US Drivers Prepare for World Equestrian Games

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

During perhaps the hottest week we’ve experienced in the Northeast so far this summer, the top five ranked team drivers and their teams of horses and assistants arrived at the family home of Tucker Johnson - Cedar Lane Farm in Oldwick, NJ. 
All were here for their final preparation to compete at the Alltech World Equestrian Games in October with team coaches Michael Freund and Peter Tischer (Germany) and the critical eye of FEI judge Jochen Lange Brantenarr who currently resides in Spain.

Clinic participants were Chester Weber (Ocala, FL), Tucker Johnson (host), James Fairclough (Newton, NJ), Josh Rector (Phoenix, AZ), and David Saunders (Morriston, FL).  The teams arrived on Monday and Tuesday with their mountains of equipment, each requiring at least two trucks and trailers for transport.  The USEF provided stalls which were set up in the Johnson’s indoor arena and no amenity for such a training session was overlooked.  Rings were set up, lanes mowed, hazards gated and a cones course was already marked thanks to Melissa Warner who manages Johnson’s Driving operation.

The training was set up as a mock Combined Driving event with Dressage on day one followed by Marathon the second day and Obstacles or cones on the third.  Drivers were not expected to turn out in braids and livery as they would in Dressage and cones at a show, but they were to use the equipment they would compete in, including specific carriages and harness.

Dressage training day began early in an effort to beat the heat.  Each team warmed up for about a half hour with Michael Freund on the ground coaching each team.  They then moved on to the 100 X 40 meter grass arena and like the real thing, were whistled into the ring by Judges Peter Tischer and Jochen Lange Brantenarr at C.  Unlike the real thing, Freund accompanied the driver and horses into the ring on foot to watch- up close and personal and to offer encouragement.

After each driver completed their test, Freund and the team stayed in the ring working to improve movements that fell short.  While the fine tuning was underway, Chef d’equipe Ed Young tallied the score sheets submitted by each judge.  At the end of Day One the placing was Weber in first, followed by Johnson, Fairclough, Rector and Saunders.
Since each driver brought their full team including their spare horses, there wasn’t much in the way of free time.  The horses not used for a phase had to be exercised and there were courses to learn.  But the lack of down time did not hamper the spirit of camaraderie as the drivers shared strategies and the coaches joked around with all of the participants.   

Day two was the Marathon just as in a real competition.  This included a critical element for several drivers- the walk section- which is usually one kilometer and must be completed within the time limit of 8 minutes at the FEI level.  All but one managed the challenge and the hefty time penalties that accompany going over the time.

Each driver was followed through Section E by the coaches, fellow drivers and USEF support staff.  Just like the real thing, each was timed in the five hazards.  Unlike the real thing, mishaps were permitted ‘do-overs’ if the driver so chose, with the opportunity to improve and the best of the times was used.  Every team was given an hour and a half to ‘compete’ and work on their Marathon skills.

After a long day of Marathon training, the seemingly tireless coaches rallied the troops to set up the cones obstacles for the next day’s session.  Michael Freund was still a ball of energy and remarkable to watch as he dropped twenty sets of cones- with only a few that landed being off by a centimeter or two of the correct width- and with no written map to guide him.  

The challenging course included elements from several of the hardest courses seen this year including the World Singles Championships in Italy and Peter Tischer’s notorious line of three sets of cones in a row facing in the same direction.  There were even two A through D serpentine/step combinations that crossed each other’s tracks.  Michael Freund also threw in a few jump standards and rails to make things more difficult in the approaches to the obstacles.  Once the course was set, Michael spent time with each driver walking the course with each individually and discussing lines and approaches much like a show jumping coach.

Like an FEI event, horses were presented for veterinary inspection on Friday morning before the cones ‘class’.  Then the group moved on to getting harnessed, hitched and over to the course.   David Saunders was first to go with the comparatively small Morgans and did well.  There were some eliminations for going through sets of cones backwards on the tight and somewhat confusing course but again, drivers were given an opportunity to improve with a second or third round if they or the coaches so chose.  

