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The Carriage Commentator



14-16 APRIL 2023

Minta reports from the anniversary weekend at Arena UK where new titles were won, new champions were made and a few lessons were learned. Photos from TT Photography - April 2023

2023 Junior Champion Izzy Brunner with former Supreme Champion Phillipa Howe

The 25th Silver Jubilee IDC UK National Finals were the climax to the 2022-23 season and held for the second year running at Arena UK.  A proportion of the drivers who had qualified from their respective areas attended and there was a healthy number forward which made for a worthy championships with decent sized classes.  Travelling from all over the UK, this dedicated bunch packed their bags, lorries and trailers and converged on the relatively central venue in Lincolnshire. 

After the freezing temperatures of last year, we all hoped for some warmer weather.  We also hoped for some good but challenging championship level courses to bring about some memorable results and deserving wins. The sunshine was there, albeit intermittently, and it did finally hang around on the Sunday, but not before we had lashing rain on Friday that left large puddles that left us with that totally soggy feeling underfoot.  And there were some great wins and some worthy champions, but for me, the whole event lacked pizzazz in what should have been a celebratory year for this brilliant and popular format.  As for the courses, they threw up a few issues which should be debated and part of the ‘lesson learning’ process to ensure a far smoother finals in future.

With Horse and Country TV live streaming the action, there’s no doubt that expectations for the event were high, which was reasonable after the relative success of last year’s final at a new venue.  This was a golden opportunity to really sell the sport and have a well-dressed arena and a rocking atmosphere.  On the plus, it was great that both Precision and Paces arenas were indoors, which was an improvement on last year, but this change was marred by the advertised judges changing arenas and overall, a rather hit and miss communication system. 

The P & P judging was fair and accurate across all the classes but it goes to show that that during the qualifying rounds, the judging should try to be of similar standards as quite a few drivers who had been regularly in the mid 20s scores throughout the season were suddenly mid 30s or even 40s.  This doesn’t sit easy when the criteria for both accuracy and paces do not change, but perhaps the interpretation does.  Many of us have been suggesting for some time that there needs to be more cohesion between the judges and organisers of the qualifying rounds, which would help ensure that marks are earned fairly, correctly and with clarity.

Pony pairs champion, Charlotte Adams-Lane

However, it was the unevenness of the cones phase over the weekend which dominated how the competitors felt about the whole event.  It was a reasonable course which threw up some questions for the drivers such as the cloverleaf and skinnies.  After last year, when so many competitors were not happy with the small size of the cones arena, they got what they asked for and there was a much bigger area.  But with this came a complicated course that, had the timing been sensible, could have been much more pleasurable to drive than it actually was.  When one considers the calibre of some of the ponies and horses competing at this advanced level, including well seasoned competition equines who also go outdoors, plus some very experienced scurry drivers, it soon became apparent that the time was unattainable.  Subsequently the penalties were being added were like cricket scores – not something we are used to indoors.  To illustrate the point, averages of 10 to 20 to 30 seconds overtime were being seen in all classes which is not what this original concept for the phase was about. 

The decision to suddenly add 60 seconds to the time allowed for the small pony class as it was the first to go on the Saturday morning only added to the confusion, partly because it was only for the singles and not the small pony pairs, who understandably thought that it would also apply to them.  By the end of play on Saturday there were some heated discussions, which resulted in the time penalties for the small pony single class being removed.  This made a huge difference to an already competitive class and amidst the chatter, there were calls for the class to rerun the cones.  But it wasn’t practical as by this stage the course had been dismantled and all the ponies had been put to bed.  As in all areas of life, open and honest communication is key in these situations. 

On the Saturday, with all the open, intermediate and multiple classes running, there was some great driving and the youngsters certainly led the way.  Amy Matthews and Spud took the intermediate and overall championship, very closely followed by Ruby Gray, another young driver, who was just 0.24 penalty behind.  In the open pony class, Lyn Chorlton of Notts and South Yorkshire stormed into the lead ahead of the talented Sophia Routledge, last year’s intermediate champion and another talented young driver.  They were closely followed by experienced national level driver Louise Kaiholm with Ruth Martin’s stunning and versatile pony Storm, and it was this combination that won the best dressage award of the weekend.

In the intermediate horse section, Jon White drove an excellent cones round and managed to stay just ahead in the obstacles to take the title, ahead of young Phoebe Matthews driving her father David’s home bred KWPN mare Liberty.  The open horse class produced some hot competition with Elaine Leslie driving her 22-year-old coloured cob, who were in front after the first phase and despite fighting hard to maintain their position after the cones, gave way to the winner John Wilkinson, whose wife Leslee Wilkinson was second to push Elaine into third.

