ROYAL WINDSOR 2022
CAIO4* - The Land Rover International Driving Grand Prix for Horse Four-in-Hand
Images courtesy of Paul Orchard (dressage) & Swingletree Photography (cones)
Report - May 2022
Despite the fangled logistics and eye-watering expense of bringing teams of five driving horses into the UK from Europe, Royal Windsor is so special and holds such a legendary place in driving lore, that the world’s best four-in-hand drivers still covet competing in Home Park enough to jump through hoops, and travel for many hours, to get there. Indeed, it remains an honour to be invited.
Fifteen horse fours made the final line up, and what a starry selection it was. Leading the charge was the inimitable Boyd Exell, who maintains that being at Windsor feels like ‘coming home’. He was joined by headliners such as Ijsbrand Chardon, Chester Webber, Mareike Harm, Koos de Ronde and Glenn Geerts. Although the Brits once propped up the event, back in the day when teams, pairs and singles, both horse and pony, were invited, the Grand Prix has been steadily streamlined and now with only places for the horse fours, it was Daniel Naprous, Karen Bassett and Mark Carruthers who made up Team GB. It is hoped that in future, the classes will extend to include singles and pairs, but lots of wheels have to turn behind the scenes for that to happen.
Henry Bullen and the team from Pedens had helped get those coming from Europe into England, and he was on hand with an office in the stabling area should any queries arise during the competition. Henry commented that, ‘Getting horses into the country is the easy bit, but getting them out is much harder!’ The authorities in both France and Holland, whose ports tend to be used, are rather bureaucrat-heavy (i.e. not very cooperative) and Henry said ruefully that there’s no chance of getting much sense out of them at the weekend, and that their laws are often open to several interpretations…!
It was also mentioned, from the show’s perspective, that dealing with the increased paperwork and requirements of getting horses into the country meant that the ridden dressage competition was side-lined for the year so that time could be devoted to ensuring that the driven competitors were able to come. That, and budgets – and probably the extra load of the Jubilee Pageant.
Once the run ups and inspections had been completed on the Thursday, with all the horses passing as ‘fit to compete’, organisers and competitors breathed a sigh, and the first hurdle was overcome. It is unfortunate that the dressage on Friday morning clashes with the coaching and private driving, so it is impossible to see all three, but the scores and placings followed current form, with Boyd in the lead on 79.5%, with a unanimous first placing from all five judges. Next was Ijsbrand Chardon with 74.3%, which gave Boyd a decent margin to play with. Mareike Harm said afterwards how delighted she was with her third placing on 71.4%, and tucked in behind her were Chester Webber (70.7%), Dries Degrieck (68.7%) and Glen Geerts (66.5%). Uncharacteristically, Koos de Ronde was down the order in 9th place on 62.7% and although his performance improved over the weekend, he had left himself too much to do after the first phase to really be in contention.
The Brits were grouped together with Daniel Naprous in 10th (60.6%), Karen Bassett in 11th (58.7%) and Mark Carruthers in 12th (57.5%). Scores between the placings were tight which meant that the order could change dramatically after the marathon. On the team front, after dressage it was The Netherlands in first, followed by Belgium and Germany, then Team GB.
After rain on the Wednesday, the marathon course in Home Park could not have looked fresher and more picture perfect. Designed by Jeroen Houterman, who had been in consultation with director of driving Andrew Counsell, the aim was to produce eight flowing obstacles which encouraged ‘good driving’ but gave plenty of options for both tight and longer routes. Watching the marathon, this was indeed achieved as many of the drivers did take different routes.
Chester Webber impressed from the other side of the fence with his handsome team of well-matched horses and some sympathetic but effective rein handling. He told us afterwards that they were a relatively young team and that they had only just flown in from Florida on the Wednesday, so he was delighted with the hot day and temperatures which his horses were accustomed to. Mareike was another driver who was pleasurable to watch. She may not seem to be the fastest, but she drives so quietly, and her horses are so well trained and athletic, she never appears to haul them round and there’s no shouting and bashing, making her an excellent PR athlete for the job.
