Thursday, March 29, 2012

Driving in Aiken | 3/29/2012

Twenty-First Century Revival

By Gary Knoll



Clip clop, metal shoes clanging on the pavement, leather slapping, chains jingling, wheels rolling across the ground, the wind rushing by. For a horseman, the smooth hypnotic rhythm of a horse trotting is one of the most wonderful sounds in the world.

There is a huge difference in the way the world seems when you are on the back of a horse, and an even more dramatic difference when you are rolling along behind one. You are in control, but from a distance, connected only by pieces of leather. It seems even more of a partnership than when you are mounted.

Putting a horse to a vehicle can be done to accomplish almost anything. Stagecoaches crisscrossed the western part of America, making settling it possible. Horses pulled plows, seed sowers and harvesters to help feed much of the world’s population for thousands of years. Canals around the world would have been nothing more than ditches filled with water if not for horses pulling barges along them. Civilization without the knowledge of how to train and use horses to perform work would look nothing like it does now.

When the automobile arrived on the scene in America in the early 1900s, the use of horses as a source of power waned.. Cars, trucks and tractors were much more efficient at their jobs. When it was no longer necessary to own a horse to plow fields or travel to town, horse ownership became a luxury.

Even in Aiken where horses were king, the use of powered equipment to do things formerly reserved for horses had a huge effect on who could own horses and what they would do with them. There are practically endless accounts of Aiken’s winter colony residents and their horses. They trained them for racing and steeplechasing; they hunted, jumped, played polo and they drove. It’s easy to imagine them having fun with their horses in and around Aiken. No day would have been complete without a drive around town or through the Hitchcock Woods. Coaches filled with people young and old, off to enjoy their friends, would have been a marvelous sight and sound. The rhythms of the day were filled with the sounds of horses pulling carriages, wagons and coaches.

“The Hitchcock Woods is still one the best places to drive that there is,” says Peggy Dils, who is the president of the Aiken Driving Club. “Many of its miles of trails and paths are perfect for carriage driving. But by no means are the Woods the only place to drive in and around Aiken. Our club takes scheduled drives in lots of places. We also have several game days, and a spring driving show. Our members take part in events February-March 2012 The Aiken Horse 81 in town, like the carriage parades at the Aiken Trials and Aiken Steeplechase, as well as parades downtown and many other things. Right now our membership is as large as it has ever been, with over 200 people in the club.”

Peggy says that membership in the Aiken Driving Club can be broken into three different groups.

“About a third of our members are interested in pleasure driving. Another third don’t drive themselves, but are social members. And the other third are interested primarily in competitive driving. These three basic groups have a lot of members who cross over into the other groups also. We encourage anyone interested at all in carriage driving to join our club and participate in our events. Everyone is welcome, and we always need non-driving volunteers to help out.”

Aiken and its surrounding areas are experiencing a surge in their population of competitive drivers. This year, Aiken had five drivers competing in the World Pony Driving Championships in Slovenia. The United States team, which included four Aiken-based drivers, came home with the bronze medal.

Aiken is also the home of the Katydid Combined Driving Event, which is one of America’s premier driving events. Katydid draws competitors from all over the country and the world.

“We’ve been putting on the Katydid event for 10 years,” say Jennifer Matheson, who manages and co-owns Katydid Farm. Jennifer was a member of the U.S. bronze medal team at the World Pony Championships and has been competing at the international level for years. “Our first event had about 30 entries. Our second year was cursed with some bad weather and only had about 17 entries. This year as well as the last couple of years we reached our maximum number of drivers at around 75. The National Single Horse championships were held at our event in 2011, and we are applying to hold the National Pony Championships here in 2014.”

The Aiken Driving club is the largest driving club in the area, but it is not the only one. Several smaller groups are popping up catering to more specific groups.

“The South Carolina Pleasure Drivers Group is a small very relaxed group,” says its founder Robert Chambers. “Everyone is welcome. Our mission is to promote safe and fun driving opportunities to Aiken’s drivers. We like to travel around the area and find new and fun place to drive. Besides the Hitchcock Woods, we like to travel to places like Lakeview Plantation in Allendale, and we are planning a spring trip to the Biltmore in Asheville, N.C. Last week, several of us met at the Green Boundary Club in Aiken and drove around the historic horse district and then into the woods. When we got back, we had some sandwiches and shared some stories. It was a very casual, pleasant drive. We’re always looking for new people to enjoy driving with us. If you don’t have a horse or have never been driving before, that’s fine. Contact us and we’ll get you out there having fun.”

