Gladstone, N.J., Sept. 27, 2004 -- Here's a name to remember if you're going to follow combined driving: Suzy Stafford.
This 27-year-old competitor from Delaware, who works as an assistant to pairs champion Lisa Singer, easily won the National Singles Pony Championship at the Gladstone Driving Event Sept. 26.
It was a very competitive division with 10 entries, but Suzy dominated. She was first in dressage and the marathon with Beverly Lesher's Courage to Lead, a mare who lived up to her name. The only place she faltered, if you want to call it that, was in the cones, where she had a single knockdown. But Suzy was still a very comfortable 13.58 penalties in front of the runner-up, Muffy Seaton, who won the cones phase.
Suzy used to be an eventer. She met Lisa Singer when she gave her father a present of driving lessons. Dad lost interest but Suzy found the sport quite interesting, especially after she broke her ankle in a fall and had to have it fused, which meant she couldn't jump anymore.
She used to alternate with Beverly in driving her 14.1-hand Morgan. But Suzy is aiming at the 2005 world championships, so she's the only one competing with the mare now. Though Suzy and Courage to Lead are undefeated together, a trophy collection isn't what this driver is after.
"I think of shows as training for something bigger," she explained.
Driving competitors range from serious strivers to ambitious hobbyists. Suzy is one of the serious ones. Her navigator, Claudia Delorme, says that when Suzy scouts the hazards before she drives, she figures one out and then says, "on to the next victim!"
Claudia told me that Suzy is a sponge when it comes to learning about driving. She worked with Australian driver Boyd Exell briefly and gained from that experience.
"She chooses to do absolutely the best she possibly can do," said Denise Beaston, her first trainer, who was hanging out by the trailer with Suzy and Claudia after the marathon. How many people do you know who have moved on and are still friends with their first trainer?
The Gladstone event was memorable, as always, especially because it has wonderful hazards cleverly laid out by Richard Nicoll. This time the theme was a world tour that included the Swiss Alps (hung with cotton snow and plush stuffed St. Bernards), the Mexican Hat Dance (serapes and sombreros) and the Bikini Islands (I'll leave that to your imagination).
In the days when Finn Caspersen funded it, Gladstone was a lavish affair. Finn has gone on to other things, and the event struggled financially for several years, but now organizers feel they have it on firm footing. They noted the turnout this time was the best in ages. They even got a respectable number of spectators on marathon day, though I think they'd attract lots more if they had the wherewithal to trumpet the virtues of this event.
It's a wonderful setting in the Pine Meadow section of Hamilton Farm, home of the U.S. Equestrian Team. The backdrop of autumn leaves on the scenic property adds just the right touch of color to a pretty picture. There's something about a horse in harness that sings to the soul, maybe because it harks back to a nostalgic past.
The horses in combined driving are awesome, but the ponies are so cute. Many have a story behind them, like Cefnoakpark Bouncer, Sybil Humphreys' 8-year-old Welsh cob driven by Muffy. Remember the used car that a little old lady only drove to church on Sundays? Bouncer, who came from England, was used by his former owner to drive down the highway to the pub on a regular basis.
In the British driving community, "that seems to be a major selling point," Richard Nicoll noted wryly.
Then there was my favorite name among those in the competition, Gayfields Prom Queen Wanna Be, or PQ for short. This little gray Welsh did have an air about her and would have looked right at home in a tiara.
She was driven by Caroline Whittle, who came to Gladstone hoping to vie for the national championship in the pony pairs. But alas, only three competed, though five were entered. A national title for pairs is required to be contested by at least four entries, so winner Tracey Morgan, a two-time national champion, had to be content with just a blue ribbon.
In the pony fours, only three entries were necessary for the championship, which meant Allison Stroud was able to take that honor when she won with her matched gray set of Welsh darlings.
She was cheered on by her best friend, Joy Slater Carrier, who, like Allison, used to ride in timber races. We all know how dangerous that can be, but Joy seemed to think driving was even more treacherous.
"I like to keep a leg on each side of my horses," she told me firmly.
The advanced pair horses section was won as usual by Lisa Singer, who took the national championships earlier this month with Mimi Thorington's Morgans at the Laurels. Her biggest competition for first prize was a new name to us here in the east -- Fritz Grupe, a real estate developer and farmer who lives near Sacramento, Calif.
Fritz, who got his start driving draft horses, was encouraged to get involved in combined driving by last year's four-in-hand national champion, Chester Weber. Now he and Chester trade horses back and forth as they need them. Fritz is 67, but looks amazingly fit as he deftly steers his Dutch warmbloods.
Advanced single horses were very light at Gladstone, with only three entries. The national championship in that section was out west, and you can see where the drivers who competed in the world championships this summer might want to give their horses a rest.
But Canadian Andre Paquin was impressive, leading all the way to win by more than 24 penalties. His horse, Equinox, is quite a story. The bay Selle Francais' dam died the day after he was born, and he was fed by two goats.
"That may be why he's always hungry," mused Andre. He's better known as a pairs driver, but the other half of his pair has been out this season with an injury. Andre is hoping to go back to pairs next year, explaining he's been doing that so long he finds it easier than the singles.
The advanced four-in-hand horses section also only had three entries, with the very veteran Jimmy Fairclough creating his own sweep over Bill Long and Jim Richards. By the way, Jim Richards was marking the anniversary of his first advanced event here last year. He really has improved. He even competed in the world championships this summer as an individual.
The fours are a small division anyway, but their two biggest guns were missing. Tucker Johnson has been competing in Europe, and Jimmy told me that Chester's gear was in limbo because of a shipping delay that had all his equipment at sea, literally.
Happily, I have no fear of losing my
way. I'll be back in familiar territory next weekend for Dressage at Devon.
Your faithful correspondent will be sending a postcard next Monday, Oct. 3 to tell
you all about it.