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Q&A: Leslie Berndl

From Horsetrader staff - May 15th, 2014 - Show & Event News

Combined driving star Leslie Berndl returned home to Newcastle recently after a dramatic victory with her 13-year-old KWPN gelding, Uminco, in Southern Pines, S.C., that retained her USEF Single Driving Championship. In July, she will embark on a trip to Europe that will culminate with the 2014 FEI World Championship for Single Horses in Hungary.

What was it like to win the title again?
Unbelievable. It’s been almost a month, and I have Travis’s cooler on a chair in my front room. I still walk by it sometimes and ask myself, ‘whose is that?’ I was really happy with my dressage, and I was on cloud nine after my test. Winning the championship was a dream — it’s still a bit of a dream.

How did you get into driving?
I was showing on the Quarter Horse circuit, and I began looking for something else to do. I had an appendix mare that I showed in pleasure driving on the circuit, and I took her to an open show at Cal Expo and saw all these different turn-outs and horses — and the people were so nice that it just kind of sparked my interest. I bought a Friesian that knew how to drive and showed him. I took him to my first CDE in Gilroy, and I was hooked.

What captivates you about driving?
I’ve ridden all my life and have done just about everything you can do on a horse. Driving is so challenging because you only have the aids of your voice and your whip and the reins. To me, it’s challenging to take away the aids I’ve used all my life and have the horse perform correctly as we can. It’s the challenge of not sitting on a horse, and still having a great dressage performance. And, the marathon is just an adrenalin rush.

Are you still riding?
I mostly drive, but I still ride dressage once in a while.

What type of horseperson is a good driving candidate?
Driving can be for anybody and everybody. Able-bodied. Disabled. Old. Young. As long as you love the horses. Any horseperson, no matter whether they have a disability or they’re young or old, overweight — whatever their deal is — they can still have the pleasure of working and competing with a horse. It’s neat becasue I do some teaching with disabled people, and I have one girl, a quadriplegic who used to be a show jumper, and if there wasn;t driving, she would not be able to compete on a horse any more. I think anybody and everybody that I’ve ever started driving or took for a drive just absolutely love it.

What is the most challenging element of driving at your level?
The marathon — it’s very challenging to get the horse fit enough to get through the marathon correctly, and then, of course, the marathon obstacles are all done at speed, so as fast as you can get in, get the gates done and get out. It’s most challenging because of the speed, the accuracy and also the fitness level the horse has to have.

What does it take for a person to go from riding to driving?
Usually riders get it quickly. Good lessons with a trainer who knows both disciplines helps because sometimes when you get a trainer that doesn’t ride, they cannot translate what the rider already knows into what they should be doing when they are drivng. I’ve been lucky because I ride, too, and can work the riding knowledge into the driving part.

What might inspire a driver to take the leap into competitive driving?
They just need to join the American Driving Society so they can get the rule book and know where al lthe driving shows are. Maybe take some lessons with a person who’s already driving, or just go to a driving show and hang out, look at the clothes and the different types of turn-outs that there are, and ask a bunch of questions. Driving people are very, very friendly.

What do you look for in a driving horse?
In combined drivnig at my level, soundness is important because what we do is very demanding, physically. The horse has to be a super athlete. I also look for correct movement. But probably the most important thing is the mind because the horse has to adapt to somebody not sitting on and controlling it with a rider. But the kind of horses I like are different because I am showing at the top of the sport. If you had a Shetland pony, you could show him driving — combined driving, pleasure driving. If you had a mini, you could show. If you have an Arabian or a Thoeroughbred or a backyard horse — any color or any size, there are classes for anybody. That’s one thing so inviting about driving and combined driving — you can have anything and drive and be successful. People are successful with ponies, horses, very highly bred horses like the ones I have now to backyard horses that may have been rescued.

What do you see as the future of driving?
It is really good because at a certian age, people don’t want to get back on the horse, or they can’t because of physical limitations from aging. Anybody can drive. It’s just a sport where — whether or not you’ve driven all your life — you can learn at an older age.

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