BY JEFF FALK
PHOTOS COURTESY OF CHARMING CREEK FARM
ROBESONIA – They say a dog is a man’s best friend. But when it comes to sports and competition, over the years no animal has had a closer relationship with humans than the horse.
So, are horses athletes?
Tess Vedilago has been working with the equine for most of her adult life, mostly as a trainer in the sport of horse racing. But more recently, the Jonestown resident got into a different sport quite accidentally when she answered a want-ad for a groom at Charming Creek Farm.
The sport is called ‘combined driving’. If you’ve never heard of it, you’re not alone.
What it is is a hybrid combination of horse showing and racing – on steroids.
“When my youngest went to college, I wanted to get back into it,” said Vedilago. “I didn’t care what I did. I needed to get back in with horses. But it’s(combined driving) a whole different world. I’ve been learning. I’m still learning. But it’s fun.”
Who Vedilago works for, grooms for and ultimately navigates for is Cindy Vollers. Vollers is an owner, groom and ultimately a driver, and she’s been competing in combined driving for the better part of the last 18 years.
“In Europe, it’s huge,” said Vollers of combined driving. “There’s a whole different culture. Here it’s not well known. Over here there’s a different set of sports. It used to be growing. It exploded more in the (19)80s and (19)90s. You’re always trying to get youth involved in the sport. But the economy has affected it.
“Do you know what sport is?,” continued Vollers. “You get addicted being with people who hold the same interests. There’s enjoyment in that.”
“We all have different roles,” said Vedilago. “On the race track, the trainer calls all the shots. Here it’s the driver. The driver has to be thinking about the horses. Everybody else is behind the scenes.”
Sometimes known as ‘horse driving trials, combined driving involves horses drawing a carriage with a driver seated upon it. Combined driving is one of ten international equestrian sports governed by the Federation Equestre Internationale, or FEI.
“When we drive these horses, the team is pulling over one thousand pounds in weight,” explained Vollers. “We are the personal trainers for these horses. It is an obligation that they move and pull correctly, so they have longevity and don’t get hurt. Horses are meant to be wild and free. We have to teach them to move correctly, so they don’t get damaged.
“I grew up with horses,” added Vollers. “I’ve always been passionate about horses. They all have unique personalities.”
Combined driving has three distinct phases, often contested on different days: dressage, cross country marathon and obstacle cone driving. The competition can involve teams of four horses, two or one.
“You can get not a lot of money,” said Vollers of the prizes. “You’re doing all this, and sometimes there’s a huge ribbon. If too much money would become involved, it would hurt the sport. It’s not why we do it. We always try to look out for the welfare of the sport.
“We can prepare for events, as a four-in-hand, for over a year,” Vollers continued. “But a pair of my horses are very seasoned. Some of the best conditioning is walking. It just helps out with whatever. There are so many jobs to do – participation, organization. For me personally, dressage is huge. If you have put in the time and the effort, that is the basis of everything you do.”
“I’m learning the sport,” said Vedilago. “But we have a lot of fun. There’s an excitement that builds.”
Including travel, Combined driving competitions are events that are sometimes staged over four or five days. Events are contested all over the United States, but mostly on the east coast, a lot in North Carolina, Florida and Kentucky.
Entry fees are usually in the hundreds of dollars, and seasons run mostly during the warmer months. Events can attract as many as 90-95 competitors, across the different divisions.
“The event itself is a huge undertaking, with judges, volunteers and paid staff,” said Vollers. “Of course it’s both friendly and competition. It’s a tight group of people. People help each other. But you can be friends in the morning, and then you want them to eat your dust. There is a camaraderie. It is a village.
“Combined driving is an event that stresses being technically correct, with your horse being physically fit and conditioned,” added Vollers. “But it’s almost a competition with yourself, because it takes so much to get to these events. There’s strategies in these hazards. You want to pick the shorter routes, but sometimes the longer routes are smoother.”
“She’s the glue that holds everything together,” said Vedilago of Vollers. “She’s like the boss. She’s the coach. She’s the trainer.”
Charming Creek Farm’s next competition will come in the four-in-hand division- with four rare Arabo friesians – at the Elk Creek Combined Driving Event, in Elkton, Maryland on June 3-4.
“The horse has got to be physically fit,” said Vollers. “It’s not really a race. You have a window of time, and within that you have obstacles. You have to go through gates in a timed period. That all factors into your score.
“Any horse is a gamble,” continued Vollers. “Will these horses do what it takes to do the sport? I did two-and-a-half years of ground work with some of these horse. At three, we hooked them to a cart. At four, we broke them to ride. They mature very late actually, between the ages of seven- and eight-years-old. Not all horses mature that late.”
More spirited and head-strong, horses aren’t as loyal as dogs. But through proper training, horses can be conditioned to do amazing things.
“I was out of horses,” said Vollers. “Then I found this little pony and this lady who said she drives. I didn’t know what this was, so I watched some of these obstacles being driven. What I saw was men and women of all ages on a mutual level, all competing together. And I said, ‘Wow, that’s a unique sport’.
“These people were all competing on the same level,” added Vollers. “I started asking questions and everyone I took them to answered my questions. As I became more active, I found out that there were also team members. I said, ‘I need to find a trainer.’ That’s how I was introduced to the sport.”