Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Spanish Trainer, American Horses

On December 17 and 18, Jose Francisco Garcia came to Coves Darden Farm just east of Aiken to conduct a dressage clinic. Jose Francisco Garcia is from the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Jerez de la Frontera Spain, where he is a "jinete professor especialista", the highest level of horse trainer. The Royal Andalusian School is world famous for its riding school, which specializes in the art of high school dressage.

Mr. Garcia, who has been working at the school for 26 years, has been responsible for the training of some famous Spanish horses. For instance, when the Spanish team won the silver medal in dressage at the 2004 Olympics in Spain, one of the horses, Oleaje, ridden by Ignacio Rambla, was an animal that he trained for eight years.

Miguel Coves and Dorothea Darden, who invited Mr. Garcia to their farm, both agreed that he was possibly the best rider they had ever seen.

"I have never seen anyone ride a horse like him," says Miguel. "When he gets on a horse, it changes completely. When I see him riding my horse, I want to buy it again!"

"He has a great eye for what a horse needs," adds Dorothea. "He seems to know exactly what to do at the exact right time. It's been fascinating to watch him. He can get so much out of a horse. When he gets on, the horse just transforms."

Riders in the clinic agreed with these sentiments. Although Mr. Garcia is certainly an upper level trainer, he had no problem working with lower level horses, even those that had never really schooled in dressage before. Nancy Bruen Smith brought Mattox, her 9-year-old Percheron-Thoroughbred field hunter.

"Before I came here, I asked myself, am I crazy doing this?" she says. "He is so wonderful, I felt embarrassed at my level to come and take a lesson. But I accomplished so much in just that one lesson, that I can work on what I learned for weeks."

Shirley Singelton, a dressage trainer from [JBG1]Madison, Ga., brought two horses. One was a Swedish Warmblood schooling at Second level. The other was an Azteca (half PRE and half Quarter horse) belonging to her daughter that had been having trouble with his flying changes. Shirley was impressed with Mr. Garcia's understanding of this horse.

"He is the first trainer who really 'got' him," she says, noting that there was a real difference in the way the horse rode at the end of the session.

On Friday afternoon, clinic participants watched while Mr. Garcia schooled Orlando IV, a PRE stallion owned by Coves Darden Farm. At the beginning of the session, spectators chatted amongst themselves. But as the horse and the man worked in the arena, a hush settled over the place. By the end, everyone watching was silent and spellbound.

Francisco says that he enjoys giving lesson to horses and rider of all levels and abilities.

"The level is not important. What is important is to be able to help the person improve his own horse. I think the people came away happy, and the horses came away changed.

"When I give a clinic in America, the people riding dressage tend to have a harder contact," he continues. "I like to convey the art of understanding the horse's feelings, to show people how to play with his balance. It is important that the horse does not suffer, that he goes forward, feels important and enjoys himself. To learn the art of equestrian tact. . . it is like unheard music."

Mr. Garcia will be back for future clinics at Coves Darden Farm. For more information, visit the website: To watch a video of Francisco Jose Garcia's ride on Orlando IV, go to the CovesDarden channel on YouTube:

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Salute to Driving

Most people in Aiken are at least reasonably aware that Aiken has many carriage driving enthusiasts. After all, the Aiken Driving Club is quite visible at many of city’s large horse events such as the Aiken Steeplechase and the Aiken Trials. People may not be quite as cognizant of the fact that the carriage driving or coaching group is only one part of the Aiken driving community. The other part, which mostly stays in the Windsor area, are combined driving competitors.

Combined driving, the driven equivalent of a mounted three day event, is an exciting, fast moving international discipline that is recognized by the Federation Equestre International. Driving is part of the World Equestrian Games, and has its own regularly scheduled international championships at various places in Europe. Both ponies and horses compete, and there are divisions for singles, pairs and four-in-hands. It is a growing sport in the United States and Aiken is one of three or four places on the East Coast where driving enthusiasts converge in the winter months. The area boasts one prestigious combined driving event (the annual Katydid CDE) and several smaller ones, along with schooling events, classes and clinics.

All this activity has attracted some of the top whips (drivers) in the business, many of whom are veterans of international competition, or have international aspirations.  Being selected to represent the USA overseas is a great honor, but it is also expensive, especially for drivers, who have to transport several carriages and harnesses as well as their horses. The United States Equestrian Foundation provides some funding, but the majority of the USEF support tends to go to other equestrian sports that have a larger popular following.

Lisa Singer, who is one of America’s top drivers, and Bev Lesher, who owns Courage to Lead, one of America’s top driving ponies, decided that it was time for Aiken to help the USEF help the drivers. This year they are starting what they hope will be an annual three-day event intended to raise money for drivers while providing the Aiken area with more exposure to their discipline. The Salute To Driving and Low Country Dinner will take place from February 19 through 21. It will include American Driving Society clinics, a combined test and various other activities. There will also be a low country dinner at Trout Walk Farm in Aiken. All proceeds will go to the USEF and be earmarked for the driving discipline.

“What often happens is that people who have the talent to compete on the international level can’t do it because they can’t afford to travel to Europe,” says Bev, whose pony Courage to Lead won the bronze medal at the World Pony Championships in Greven, Germany in 2009. “We’re doing this because we want to give back to the sport, to help make it possible for our best people to represent us internationally. It’s a matter of national pride.”

Bev and Lisa also hope to educate the uninitiated, who might not know what combined driving is all about. “We’re hoping to have streaming video from the top competitions – the Laurels, Live Oak, the World Championships  - so that people can see the sport at the highest levels and start to appreciate the athleticism of it and how exciting it can be.”

For more information, call Bev at 717.554.1241.