Paula Hagen and her mare Chiraz win a Bronze Medal at the Advanced Driving Championship. Here’s how they did it.
When I bred my ridden dressage mare 15 years ago, I was considering another riding horse, but after Chiraz was born, decided with the help of friend Cameron Fitch to make a foray into combined driving. A Morgan driver as a kid, I always dreamed of having a pair of Dutch Warmbloods, but, with just one Rheinland Pfalz-Saar mare, singles driving was the obvious choice.
When Chiraz was 3 years old and showed the aptitude and brains for driving, I set the goal to be long listed for the world singles combined driving team. We never wavered from that goal and 15 years later began the final quest to make the dream come true. Many people along the way said she wouldn’t make it to Advanced but we kept working hard, combined ridden dressage with driven dressage, did lots of cross training, cliniced with the right instructors, and kept persevering. Next time someone tells you what you can’t do with your horse, use that as a motivation to work harder and smarter. That’s what we did it paid off.
The pieces started to come together when we applied for the USEF Developing Athlete Program and had our evaluation in 2018 with Thorsten Zarembowicz, at that time the U.S. team coach. That evaluation showed us what we needed to do to be competitive at the Advanced level and gave us clear goals and a pathway to success.
First, we had to get Chiraz her FEI credentials and qualifications. If you’ve never had an FEI horse, it’s an exercise in putting a whole bunch of puzzle pieces together involving USEF, your vet, and your wallet. Luckily, Chiraz already had her German Pfunderpass so the process was simpler. Drivers are also lucky because we have Danielle Aamodt, our USEF Director of Driving who consistently steered us down the path to success.
Eventers know the star (*) system well but it less common in the U.S. combined driving world except on the winter circuit in Florida and other venues on the East Coast in the spring and fall seasons. For driving, the first step was to earn two 1*s which seemed an easy enough task since we only had to do dressage and cones, skipping marathon.
Our first event was at Katydid Farm in Aikin, SC where dressage went well but then of course you have to not eliminate in cones. Cones is our nemesis so the singular goal was to complete the course regardless of balls down or time penalties. Success – we finished second and had one 1* complete. Next came the CDE at Grand Oaks Resort in Weirsdale, FL in January. Again, dressage went well and cones was better than Katydid with less balls down and fewer time penalties. Second 1* achieved.
Now we had to regroup after 2 competitions with no marathon and ramp up for the next competition, unfortunately not an FEI event, but excellent practice before our first 2* event. The event went well but each phase presented a different set of problems as it became evident that my commuting back and forth had not given me enough time to practice. That’s when we made the decision to stay in FL for 3 weeks prior to our next event (Live Oak International) to basically get our act together. Staying with Chiraz at Grand Oaks gave us the perfect practice venue and allowed us to attend two USEF DAP clinics which helped immensely. Daily driving and a slew of practice with Thorsten sealed the deal and got us as ready and prepared for our two most difficult phases, the very challenging 3* dressage test and the pressure of cones.
Live Oak International is unique in that it partners international combined driving and show jumping into one event at one venue. Combined driving events are held during the morning and early afternoon and show jumping is held in the late afternoon and evening each day, Thursday – Sunday. The Weber family who own Live Oak pull out all the stops to make it one of the best combined driving events in the country. My husband, who had never attended before, thought it looked like a pro golf event with its spectacular grounds, incredible decorations, vendors village, and Budweiser Clydesdales. This year’s Live Oak event also hosted the USEF Championships for Advanced Singles Horses, Pairs, and Four-in-Hands. So not only was it my first 2* event, it was also the national championships. No pressure there!
Dressage started well but the wind started blowing 2 minutes into my test. At one point it blew my hat off, blew a flag over into the arena, and even toppled a side of the arena down. Chiraz, being the cool horse that she is, paid no attention to these distractions and mustered on. But, a little too cautious, I didn’t demand enough of her, muffed one of my one-handed movements, and finished out of the top 5.
Marathon the next day was an exercise in memorization as at Advanced you have 7 obstacles with six gates each. And worse yet, several of the obstacles were similar in style except for the advertisers’ banners. We finished 6 of the 7 obstacles as planned, just getting sidetracked in one but still managing to salvage a good finish. Going into the last day we had moved up to 4th.
Think about threading a needle and that is what cones is all about. You have to memorize a course of 20 sets of cones, drive them as fast as you can without knocking any balls off, and at Advanced you have only 7 ½ centimeters of clearance between each wheel and the cones. We plotted out a strategy, knew what time we needed to hit at different points in the course, and we practiced the trickiest parts in warm-up. And it all paid off! We ran the course with just one ball down and 1 second over the time. It was, arguably, one of the best cones runs we ever did, and we did it under pressure. Seeing Thorsten jump up and pump his fist when we crossed the finish line was icing on the cake.
Not only did we have a great cones run, we moved up to 3rd place, winning the bronze medal for the USEF championship class. For my husband Scott and I – who only wanted to not finish last – it was thrilling and we still get excited telling people about our experience.
So many people have helped us reach this goal over the course of 12 years. A big thanks to all the members of Team Chiraz (you know who you are!).
The quest though still continues. With the onset of the pandemic, so many events were canceled that we could not earn our remaining 2* qualifications so we’ll be back in FL next year to work towards the goal of making the world team. We’re proof positive that staying focused on goals and working diligently to meet them pays off immensely.