If you have ever thought about learning to drive or wondered what it was all about, you could not be living in a better place. There are groups of people who drive at every level, from national champions and international competitors to people who just like to watch and volunteer at the events in town. There is plenty of room for everyone.

If you already own a horse or horses and participate in another discipline, but are interested in driving, Aiken is a great place to get started. “You should start with a lesson,” is what you are going to hear from anyone you ask about teaching your horse to drive, and it’s good advice. Many features of basic horsemanship transfer easily from your skill set if you are already a rider. But driving is different in a lot of ways. There are things that are more important for a driving horse than for one that is ridden, things like being able to stand still and to respond to voice commands and aids, as opposed to leg aids.

If you are wondering about the cost of all the things you will need to teach your horse to drive, you might be pleasantly surprised. If your goal is to have a four-in-hand to compete in international events, the harness alone for the presentation phase could cost you $18,000 and up, and the carriage could be much more. If you want to start with one horse, you can get a used leather harness, or a synthetic one made right in Aiken for less than the price of an average saddle. Carriages, especially if they are used, can be had for much less than you might expect.

If you appreciate horses and Aiken, and enjoy the illusion of going back in time, carriage driving may be for you. In the days of the winter colony, even after automobiles were common, many of Aiken’s winter residents preferred going about town in horse drawn vehicles, often driving them to polo matches, the horse show or the training track. You can still do that today, or simply drive down the streets of Aiken’s historic district, listening to the drum of your horse’s hooves, and imaging yourself back in an earlier time.
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The Aiken Driving Club; www.aikendrivingclub.com is a good place to start looking for information. Gilcrest Farm (www.gilcrestfarm.com), and Shepherds Purse Farm (www.muffyseaton.com) in Windsor are home to international level drivers and instructors. Janelle Marshall (803.257.7051) Shelly Temple (www.catalystdriving.com) and Suzy Stafford (www.staffordcarriagedriving.com) are also international level competitors and instructors. Robert Chambers is in charge of the South Carolina Pleasure Drivers group (803.226.3122).
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This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.


Thursday, March 22, 2012

Neville Bardos | 3/22/2012

USEF Horse of the Year

By Pam Gleason, Photography by Gary Knoll

If you wanted to write a screenplay for a Hollywood movie about an event horse, you couldn’t invent a much more dramatic tale than the story of Neville Bardos. Neville, who was named the United States Equestrian Federation Horse of the Year for 2011, is trained and ridden by Boyd Martin, who spends his winters in Aiken at Bridle Creek Farm. Boyd and Neville were the top U.S. finishers last September at the Burghley four star event in England, as well as the highest placed American competitors at the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky in 2010. They are currently on the “A” list of riders and horses being considered for a spot on the 2012 United States Olympic team.

Although Neville’s competition record is impressive, his personal tale is what makes him so compelling. Neville should never have been able to compete at Burghley, and that he did is little short of a miracle. Just two months before the event, he survived a devastating barn fire, and was lucky just to be alive, much less galloping over the most grueling cross country course in the world.

Neville Bardos, like Boyd Martin, was born in Australia. Boyd, the son of an American mother and an Australian father (both of them Olympians, his mother in speed-skating and his father in cross-country skiing) took to event riding at an early age. Neville was bred at the Woodlands Stud in New South Wales and was destined to be a racehorse. He ran seven or eight times, but those races were “pretty disappointing,” according to Boyd, who bought him for $850 when he was three. He was a wiry, 16.1 hand chestnut gelding with a penchant for cribbing and a strong personality.

“I took him over a month or two after his last race,” says Boyd, who immediately put him in training for his new career. “He’s been a good quality jumper since the get-go. He’s bold and he’s careful, and I feel like he really enjoys his jumping.”

