Diary of a Driver

by Tamara Woodcock

ALI-ZEUS’s tale is truly a success story in the preservation world. Just a year ago, he languished in a pasture without a job to do. Today, he is co-owned by three BLUE STAR breeders, learning how to drive, going to shows, and beginning a promising breeding career. The following is a diary of ZEUS’s first days in the driving ring with co-owner, Tamara Woodcock.Ali-Zeus

May 2006 — Took ALI-ZEUS into his first class today. My first driving class, his first driving class—heck, it was his first show! First time to drive in public, first time to carry an extra passenger, first time to take the cart anywhere (a whole experience in loading and unloading in itself). A whole lot of firsts!

He was nearly perfect! It was a long day, and my timing on how fast the classes were running was way off, so ALI-ZEUS was harnessed and hitched long before the time needed to warm-up for our class. All in all, he spent probably three hours harnessed and hitched, much longer than the hour I’ve driven in the past. Even though I eventually decided to unhitch and unbridle to give him a chance to relax, he was still ready to call it quits before our class started. But once he was in the arena, he turned it on and trotted out beautifully!

Becky Huffman and her youngest son were there to help me; Becky to act as header and help load/unload the cart and her son to be general “go-fer” boy. Both of them got their first rides in the passenger’s seat.

The only true downer was that the judge, an official of the International Arabian Horse Assoc., had to ask in the line up what breed ALI-ZEUS was (this is an all-breed open show sponsored by an Arabian club that uses Arabian judges). The judge had no clue what a Straight Desert horse was. Disappointing, but not really surprising.

Diary of a Driver 2Still ALI-ZEUS has his first blue ribbon to hang on his own spot on the ribbon wall. He has a lot of catching up to do to some of my past show horses, but this was a really great start!

Next event is an Arena Driving Trial in Caldwell, Texas in June! I really am excited about ZEUS’s progress and I’m looking forward to tougher competitions at the arena driving trials and combined driving events. The three-phase competitions will suit his style: he’s light enough for a quick dressage test, handy enough for the cones, and should be a real powerhouse in the marathon/ hazards.

I am rather nervously mailing off my entry for the Brazos Valley Driving and Riding Club Arena Driving Trial tomorrow.

Early June 2006 — I’ve seen the competition… and it is tough. The division we will compete in is the largest. Not expecting great things, but as long as I don’t get eliminated in any of three classes, I’ll consider it a great day.

I got lots of good tips from an internationalcaliber driver on my driven dressage test (warm up lots more and go much more forward), so I do expect a good dressage test. It will be the cones that will keep us from the front of the pack. Forty centimeters of clearance sounds like a lot until you are trying to aim through the gap doing 180 mpm (meters per minute) minimum coming out of one turn and trying to set up for the next! We should be able to stay mid-pack on the hazards.

Late June 2006, after the Brazos Valley Driving Trial — Wow! Where to start? We went to our first Arena Driving Trial on Friday, sponsored by the Brazos Valley Driving and Riding Club. It was at the Burleson County Fairgrounds in Caldwell, Texas. What a simply great weekend!

We hit rain heading south several times, but since the temperature had been in the high 90s, the rain dropped it down to the mid-70s, making it easier on my poor old truck. A couple of times the rain was falling so hard, and the ambient light was just bright enough for the horizon to disappear, that the road blended into the sky only 100 yards ahead of the truck.

We got to the grounds early, only the second pony there, so we had our pick of pipe panel stalls. I snagged ZEUS an outside corner stall, hoping to minimize his neighbors. As they pulled in, the other competitors were very gracious in maintaining ZEUS’s bubble of personal space. He really liked being able to see and socialize, but didn’t feel the need to charge the walls with no one close enough to threaten him, making for a very relaxed night.

Got ZEUS all bathed and pretty (you’ll realize how futile this was later), longed him a bit in the arena to make sure nothing scary was in there, then harnessed and had a nice workout. The grounds were big with lots of space for working driving horses, and enough trees and gentle hills to make a workout interesting.

Saturday was a different thing all together. The sky was threatening on the way from the hotel to the fairgrounds, but I had no idea a huge storm was barreling in! Our dressage time was 9:11, the last of the training level pony entries. At 8 a.m. we harnessed and started our warmup. Maybe 15 minutes later a gentle rain started. ZEUS was okay with it, so we kept going. And then it really hit! Huge drops that fell like hailstones and ruined visibility. Wind, standing water, and slick mud were everywhere! I had Jared riding with me, and we took off for the arena, intending to drop in so at least one of us wouldn’t get pneumonia.

Right about then they decided to let all the competitors into the arena to wait out the storm. There was enough room outside the dressage court for the carriages to line up head to tail. So off for the gate we flew! And really flew! ZEUS’s controlled canter turned into a hand gallop and when we rounded the end of the arena, we hit a very slick spot! The cart fish-tailed to the right, mud went flying everywhere! Zeus dug in and straightened it out, and dropped back to a trot just in time to make the turn to the arena and walked politely around hitches to our spot in line. Wow! A calm walk after that mud derby!

We had to do our dressage test without the warm-up I know we needed. Still, he was really great, with most of the errors mine (not exact on gait changes at the letters, etc.). I do need him to get a bit hotter to commands. Lately I’ve had to go with the whip to get a trot, and he consistently counter bends when moving clockwise. But we ended the dressage phase third overall with 57.+ penalties. He got 7s for his collective remarks. I only got a 6 for my driving.

The storm finally passed, and the day got warm and humid. Jared, bless his soul, took a towel and cleaned my cart into some semblance of respectability.

Diary of a Driver 3Obstacles were next, with Jared navigating for me. The hazards were no problem, and ZEUS did well, taking fourth in Hazard 1 and 3, and fifth in Hazard 2 and 4. I was really hoping to improve our time in 2, where I lost track of the first gate (need to have a talk with my navigator about right hand and left hand) and had to make a circle, losing time. But the next time through it, we obliterated one of the gates. It was only a 5 second penalty, but there were pieces of PVC pipe flying everywhere, and it was unfixable. They had to bring in a spare for the next competitor! The bonus was that ZEUS didn’t seem to mind the noise from the collision and finished the remaining gate in that hazard easily. Just like those darn Desert horses, he actually seemed pleased at getting a chance to run over and “kill” something! We ended the obstacle phase in fourth and dropped to fourth overall.

Cones were last. Jared was very good at reminding me of where the next gate was, but the course flowed so nicely that it would have been very hard to go off course. We only had one ball down at one gate, but ZEUS isn’t very fast through the cones yet, so we finished fourth there also and stayed fourth overall. Cones are easily my favorite part, and this was a great course setup.

ZEUS got lots of very complimentary comments. Driving people aren’t very breed biased, and although most people were surprised with my answer of “Desert Arabian” when they asked the breed of my pony, they still liked him. We spent a lot of time talking with a Dartmoor breeder, who thinks ZEUS would make some nice crossbred foals on the heavier ponies like the Dartmoors. I am interested in crossbred ponies. Driving people seem as interested in proven performance as in pedigree.

Becky talked to one of the drivers, who is also an endurance rider, about starting up a distance driving organization. Endurance for driving horses.

July 2006 Quick Update — ALI-ZEUS competed at the Texas Arena Driving Trial 6 on Saturday. There were six entries in Training Level Single Pony. We placed third in Dressage with 60 penalties and placed fourth in Obstacles with 31+ penalties to stay third Overall. We had 2 balls down and no time penalties in Cones to finish that phase in fourth place and finished the day in third of six overall.