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Horse Power: The Best Breeds for Driving

Royal Windsor’s challenging Land Rover International Driving Grand Prix requires skill, speed and stamina, so which are the preferred breeds of horse for the top competitors? Words by Sarah Radford. 

GELDERLANDERS or DUTCH HARNESS HORSES

Why they shine: Gelderlanders, also known as Dutch Harness Horses, were bred for driving, combining Dutch warmblood and hackney blood to create extravagant movers who also have strength and stamina. Traditional gelderlanders, often found in coaching teams, are larger and rangier, while the “modern” stamp is the primary choice for the world’s top four-in-hand competitors.

“A good team doesn’t have to be any specific breed but they need to be good-moving horses with fantastic characters, they have got to match and they have got to be physically fit and strong. You’re testing them in three phases, so that’s a tall order,” says world champion Boyd Exell.

“I don’t really mind what I drive but I like the style of the Dutch harness horses —when I was a child I worked with hackneys and I like that style of self-carriage, the movement of the shoulder and knee and the uphill paces.”

Horses with too much knee action can cover less ground — sometimes giving Dutch warmblood teams, rather than gelderlanders, an advantage in the cones — but gelderlanders can have a power advantage in the marathon.

“They’re physically strong and can cope well with conditions like deep mud,” adds Boyd.Who drives them: World champion Boyd Exell (AUS); Koos de Ronde (NED); Chester Weber (USA) and Hungarians Vilmos and Zoltan Lazar, to name a few. Other drivers combine Dutch warmbloods and gelderlanders in their line-up, including father and son Ijsbrand and Bram Chardon (NED).

A star example: The well-know duo of Sam, bought from driving legend George Bowman, and Curious, who was bought in Holland, helped Boyd Exell to secure world titles before being sold to Spain following their 2014 World Equestrian Games victory. Their shoes have been filled by his current star dressage leaders Carlos and Celviro.

WELSH SECTION A PONIES

Why they shine: These brilliantly versatile little natives are stars of many ridden disciplines, and are equally capable in harness.

Smaller ponies are faster and more agile through obstacles but used to struggle on the walk section of the marathon, where their shorter stride made it hard to make the time. Now that section has been removed, larger pony teams have little advantage, and the section As have come to dominate the sport.

When it comes to the practicalities of running a team they are also a good choice, being easy to source and maintain.

“They’re very strong, so they can pull a 300kg carriage, and they’re manageable fun, like kids,” says British pony team driver Sara Howe. “They’re small, don’t churn the fields up easily and are easy to handle. They can also do many jobs — mine work in my family’s riding school as well as driving in the team.”

Who drives them: Welsh section As have dominated the pony teams class at Royal Windsor for the past decade. Successful examples include 2019 winner Roger Campbell (GBR); 2018 winner Tinne Bax (BEL), seven-time victor Jan De Boer (NED) and British driver Sara Howe.

LIPIZZANERS

Why they shine: As well as being the famed mount of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna, Lipizzaners — which originate from the world’s oldest stud in Lipica, Slovenia — have long been prized as a driving breed.

“They are affordable, easy to keep, easy to match up, good to train and have a pony-like brain — they make very good carriage horses,” says British four-in-hand driver Dick Lane.

“If you look back, they have Lusitano and Andalusian blood for a high-stepping movement and then there is blood from the Kladruber, an agricultural horse, in there, providing good bone which makes them strong.”

Although over the past 15 to 20 years Lipizzaners have been gradually usurped on the circuit by flashier-moving Dutch horses, who have an advantage in the dressage, they are still competitive all-rounders.

Who drives them: In recent years, the majority of British drivers favoured Lipizanners, although Dick Lane is now the only UK representative still competing them as an outdoor team. They remain extremely popular horses on the indoor FEI World Cup circuit, where they are recognised for their agility and cool-headedness under pressure.

A star example: Siglavy Capriola

Dick Lane’s stallion had a long and distinguished career as a wheeler, retiring in 2019 at the age of 24. He went to his first championship in Jerez in 2002 with Hungarian Zoltan Lazar before being purchased by Dick, who drove him on every subsequent championship appearance. “He’s never taken a lame step in his life, and is a real example of his breed with excellent bone,” Dick says.

ARABO-FRIESIANS

Why they shine: These striking black horses combine the movement and presence of the Friesian with 6%-25% Arabian blood, creating a more elegant and “sporty” stamp that has the stamina to tackle the marathon.

While the original Friesian breed, dating back to the mid-1500s, was influenced by Spanish horses with Arabian blood, by the 1900s it had become more agricultural.

Efforts to re-introduce Arabian blood to create a sports horse — or “turbo” Friesian — began in the 1960s and have become progressively more refined.

The Arabo-Friesians retain the looks and character of the pure Friesian but with less feather and finer heads.

These teams are often strong performers in the dressage phase and have had consistent success at international driving trials. An Arabo-Friesian team driven by Edouard Simonet were individual bronze medallists at the 2018 World Equestrian Games in Tryon and individual silver medallists at the Gothenberg European Championships 2017. They also finished runner up twice at Royal Windsor in recent years.

Who drives them: One of the best-known teams currently competing is piloted by Benjamin Aillaud (FRA). Britain’s Dan Naprous is also a recent convert, sharing Benjamin’s sponsor, Dutch breeder and enthusiast Eric Bouwman of the Arabo-Friesian stud, Haras de la Pourcaud.

This article was written for the Royal Windsor Horse Show 2020 Programme.

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