the thoroughbred industry. Among the farm’s outstanding horses include 1953 Kentucky Derby winner Dark Star, Dark Star who was sired by Royal Gem, an Australian import. Jones had seen him race in Australia while in the service. Royal Gem’s groom came with him to Hermitage Farm and stayed for six months.
The 2011 Hermitage Driving Classic welcomed the return of another Australian, the colorful four in hand driver Gavin Robson who competed for his country in Lexington, Kentucky at the 2010 Alltech/FEI World Equestrian Games. Now living full time in Florida, Robson brought his caravan to the Hermitage as a preparation for the Kentucky Classic CDE, which took place in Lexington at the Kentucky Horse Park, October 6-9.
Parties and Perks
Also owners of the 21c Museum Hotel and Restaurant, in Louisville, Kentucky ranked by Conde Nast as the #1 Hotel in the USA and the #6 in the world, the Wilson-Brown’s know a thing or two about entertaining and hospitality. In spite of the rainy weather the crowds came out to tailgate, visit the vendors, and watch the exciting marathon on Sunday. There was live music from a Dixie Land ensemble and fine dining provided by their Proof on Main Restaurant, with seating at checkered clothed tables overlooking the exciting water obstacle. These were just a sampling of the amenities provided in the second year of an event, which is destined to grow in prominence and stature within not only the local community but the driving world of North America
Competitors were treated to a wonderful welcome party during the riders’ meeting, with Saturday night’s competitor’s party held at Wilson/Brown’s Woodland Farm. The long drive along fields full of their grazing Bison led attendees to a driveway adorned with giant pink snails giving just a hint of the whimsical collection of art the couple embraces. As the sun was setting over the Ohio River in the background guests, competitors and officials gathered in the barn for a feast of barbecued pig with all the trappings. A stellar blue grass band was on stage in the loft overlooking the festivities.
Hermitage Classic Attracts Drivers and Equines at All Sizes and Levels
Several top drivers came out to tune up for The Lexington CDE in the hotly contested Intermediate Single Horse Division. Erin Smith Woodcock and her lovely Dutch Harness Horse mare Odessa scored the high dressage result of the event to top the division with an impressive score of 48.64 penalty points, ahead of Tennessean Laura Nuessle and her Morgan gelding Savie. Sterling Graburn on his first outing with the KWPN Dutch Harness Horse, Ulano demonstrated some quality movement as a hopeful horse for the future in his quest for the 2012 World Singles Horse Championship short list. But it was a solid trip through the marathon, which put Nuessle along with her navigator husband Dr. Don in the lead to collect the overall win of the weekend which redeemed their elimination at the Indiana CDE when they missed an element in one of the marathon obstacles.
Taking home the ultimate award collection was Donna Crossman and her miniature horse Bella who maintained their dressage result of the event of a with no faults in cones and the marathon to hold their dressage result of a 50.43 penalty points, the second best dressage score of the event.
Part of her loot was a collector’s bottle of the famed Woodford Reserve Derby Bourbon, provided by Hermitage owner Laura Lee Brown of the Brown-Forman family. Crossman, who travelled from Wisconsin for the event was thrilled that the trip was so worthwhile.
A World Champiosnship Every year for the Sport of Combined Driving
In the discipline of international combined driving competition, there is a world championship every year, alternating from the single horse, to pairs, to four in hand. Ponies are also popular driving competitors, where a Pony World Championships is held every two years with a single, pair and four in hand division. It's a sport where age does not define the driver as an athlete. Young or older, it is sport for everyone with many different breeds represented.
As the Hermitage Classic Driving Event was underway, our American Pony Team made US history by winning the Team Bronze, and US single pony driver Susie Stafford won the Individual Bronze, in Slovenia in the 2011 World Pony Driving Championships.
The Stage is Set For Our First Combined Driving Event
We settled our RV and horse trailer along with others on the front lawn of the historic Hermitage home, the future site of a museum planned for racing memorabilia and other more creative ideas. We lined up our trailer making our own little courtyard, and area for harnessing and hooking the ponies. The panoramic view from our windows over the rolling fields was our setting for the next four days we would be spending familiarizing ourselves with the course, caring for the ponies, cleaning the carriage and harness, and above all having fun doing it all.