Boyd and his wife Silva, who is a dressage rider, brought Neville up through the ranks in Australia. His first event in 2002 was inauspicious. Silva was riding him; he dumped her on the cross-country course and it took 15 minutes to catch him. He got better as the years went on, and in 2006 he won both the Coffs Harbour CIC three star and the Melbourne CCI two star. He came to America with Boyd in 2007, and began competing successfully at the three star level. Meanwhile, Boyd, who holds dual citizenship as an American and an Australian, switched his competitive nationality so that he could ride for the United States.

Neville’s career really took off in 2009, when he won the Fair Hill CCI three star, followed by a fourth place finish at the Rolex Kentucky CCI four star, and then went on to the World Equestrian Games. He started 2011 with a second place effort in the Advanced at Red Hills, where he sustained a slight strain to his shoulder, and so went back to the farm to rest.

In the spring, Boyd had moved his stable from Aiken to Pennsylvania, to a barn at Phillip Dutton’s True Prospect Farm in West Grove. In addition to Neville, Boyd also had a number of other top horses, as well as some young prospects. Things were looking good for the Martins and their connections.

And then tragedy struck. The stable that housed Boyd’s horses caught fire in the middle of the night on May 31. Three working students living in an upstairs apartment were awakened by the noise, sounded the alarm and began to evacuate the horses. Boyd and Phillip rushed to the scene. By the time they got there, the barn was engulfed in flames. Four horses had gotten out, but seven, including Neville, were still inside. Firefighters had arrived, but were not making any effort to rescue the remaining animals. So Boyd and Phillip did, going into the burning barn and grabbing the first horse they could reach in the smoky darkness. That horse was Neville Bardos. He had been in the heat and the smoke for 45 minutes. They pulled him out by his cribbing collar while he gurgled and coughed. Then they tried to return to the barn to save more horses, but the smoke was too thick, the fire was too hot and it was too late. Six horses died.

Neville and three of his stablemates were transported to the George D. Widener Hospital for Large Animals at the University of Pennsylvania New Bolton Center. Although Neville seemed bright and alert, medical tests revealed that he was in bad shape. He was dehydrated. He had burns on his face and on his back. He had a thick nasal discharge filled with soot and ash and the inside of his throat was charred. He was given fluids and put on oxygen. Boyd hoped that he would recover, knowing his future was seriously in doubt.

But Neville Bardos is a horse with a fighting spirit. He surprised the veterinarians by continuing to eat and drink and crib, even though his bloodwork and other tests said he was severely injured. They began sending him for daily sessions in a hyperbaric chamber. It seemed to work. He improved enough to be discharged from New Bolton on June 7, and then he continued improving. Soon, he was back under saddle and back in training. Boyd watched him carefully for any signs of distress, vowing to back off if it seemed that the horse’s lungs were not up to the work, but Neville acted as if nothing had ever happened. By July, he was competing again, and in September, just 8 weeks after the fire, he was one of fewer than a dozen horses to go double clear on the cross country course at Burghley. It was a huge course, featuring 33 difficult jumping efforts.
“He’s a very energetic, full of life, overenthusiastic horse,” says Boyd. “He was born and bred to run, and run fast, and that never left his character.” According to Boyd, everything he does is with enthusiasm. For instance, he’s not just an ordinary cribber: “He’s a fantastic cribber. He puts a lot of energy into it.”

Neville Bardos, who is owned by 10 people in the Neville Bardos syndicate, is currently training at Bridle Creek Farm, with occasional forays off the farm to compete. He was named the USEF Horse of the Year on January 13, and the next day, he competed at the Ocala Winter Dressage Festival under Silva in Florida. His next competition will also be at a dressage show, this time in Charleston, and his first horse trial of the year will be at Southern Pines, N.C. in March.

In the meantime, he is attracting quite a bit of media attention, with articles on the front page of the New York Times, and talk of his being featured in a television documentary. What does he think of his new fame?

“I don’t think he really cares about it,” says Boyd. “People in the media have been coming up and taking pictures of him, asking questions and he’s been getting extra carrots. I don’t think he cares at all about the attention. He looks to be training very well, especially in the dressage department. He’s just enjoying the warm weather in Aiken, and his field here at Bridle Creek Farm.”


This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.