This article was produced in association with FEI
If Ben-Hur had gone professional, this is the sport he would have chosen. Driving, an equestrian discipline that involves directing horses and a carriage at breakneck speeds along tracks and round obstacles, is surely the modern-day version of Roman chariot racing. In this sport the adrenalin rises as much for the spectators as it does for the horses and the riders taking part.
“It’s an exciting, high-octane sport, and the crowds just love it,” says Manuel Bandeira de Mello, driving director at the governing body for equestrian sport, the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI). “Drive to thrill, spectacular skill, ultimate horsepower, precision at speed… I would say this is an adrenaline-fueled sport that is unbelievably electrifying.”
Carriage driving has been practised by humans and horses ever since we first invented the wheel. But it wasn’t until 1969 that the sport was properly regulated. That was by the Duke of Edinburgh [husband of the Queen of England], who has always been a great advocate of the sport. A year later the discipline came under the governance of the FEI.
There are many different rules and several different formats to the sport, depending on which competition is being staged. But, when it comes to FEI events, drivers sit on a carriage drawn by horses or ponies; either single, pairs or four in hand. Human and equine athletes then face three trials: dressage, marathon and obstacle driving.
Bandeira de Mello explains how the three different trials work: “Driven dressage involves performing a sequence of compulsory figures within a 100-metre by 40-metre rectangle. The movements must be executed from memory. Five different judges mark the test, and the lowest score wins.”
Next is the marathon phase. “This is a spectacular time trial run over a course that includes natural hazards such as sharp turns, water and steep hills, and artificial ones such as labyrinths. The objective of marathon is to test the fitness, stamina and training of the horses, and the driving skill, judgment of pace, and general horsemanship of the driver and his team.” The team are known as grooms. Bandeira de Mello explains that they have a similar role to members of a bobsleigh team. “They use their body weight to maintain the balance of the carriage and prevent it overturning. It’s a really dynamic and very skilled job, and the grooms need to be really fit.”
Finally there is the cones phase. “This tests the fitness, obedience and suppleness of the horses after the marathon, as well as the skill and competence of the driver who must weave cleanly through a narrow track marked by cones with tennis balls balanced on top. If they knock a ball down they pick up five penalties. It’s a real test of skill. The fastest team with the lowest number of penalties wins.”
The 2017/2018 season saw seven legs staged in the World Cup – in Stuttgart, Stockholm, Budapest, Geneva, London, Mechelen and Leipzig – culminating in a thrilling final in Bordeaux which was won by Australian and four-time world champion Boyd Exell. “The atmosphere was electric,” recalls Bandeira de Mello. So electric, in fact, that the horses had to wear ear plugs.
World champion Exell stresses how important teamwork and camaraderie are to driving, both between the human athletes and with the equine ones. When a team of four horses are competing, the two at the front – known as leaders – provide the skill. “They have to be clever, bold, fast and sensitive.” The two horses behind them – known as wheelers – provide the power. “They are the V8 engines,” he says.
Exell says he gets the best results when his horses are happy. “It’s like employing people,” he explains. “Just because they work hard doesn’t mean they can’t have fun doing it. In a competition, when the chips are down, and it’s really heavy going, they’ll dig deep and go that extra mile for you.”
This special connection between horse and driver should not be underestimated. “Grooms who work with the animal have a connection when they’re handling them,” Exell explains. “And I have a connection when I’m training with them. So I can feel a trust with my horses. I can feel down the rein if they’re feeling stiff, or if they’re expressive and wanting to show off.”
In four-in-hand driving events there are three humans in the team: the driver, the navigator and the backstep. Exell uses the analogy of motor racing. The driver is of course the person behind the wheel, while the navigator is like a co-driver in rally driving. The backstep is more like the person who occupies the sidecar in motorcycle racing. “He’s got to keep the carriage upright,” Exell explains. “He needs a bit of weight to stop it flipping over. It’s called self-preservation. Otherwise you’ll all end up on the deck. With four horses, when they hit their rhythm, it’s like being thrown around like a rag doll. You get flung around everywhere.”
The elite level of this sport is staged at the FEI World Equestrian Games™ [the FEI’s flagship event and biggest equestrian gathering in the calendar, which takes place every four years] and at the FEI World Championships, and the various continental championships in between. During the northern hemisphere summer, drivers compete in outdoor events for the chance to qualify for the prestigious FEI World Cup™ Driving competition over the winter.
The number of participants in driving is growing. According to FEI research, there are nearly 2,900 registered driving horses worldwide, a 50-per-cent increase since 2007. Driving these horses, there are over 1,000 registered equestrians, a 17-per-cent increase since 2007. There are now over 300 driving events every year around the world, with USA, France, Austria, Germany, Netherlands and Australia staging the most.
In terms of results, the most successful nations are the Netherlands, Germany, France, Belgium, Switzerland and the USA. Thanks to the efforts of Exell, Australia is always well represented, too.
Bandeira de Mello explains what makes driving such a dynamic spectator sport. “It’s all about speed and control and the fact that the driver does all this from several metres behind the horses. It’s something very special that the public loves.”
He says the connection between drivers and horses adds a certain mystique to the sport. “The public doesn’t know exactly how it works or it’s done. That is the mystery they love to see. How can a driver not seated on the horse control such high speeds and turns in such a small space? This keeps spectators entertained all the way through the competition.”
This entertainment has been attracting more and more spectators to the sport in recent years. According to the FEI’s market research study, there are currently 302 million fans across 15 different territories, 52 per cent of them male, 48 per cent female. Seventy per cent have middle or high income levels, and 46 per cent are aged between 30 and 49.
“Driving has a fantastic fan base,” Bandeira de Mello says. “I would say, in some ways, it’s the perfect vehicle for sponsors, with huge on-site public support, wonderful stories for social media, and great TV audiences – exemplified by the FEI World Cup™ Driving Final in Bordeaux. The music was pumping at full volume, and the spectators were cheering and stamping their feet.”
He also cites last year’s Longines FEI European Championships for Driving [four-in-hand], in the Swedish city of Gothenburg, as a great example of what the sport can offer. On the day of the marathon phase, there were over 50,000 spectators, not only swarming the city streets and Slottsskogen park, but also packed into the stadium in the city centre.
That’s surely a sign of just how popular driving has become.