It was clear that German Michael Brauchle, who like Marieke has been at the indoor FEI World Cup final in Leipzig, meant business. Much more testosterone seemed to govern his driving and he really went at it, but his horses pulled it off and he won the marathon overall, being fastest in four of the obstacles. Chester was 2nd, just under four points behind Michael, and Koos put in his usual impressive marathon performance to come joint 3rd with Glenn Geerts, both finishing on 122.27. Boyd seemed fast but had a few expensive knock-downs and was edged down into 5th on 122.77. Ijsbrand, once unstoppable in this phase, didn’t have such a good day and came in 11th, with the Brits also finding the course a bit more challenging and at the end of the day, they assumed the last three slots, with Karen having missed Gate A in the final obstacle which was expensive in time, although she corrected her course.
However, in terms of combined scores and the placings, Boyd had done enough in the dressage to secure his continued lead, but it was Chester to rose into 2nd, although there was a margin of 12.62 points between them. The two Belgians, who had also been neck and neck in Leipzig, were in 3rd and 4th, again with so little between them, Glenn on 175.84 and Dries on 176.39. It was equally tight between Michael (5th on 177.01) and Mareike (6th on 177.77), all of which made for a gripping competition. The marathon also had quite a bearing on the national team placings, with Belgium flipping into the lead, followed by Germany then Holland and GB.
Maintaining his winning streak, Michael put in the best round in the cones to win the phase, with no knocks and 5.79 time penalties, all of which was enough to give him 3rd place overall. Glenn also went clear and with 6.08 on time came 2nd in the cones and secured one of his best career performances to finish in 2nd. Although Mareike knocked three (giving 9 penalties) she put in one of the fastest rounds to add only 1.54 on time and had a final overall placing of 5th. Although in contention overnight, Chester had a more costly round, rolling five, and despite only adding another 2.89 for time, found himself in 9th in the cones which dropped him two places in the final standing to 4th. Dries only knocked two but was heavy on the time, so was in 5th, which gave him 6th overall, ahead of Koos on points, who rose to 7th.
Sadly Karen had a technical hitch during the cones which meant she was eliminated; Mark had quite a costly cones round and finished in 12th place, as did Dan, who came 14th, with Poland’s Piotr Mazurek in-between.
But it was Boyd’s consistency which won him the day. Ever focused, still hungry for a win, he took the top place – again. His fellow competitors are closing down on him but having once been the ‘new boy on the block’ he is more of an ‘old master’ nowadays and after nearly 20 years of winning, remains the one to beat.
What sets him apart? There’s no doubt that he has always been talented, but it takes more than just talent to stay at the top. He’s proven himself to be a good businessman – vital to keep running those teams, a big venue, attracting the sponsors – and he shares his knowledge with other successful drivers on the international circuit, not least Dries and Misdee Wrigley Miller. He’s got a loyal team of people around him, from ‘Granny Garnett’ to Hugh Scott-Barrett, and is supported by his wife Preetha who smooths the corners. It was ‘Old George’ (Bowman) who remarked during his podcast for The CC that he admired Boyd’s impressive recall too, his knowledge of horses, of who had what, the results and the breeding. Certainly, it takes commitment, for this is not a straightforward sport and the years of preparation, the number of horses which have to tried, tested and trained to put together a team, takes nerves of steel (and deep pockets). And it takes an understanding of modern driving, of the rules, of the terrain and of what the judges are looking for in the dressage, as well as where precious seconds can be shaved off in obstacles, coupled with the level and steady heartrate that’s needed for the ever more complicated cones courses.
One day he will be beaten (it can, and occasionally does, happen) and one day someone else – or several people – will assume or share the crown, but for now, he is, and remains, our top horse four-in-hand driver and the world’s number one, adamant that he will win (not defend) his 6th outdoor world championship in September!