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.”