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The Carriage Commentator

© Paul Orchard




Minta examines the legacy left in carriage driving after the remarkable involvement of Prince Philip for so many years - April 2021

George Bowman Snr, Royal Windsor 2015 ©Paul Orchard
Wilf Bowman-Ripley ©Paul Orchard

With the passing of HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, the carriage driving world has lost a pioneer, a motivator and a talented horseman.  Prince Philip has left his mark on our world through his involvement with driving horses and carriages.  It was a passion that he enjoyed sharing as much as he relished actually doing it. 

In the early days of combined driving in the 1970’s, Prince Philip led from the front in helping to bring the world’s top drivers together, many of whom were based in Europe.  He was behind the first international event in the UK, opening up the Home Park to include the Grand Prix Driving Trials at the Royal Windsor Horse Show and then he went onto compete himself.  Fifty years on, we now have a sport that has brought British team gold medals at international level and we have a foundation of grass roots drivers whose participation in driving might well have given them the confidence to live a more positive and fulfilling life.

In the words of Rudyard Kipling;

‘If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
   Or walk with kings—nor lose the common touch;

I think that Prince Phillip epitomised this completely. Over the years while driving, he would blend in, chat to all around him and remember amazing details.  During those early days of the sport, he was sitting with international representatives and country heads as President of the FEI, in his inimitable way shaping the new format of driving trials.  From the start, he competed with a horse team, but he also took part in the social drives around Windsor Park and would often turn up while exercising his horses to watch the proceedings at the British Driving Society Annual Show at Smith’s Lawn.  Until relatively recently, he led out the official meet of the BDS, the Concours d’Elegance drive, on the Sunday of Royal Windsor.  Meanwhile, behind the scenes he introduced a number of people to driving both as competitors and staff.  It was he who encouraged Lady Hugh Russell, wheelchair bound after a hunting accident, to take up the reins, as well as Lady Romsey to help her recover from the death of a child.  Many of his grooms have gone onto to achieve world recognition or passed on their skills and learnings to others, knowledge gained while working for the Duke.

Anna Grayston ©Paul Orchard

Careers in driving were forged by some of those who either competed against him, worked for him or who were simply on the same circuit.  The wide range of craftsman and woman or professionals who came across him, such as trainers, course builders, judges, coachbuilders and harness makers enjoyed his attention on occasion, might find themselves engaged in conversation or receiving a friendly and encouraging nod.  Not only is carriage driving the sport it is today because of him, with World and European championships, but across the board it has given people and animals a new lease of life through being able to interact in an inclusive way, whatever the background or circumstance.

Those volunteers who endured hours on their posts, often in the wind and the rain, stood taller and stronger while shoulder to shoulder with the Duke, who once he had retired from competing would obstacle judge at various events, just like anyone else.  On social media in recent weeks there have been many shared memories from people who proudly state that as youngsters they were inspired to remain in driving or make it their career because of his involvement and ‘just get on with it’ attitude.

If you look at many of the top players in the sport nowadays there is a long legacy of fellow competitors or indeed his grooms or drivers who owe their success and involvement in driving to Prince Philip.  His great friend and trailblazer George Bowman was consistently on Team GB and a medalist for decades and is the Honorary Life President of British Carriagedriving.  Karen Bassett, another World and European Team GB member and one of our premier lady whips, competed against him in the pony teams with her speedy spotted ponies.  Wilf Bowman Ripley, Gold Medalist in the horse pairs and Team GB horse fours member is manager of the premier driving centre in the country at Ashfields.  Georgina Hunt (Frith), a European Pony Team gold medalist and Anna Grayston, leading coach and former pony pairs world champion, were fellow pony teams competitors. 

Sue Mart, whose father Michael founded Bennington Carriages and helped produce the Duke’s first bespoke competition carriage the ‘Iron Maiden’ has consistently been one of our most successful singles drivers with many national championships under her belt and is a UK CC level three coach.  Mark Broadbent, current President of the Coaching Club, carriage builder and all-round driving competitor was also a fellow pony teams driver.  The late Andrew Cowdrey, who after a life changing accident went onto carve a career as a skilled and informed commentator and writer, and was secretary of the Coaching Club, was championed by the Duke.  David Saunders who is now based in Florida but travels and teaches all over the world was his head groom for twenty years.  These are just a few names, and there are many more, who were inspired by the sport of driving trials, developed by the Duke, who have gone on to do so much.

Minta driving Mike Underwood’s pony team

My personal connection with Prince Philip started while I was driving a team of ponies for the late Mike Underwood as a paid professional.  I wanted to compete them in driving trials as we had been very successful in the show ring and they had competed in trials in the past.  However, I had to convince Mike that it would be a good move.  At the same time, I heard that the Duke was moving away from his horse team to drive ponies and possibly we would be in the same class.  Well, that sealed the deal for me, and my owner enjoyed the connection with his ponies competing in the same class!  Mike said that hiring me had been a good business decision because seeing his ponies on the circuit was a relaxing pastime.  Some years later, he became an owner for the three day eventer Piggy French (Betty Powell’s granddaughter) and enjoyed many wins with her as an owner.  He would say that these connections in the horse world helped seal many a deal in the boardroom.

I also refereed for him on the marathon and the experience would be as entertaining for me as it was for the public watching him.  While on the route we would chat about the different ways to encourage one’s leaders forward, or tactics on how to drive the obstacles.  I would have to brace myself into position while on his carriage as most referee’s seats were low and gave you a bit of security but not his, which was sloped all the way across so your position was perfect for being catapulted out if caught unawares.

And of course, the connection brings us to the Carriage Commentator as without the deep ties that both Sarah and I have made within the world of carriage driving, we would not be here today in this capacity.  We have reminisced and chatted over the past two weeks about all the opportunities that came our way because of driving, the places we’ve been and the people we’ve met.  We were fortunate to grow up and move in driving circles, meeting people from all walks of life, from all over the world, who, regardless of title and position, as the Duke would say, ‘All looked the same upside down in the water!’ And my, haven’t we all been there, driving being the great leveller, which is why Prince Philip enjoyed it so very much.