My little Shetland ponies may not be a breed as commonly known as the Thoroughbred in Kentucky’s history, but in fact the breed contributed to Kentucky’s growth as the equine engine for hauling coal from the low tunnels of the mines in Eastern Kentucky. Now my possible “pit pony” descendants were stabled in the stalls where regal broodmares once delivered some of racing’s top selling yearlings. Instead of coal, Buddy and Dusty hauled my required groom Kelly Gage and me, for dressage and cones held on a rainy Saturday. On Sunday, Carrie Ostrowski, the assistant trainer at the Gayla Driving Center where we have been taking lessons was my navigator and coached me across a daunting newly constructed marathon course. This was our first recognized competition as a pair and we discovered we were the only entry in the Training Level Pony Pair. All we needed to collect a blue ribbon was to not get eliminated, a challenge in and of itself!
In this sport that has happened to the best of them: with so much to remember, one missed flag, one missed cone, are just a few of the things which could go wrong. Being stabled with my fellow barn mates from the Gayla Driving Center, in Georgetown, KY gave me a first hand experience on how the team led by trainer and driver Sterling Graburn operate at an event where not only was Sterling competing but several students as well. Carrie laid out the schedule on the message board each day, and we met to walk the cones and cross country obstacles several times. JJ and I had arrived a day ahead and walked each of the 5 obstacles first, but when we walked them with Sterling we learned of better routes to take than the ones we had picked.
I was the most nervous about dressage, mainly because Buddy, my hot little chestnut gets nervous when he sees people and judges in the stands. It’s a shame because he has lovely movement and quality gaits I was hoping to show the judges. I made sure to walk out my dressage test in the beautiful arena to get a feel for the points where I would need to get my wheels on the rail in order to meet the letters at the right spot. If we could not be relaxed at least we could try to be accurate and not throw away points by miscalculating our circle sizes or where we needed to be after crossing the diagonal. Directly following the dressage test was a course of 19 cones to negotiate (and remember) all which had a ball on the top, when if knocked down would add to the penalty points.
The rain had been pretty steady the night before competition, and so I wore a raincoat over my traditional driving dress for dressage. I have to admit, that I got into driving partially so I could wear beautiful hats for this phase, and have accumulated several styles and colors. But, in honor of our involvement in Riders4Helmets, and my long time friendship with Courtney King Dye, a Dressage Olympian who inspired the creation of this group after a serious head injury, I had purchased a lovely brown Charles Owen helmet to wear for this phase instead.
Kelly Gage, a longtime friend and contributor to our websites was working for Gayla that weekend and accompanied me as the required “groom” on the carriage. Good thing, because in the middle of my test, one of my reins came undone in Buddy’s bit! I was mortified but could do nothing except get Kelly down to fix it. I was not sure of the rules and figured, maybe elimination was warranted, but only suffered a bad score. But I was proud of Buddy who stood quietly when this happened and waited for Kelly to fix it. The judge Dana Bright asked me what happened after my salute. “The same thing happened to me in the water obstacle at the Laurels!” she then told me. “And in spite of all the looking around, you were accurate.” This is what I love about driving, if you have made a mistake, so have many others and not just beginners like me. In fact when recounting our drama in dressage, we hear several stories from other drivers who had similar problems. I thanked Dana for making me feel better, and then moved onto cones.
The point in doing Training Level was to keep Buddy as calm as possible and do a quiet cones round even if it meant incurring time penalties. We were clear but did have time penalties, but as far as I was concerned the worst was over and now we could look forward to the marathon on Sunday.
After walking obstacles multiple times I also used my Flip Video camera to film each of the 5 obstacles and how I would drive it. For Training we need only do A,B, and C. Preliminary needs to negotiate A,B,C, D, Intermediate adds E. The Hermitage did not have an Advanced division which adds F. The concept is simple, as each section of the obstacle is flagged, red on right, white on left. You cannot go backwards through an element required before it is driven, but it is OK after it has been executed. Since we were just doing A.B, and C, we did not have to be concerned about driving backwards through the others if needed. Training level is not timed in the obstacles, but you still need to make the overall time on course. Once again we were just trying to drive fluidly and well, using the principles we apply in dressage.
My ponies are used to working from our trailer, which we had set up near the RV. We ponied them up to the trailer from their stall behind our golf cart, an hour before Sunday’s Marathon. I took my time making sure all buckles we securely fastened this time! Just before hooking I sat with my little video cam and reviewed the course. I deliberately did not watch any of the cross country before me because I did not want to confuse myself on the pattern we had (hopefully) set in our head.
