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The marathon phase of combined driving: Thrilling

By Patricia Demers / Horsetrader columnist - July 21st, 2016 - About Driving

About DrivingIn my last article, I discussed driven dressage, which is typically phase one (or day one) of combined driving events (CDEs). This is an overview of phase two (or day two) of competition: the marathon.

The origins of CDEs started in the 1970s in Europe, and Prince Phillip of England was an early supporter and competitor who helped establish the rules of the sport. It is based upon the ridden three-day eventing sport that includes dressage, cross country roads and tracks with jumps, and stadium jumping. Since jumping in carriages is greatly discouraged, instead of going over the jumps, carriages drive around the jumps, or “obstacles,” which were called “hazards” in the old days.

The three phases of CDE are driven dressage, marathon, and cones.  (You can download the rulebook at http://www.americandrivingsociety.org/).

The objective of marathon is to test the fitness, stamina and training level of the horses. The driver must show good horsemanship, driving skills and judgement of pace.  The levels are: training, preliminary, intermediate, intermediate-II, and USEF/FEI- advanced.

The course shall be between eight and 18 kilometers, depending upon the level of the competitor. Section A is the roads and tracks, typically about four kilometers long.  The course is marked with numbered gates, and each kilometer (KM) is marked for timing purposes. There is a walk section (1 KM) after section A to allow the equine’s pulse and respirations (P&Rs), to come down after exercise.  At the end of the walk section there is a vet check of a minimum of 10 minutes where the vet will approve the fitness or pull the equine before the next phase, Section B, which is obstacles.

Section B is the part that everyone enjoys most.  The object is to navigate your way through a set of marked gates in the least amount of time with no extra faults.  The driver has options of faster/tighter, or easier/slower paths. The gate markers are letters  A-E depending upon the level of the competitor.  The letters are marked in red and white to convey direction through the gates, with red on the right.  Gates are a minimum of 2.5 meters wide, and there are usually four to six obstacles in Section B.

Training level utilizes gates A-C, preliminary A-D, intermediate-advanced A -E. Time in the obstacles is assessed in penalties per second. Low penalties wins.

Depending upon the size and competition level, there are compulsory speeds that the equine must travel.  A horse in training/preliminary travels at 14 kph, or 4:17 per kilometer.  A medium pony at training/preliminary travels at 13 kph, at 4:37 minutes per KM.  In Section A, there is a maximum time, and the competitor has a two-minute window in which entries must arrive at the end with no penalties.  In Section B, the window is three minutes below the maximum time.  Penalties are assessed based upon over, or under, allowed times and course faults.  Scores are based on the lowest penalties on course.

Essential equipment has evolved. In the early days of the sport, everyone used their antique carriages.  Very quickly, a robust, specialty-driven design emerged for marathon carriages.  These have an outwardly canted wheel base, a low center of gravity, and low line of draught for stability.  Modern materials such as tubular steel, aluminum and titanium are regularly used in construction of these modern, purposefully built vehicles. One of the standout designs is the short CDE shaft which only goes forward to the girth/ harness saddle — instead of the shoulder, as in traditional vehicles, which allows the equine to turn tighter.  It also lessens the chance that the shaft tip will get caught on an obstacle gate post.

Harnesses are also specially designed with shaped, wider, padded breast collars and saddles and specialty shaft loops to accommodate the short shafts that have a closed loop, looking like the eye of a needle.  While leather is traditional, newer synthetic materials have become very popular for CDE harnesses.  They have a much higher tensile strength than leather. In training level, you don’t need a specialty carriage or harness, but as you move up in competition you’ll want to get the necessary equipment.

Any horse from mini to draft can compete.  They must be a minimum of four years old.  Horses need to be fit, accustomed to working alone, and be fairly bold and brave.  The driver should be confident in their abilities, knowledgeable about pace and fitness, and have a good memory for details.  You’ll need a “navigator” as part of your team, too, for marathon.  Their job is to help with negotiating the course, timing, and balancing the carriage at speed through the tight turns of the obstacles.  They are required as part of the whole “turnout.”

Training for the marathon starts months before competition. Long, slow, distance work is required to get your equine’s fitness and stamina up to competition levels.  Interval work of trotting and walking, increasing the distance weekly, is recommended.  Use a GPS or stopwatch to help with timing and distance training.  Start with at least 10 minutes of walking to warm up, then five minutes of trotting, then a few minutes of walking, etc., to build stamina. Increase the distance weekly, until you can easily drive 10 KM, about seven to eight miles, trotting for at least one to two miles between walking.

Your navigator should practice with you before competition.  The best way to understand how this all works is to read the rulebook, watch videos, and become a volunteer at a CDE, arena driving trial, or horse trial — the last two being  variations of CDEs. Understand that your first competition may seem daunting, confusing, and overwhelming in the details, but as you progress, it all starts to make sense and become a fun challenge to both you and your horse’s skills.  You may also be better at one or two of the phases: dressage, marathon, cones, than all three in the beginning. Drive Safely!


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