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The Carriage Commentator



JOHN COWDERY (1931-2021)

Jane MacInnes remembers one of the driving world's greats who made a huge and lasting contribution to the sport as we now know it. Our grateful thanks to Tina Alder and John's daughter, Debbie Wicks, for the photographs - September 2021

John passed away at the age of 90 on 21st August 2021.  John was a lifelong devotee of and advocate for all aspects carriage driving whom so many of us remember with great respect and devotion.

John learnt to ride as a boy, but apart from one experience with a pony and trap, did not become involved in driving until he went to Windsor as a riding instructor at the Equitation Wing of the Calvary, having joined the Royal Horse Guards. His Colonel found a Regimental Coach which had been locked away in a shed, and on seeing John long reining a couple of horses, thought John would be the one to train a team of horses for it. John said he was only having a bit of fun with the horses and knew nothing about driving so he was told to ‘Find out then,’ which he did.

By 1952, John was driving the team at shows, such as Royal Windsor, and subsequently met up with George Mossman for whom he went on to do some film and funeral work. He then trained up several young officers in the art of team driving, such as Tommy Coombs and Trevor Morris.

He remained in the army until 1971 which was the same year that the first competitive carriage driving competition took place in the form of an International Grand Prix for teams of four horses at the Royal Windsor Horse Show. Before long it was suggested he might like to become a judge for this new sport.

After army life, John was offered a job working for the Master of the Household at Buckingham Palace as senior clerk for the furnishings. By now he was married to Pat, and they had four children, and he was given grace-and-favour stabling for his horses in Windsor Great Park. He had frequent contact with the then Crown Equerry Sir John Miller who proposed him for membership of the Coaching Club. He was also asked to help with the training of many of the horses to be used by the Royals.

Many of us remember John and his Fell ponies. It all started because Pat rode one at Balmoral when they were on holiday on the estate. He consequently bought one for her and that was the beginning of breeding, teaching and carriage driving with Fells. Many of us will remember daughter Debbie competing very successfully with a team for several years.

However, the family was stunned when 21 year old son Andrew was paralysed after diving into a swimming pool unaware that its depth was only 2ft 6ins. Life changed dramatically for everyone as their house was unsuitable for Andrew who was now in a wheelchair, so they moved to Strathmilligan in the beautiful hills of south west Scotland. Here the family could devote time to Andrew and John set up a thriving riding and driving centre, in addition to becoming very involved in the local community with hobbies such as choral singing.  John was also a key figure in setting up and running the popular driving trials event at Drumlanrig Castle in Dumfriesshire, which ran for many years. He also served the wider driving community by becoming chairman of the Scottish branch of the BDS for several years in two separate stints.

Two years after the move north, Andrew expressed a desire to raise funds for the International Spinal Research Trust by doing a coach run. John agreed, so long as Andrew did the organisation. The run raised an amazing £16,000, the route going from Edinburgh to Manchester over a period of nine days. John used eleven of his own horses, Lex Ruddiman provided five and George Bowman Snr provided the Sir Walter Scott coach.  Money was raised by passengers buying seats on the coach as well as sponsorship and donations from interested bystanders.

John had numerous talents and contributed so much to the world of carriage driving. He was a BDS Private Driving judge, a technical delegate, often President of the Jury for driving trials including at the 1999 World Disabled Driving Championships held in Greven, Germany in 1999.

Along with wife Pat, who was an expert HDT scorer in the days before computers and WiFi, John wrote several books (all well worth a read) and articles over the years.  On a personal note, I remember him coming north to Aberdeenshire to spend a day helping me get my pony team going. He also was my assessor for becoming a BHDTA judge, and I well remember the kind and gentlemanly way he informed me that I had been eliminated by missing a flag at Lowther Driving Trials!  

We have been privileged to have had John’s expertise, knowledge and friendship over the years, and for his part in the development of Horse Driving Trials.  Our thoughts are with John’s family and many friends.