When we were 15 minutes from the start, we drove to the barn and picked up Carrie our navigator. As assistant trainer for Gayla, this was going to be a lesson in action for me, and I have to confess I still have not mastered the time calculations and stop watch. I was so excited, not nervous at all about this part. It did help knowing my only competition was myself, since we were the only Training Pony pair, but still anything can go wrong: a missed gate, or going backwards through or forgetting an element in the obstacle. We headed toward the starting gate, and the countdown began. When the starter got down to “Three, two, one, have a nice drive,” we were off and set off with nice strong trot. Another wonderful bonus in this sport is not just driving the obstacles but in covering the 6 kilometers of the course for the shortened version of the competition at the Hermitage, known as an HDT (Driving Trial). A CDE (Combined Driving Event) adds more roads and tracks as well as a walk phase, and vet check before setting off on cross-country.
As we wove our way along the beautiful course Carrie kept track of counting the numbered “gates” we needed to negotiate, and the ponies kicked into gear. Buddy has done this before many times. All he needs to do is see red flags out there and he knows what is coming and loves it. Our first obstacle was #2 as training level did not have to do #1 the ominous new bridge recently constructed for the event. But it was the water, which was at the maximum allowed height due to all the rain. At 18 inches, that is about as tall as my Shetland ponies legs, so I knew they would have their work cut out for them. Dusty is newer to all of this than Buddy and while we have schooled water before, this one was a surprise to him. The approach to A was a hill before the water, so the first element came up too fast for him to even think about it, and we charged ahead. But the second element up and around a huge red alligator gave us more time to counteract my plan, and he was not having it! It took a couple of tries, including a dropped rein, but with the cheering crowd, and Carrie’s encouragement, we got through B, which was all that was required for us at that obstacle.
We were off, but had some time to make up. Carrie taught me a way to do that by cutting corners on the mowed path, being careful not to miss any flagged gates in the process. With Carrie keeping track of time, I just needed to remember my route, and then to drive as well as I have learned. Turning to the right is a nemesis for us, as Buddy gets a bit hyper when Dusty does not keep up, so most of our routes were to the left. I knew this would be an important school for us, so did do some right hand turns remembering to push Dusty into carrying the load.
I could not wipe off the smile on my face throughout the entire trip! My boys were wonderful, the obstacles were creatively well done, and beautiful. I particularly like walking and driving the Brown-Forman Whiskey Barrels. Steve Wilson’s wife, Laura Lee Brown, is one of the principle owners of the large and successful historic Kentucky company which among other things produces whiskey. Even walking the course the barrels had a distinctive smell of alcohol.
Only on the final obstacle did I get a little disoriented and cut short before the red flag at C. But we were able to correct our mistake, and finish cross-country on time and with no cross-country penalties!
The “award” ceremony was held after cross-country in the large tent with snacks and drinks. The ribbons were lovely and we even got a beautiful pewter cup, and a red ribbon for completing cross-country “fault free”. After so many years as a photographer and journalist covering everyone else, I am now finally doing what I have wanted to do my whole horse loving life. It has given me a broadened perspective on additional aspects of what it takes, and how much it means to be a part of a show and a sport.
My favorite part is just caring for my ponies, cleaning the stalls and equipment, grooming them and sharing this mode of transportation with anyone who wants to check it out. With a good trainer and facility to work with, this is a sport made for those of us who have a busy professional life, which takes us away from the routine from time to time.
A good, fit, pair of ponies do not need to be worked every day. This summer when we traveled to Europe for Aachen and were busy on the road with other events, the ponies stayed at Gayla, which was affordable too.
I’m hooked, can’t you tell? I’ll keep trying to share our driving adventures for those who are interested on Mary’s Daily Dish.
Photo gallery coming soon.
A very cool part of this course as well is that all of the obstacles were built close to each other, which had several in view of each other, and just a short walk for a closer view as well. This allowed JJ to videotape each of our efforts, which we are sharing with anyone who wants to watch. I also cut in the footage I made before driving it to give readers an idea of how we prepared.
I made a quick video with how I walked the obstacles, then dded footage JJ shot of us in action, if you have 10 minutes. I wasn't really planning on using this for anything, but now have an idea how we can do something like this better next time. Enjoy!