With Michael Fruend’s voice booming- “You are LATE!” “More Forward!” and “AGAIN!” to those with unsatisfactory performances, by the end of the session all were making the blistering time in short order and doing it with only a three point penalty for a ball down.

Then along came Tucker Johnson with his team of horses that have just returned from US quarantine.   It was apparent to all that he had been competing in Europe when he tackled the course with speed and accuracy turning in the only double clear of the group on his first go!  Johnson handily won the cones followed by Weber, Fairclough, Saunders and Rector.

Saunders applauded the training camp. “This was a great opportunity for us to train under the European methods.  It is much more demanding. For example, setting a course of twenty sets of cones within a 40 by 100 meter dressage arena is not something you will see done in the United States.  There is a much higher degree of difficulty.”  

After the cones, the coaches gathered with USEF Driving Director Elizabeth Staller to discuss the three days results and assemble their combined notes for each of the drivers and their horses.  They then met with each individually to review their performance and how the team was progressing.  The coaches gave the drivers their marching orders of what each needed to work on for the next few weeks leading up to the World Equestrian Games.  

Results for the three days left the short list in this order; Johnson, Weber, Fairclough, Saunders, and Rector.  While the US team has already been named with the top three of Johnson, Weber and Fairclough, the first alternate has yet to be decided and will probably not be announced until closer to the actual Games.

The first alternate is sort of like the runner-up in the Miss America pageant.  If one of the US team members is somehow unable to compete at the World Equestrian Games, the alternate will move onto the US squad.  The second alternate will compete as an individual unless another team member drops out, meaning their score will not count for the US team.  Unlike other World Championships, the long list will not be shortened by drivers opting out due to the expense of having to ship horses and equipment abroad.  Another benefit of having the Games in Kentucky!

The individual competitors, Rector and Saunders, will join the long list of another five drivers who have been granted permission to compete by the FEI.  The total of ten Four-in-Hand drivers is unprecedented and a wonderful opportunity for the US (as the host country) to compete against some of the best in the world.  Those drivers who attended a similar training session the week previous in Southern Pines, NC include Bill Long (NC), Gary Stover (NC), Casey Zubeck (IN) and Cindy Jo O’Reilly (NC).  

Sixth ranked driver Mike McLennan (TX) was given permission to by-pass the mandatory outings.  According to Coach Peter Tischer this was, “due to the stress of shipping his team in the heat of summer from Texas”.   In particular, the potential weight loss which they would not be able to regain in the upcoming weeks prior to the Games. Tischer flew to Texas from the NJ training camp and will work with Mike separately.  

Chef d’Equipe Ed Young commented “I think both sessions went extremely well and I was very pleased.  We had great feedback from the candidates on the format and they were all very positive about the help they received from the team coaches.  Peter Tischer has been in place for two years now and Michael for about a year.  Having these coaches in place early in the process has helped all of the four-in- hand drivers get 110% out of their horses.”

We have been piloting this Developing Driver Program with the fours as we knew they’d be coming out of the woodwork for the World Equestrian Games.  We wanted them to come safely and with professional help. Having a vet on board early on has been extremely valuable.  The horses are in great shape and all passed the veterinary inspection with flying colors.”

Ed Young is confident that the US will medal at the Games.  On the US team members he said “I am very excited about Tucker Johnson.  He is just so talented and doesn’t ever get nervous.  He is totally confident.  Chester horses are physically on top of their game.  Chester will be up there in Dressage and has worked hard on his Marathon and hand-eye coordination.  Jimmy has had an enormous breakthrough with the new leaders.  They have enhanced his performance tremendously.”

According to Ed, the next stop for six of the Four- in- Hand drivers will be the Laurels at Landhope in Pennsylvania this coming weekend.  All six will compete in the Dressage phase and Chester will go out first thing Saturday morning on Marathon to drive four or five of the hazards.   He will then be act as commentator when the other teams tackle the course as an exhibition over lunchtime.  

There should be lots of excitement if you are in the West Grove, PA area this weekend and lots more to come at the Alltech World Equestrian Games!