Last year’s Pony Tandem Champion, Jacqui Pillinger, retains her title in 2023

One of the most competitive classes of the weekend was the pony tandems, which included diddy miniatures to some larger, more seasoned combinations that return year after year. Last year’s champion Jacqui Pillinger took the title again, but had the pressure applied by Liz Harcombe, a previous national champion, driving her two World Horse Welfare rescue ponies.  Dierdre Luff drove her lovely colour tandem into third place, which was quite an achievement as her leader was another rescue pony who when Dierdre first had him, was scared of his own shadow.

Usually one of the most contested of all the classes, numbers were much reduced in the open pony pairs with only three forward.  Calling on her scurry experience, Charlotte Adams-Lane was in a class of her own with a cracking P & P score which set her up, followed by an accurate cones round and some blistering times in the obstacles.  Closest to her was Nicola Parkin who gave her a run for her money in the obstacles but missed a gate, so sadly was eliminated, which meant reserve place went to Ann Staniland from the Northwest with her pair of chestnuts.  Making the pony team class her own once again was Julie Wedgebury but she didn’t quite have it all her own way despite her solid P & P and cones which gave her an edge.  She was chased by the talented Peter Young who had commandeered his sister’s pony team and together they drove the obstacles faster than a lot of the single ponies.

Sunday dawned bright and relatively warmer, with the sun creeping through the clouds, which helped lift spirits after the challenges of the Saturday.  The single small ponies got things going with their obstacles and some seriously competitive rounds.  Sophie Matthews from South Dorset produced very fast times and deservedly took the class with Kate Cooper and her little Welsh pony Duke, who just creeps in under the height ratio, coming second.  Former champion Laura Wray was third but there’s no doubt that the toing and froing of the cones and timing the day before cast a shadow over the class.

The small pony pairs class had six forward and had their times removed from the cones, so they reconvened on a level playing field ahead of their obstacles.  Again, there were some fast times and in the end, experienced driver Claire Bourne from East Anglia took the title, ahead of Dawn Dickens from Lincs and Leicestershire, followed by Sophie Matthews.

Another promising young driver to take the junior title was Izzy Brunner, whose mother is friends with Sara Howe and so Izzy has the best grounding in the sport there is.  Last year’s supreme champion Phillipa Howe was on hand to help her and how lovely it is to see this great family helping to bring on the next generation.  Close behind were Maisie McCarthy and Lily French – another two names to watch out for in years to come.  Taking the novice pony was Juliet Wylde, while Neat Sharrock took the novice horse, with Michael Hartland in reserve. 

A rule change at the start of the season shifted the cut-off point for the veterans from 60 to 65, but if, like me, you had competed in the class as a younger 60-something, you could enter again.  Anyway, it’s one of the most competitive sections and one would never guess that we’re all in bus pass territory! Again, the cones played quite a strong hand in this class, but the P & P did too, and there were some very close scores, so it was all to play for on the obstacles.  It looked like Steve Hoyle might not be able to compete as his campaigning horse sadly was not fit but the generosity of the Wilkinson family meant he could join in the fun as they lent him the renowned Tilly Trotter.  Steve is a hot favourite, whatever he was driving, and lived up to the expectation by taking the championship from Fiona Powell who pushed him all the way in the obstacles.  A stalwart of the Indoors organisational team, she was faster in 3 & 4, but lost the title in the cones. Third place went to Linda Hill driving her cracking pony Timothy, who having clocked a great P & P got caught in the cones despite her quick obstacle times.

After a weekend of mixed results and emotions, perhaps the time has come for a rethink as to how a big event like this is run, and what the priorities are.  We are all under the spotlight in terms of what we do and the welfare of our horses and ponies.  Social media has changed everything, as has the blanket coverage of these championships – all is on view and all are accountable.  Across the board a greater level of awareness and dare I say, professionalism, is required.  But, and it is a big BUT, we also have to remember that all these sorts of events are run by volunteers who give of their time freely. There are many lessons to be learned from this year’s finals but before too much criticism is levelled at those who are doing their best, we must remember that it’s a big ask to stage major competition which is run people’s spare time. 

Something that hasn’t changed is the need for good, clear and open communication.  If mistakes are made, hands need to be held up and solutions found that are fair to all.  We are only human, and honestly is the only policy.  How we miss the magic touch of Dick Carey, whose vision created this wonderful format, and he and his merry bunch, including the indomitable Rita Bundock, used to make it look effortless.  They have left a great legacy and a popular series which we all hope has a rosy future.

Hopefully the wash up meeting will re-establish the expectations of what is required to stage the finals.  But equally, the competitors need to respect that mistakes can be made, and as long as clear and honest communication is in place and action is quickly taken, they must understand the time and effort that goes into the whole season, all year round.  We are lucky to have this sport and we ALL need to work to maintain it and ensure that we still have it in years to come.  Because if we don’t, those gems of people who give up their Sundays, weekends, evenings for meetings, days on end, will get fed up and let their walking feet do the talking. 

Sophie Matthews

For more information about the Finals, please visit the ICDA page and for more photographs, visit TT Photograph