Putting horse before cart

Dressage: The horse must walk, trot and canter in a precise pattern, following cues from the driver, while avoiding obstacles and making tight turns.

Howard At Play

July 21, 2002|By Nancy Menefee Jackson | Nancy Menefee Jackson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Kathleen `Kate' Farris urges her horse Image through the streets of her Glenelg neighborhood.

He briefly startles at a bunch of pink balloons tied to a mailbox, but the movement barely disrupts the little Morgan's trot as he pulls Farris in a two-wheel cart.

At stop signs, Image halts perfectly - vital obedience, because creeping or jigging forward could mean being struck by a car.

It's all part of training for combined driving events, an equine sport that Kate Farris - and Image - love.

On grass alongside Triadelphia Road, the training continues. Image rolls along and squeezes between a hedge and a phone pole; with mere inches to spare on the outside of each wheel, he never wavers.

In a cul-de-sac, he shows how he can bend his body, with gentle cues from rein and whip, to align the wheels of the cart to follow him in the most efficient manner.

Next comes a bit of a gallop uphill, with the cart speeding behind, and then a visit to some shrubs near a school driveway that provide an irresistible course for Image to weave in and out of at a canter.

The bay then trots home, passing the balloons without a glance.

Farris, a lieutenant commander in the Navy who speaks German, Russian and Chinese and is an expert in affairs in China as well as the former Soviet Union, learned to drive horses as a child in New Hampshire.

"It's such long winters that it's hard to ride," she said.

"So you learn to drive a sleigh. And it's easier to drive young horses than to ride them - there's no weight on their backs, no stresses on young joints," she said.

Farris, 42, also competes in three-day events riding the horse.

In fact, she acquired Image in hope of showing him in dressage, a type of competition in which horse and rider must perform to specific standards of conduct.

But Image, now 17 and sometimes winner at combined driving events, left no doubt, starting at age 2, that he preferred being driven to being ridden.

"If you really want to be competitive, your horse has to love what he does," Farris said.

A combined driving event takes place over three days.

On one day, horses compete in driven dressage, meaning the horse must walk, trot and canter in a precise pattern, following cues from the driver.

"Like ridden dressage, it's the foundation of all proper driving work," Farris said.

The second day is the marathon phase, during which horses travel 12- to 15-kilometer distances that are studded with obstacles and split into four sections, maneuvering through each section while being timed.

Between the sections, horse and cart have two minutes to get to the start of the next segment. A groom stands on the back of the gig or carriage, to monitor the times.

"If you come in early, you've pushed your horse too hard, and they'll penalize you," Farris said, "but without an energetic trot, the time will be too slow."

Red flags mark the areas where horse and driver can go as fast as they want. The course includes obstacles built of timber that the horses must weave through, and water hazards such as ponds to drive through.

A driver must gallop the horse between obstacles and then rein-in the horse to make a tight turn.

"That was a problem with Image," Farris said. "He got so revved up, it was hard to get him back."

The obstacles often include choices: A driver can opt for a tighter turn to save time or a slower, easier route. And as a driver makes these split-second choices, they have a dancing horse in front of them.

"You're sitting on a keg of dynamite," said Farris. "The horses know it - they know the flags; they sense the anticipation and the excitement. They're chomping at the bit."

The skilled drivers know just how fast they can go without risking an accident.

"You want to find out where that edge is with you and your horse," Farris said.

In the third phase of the competition, drivers send their horses through a narrow course lined by traffic cones topped with tennis balls; they lose points for every ball knocked down.

The cones are set just 12 to 15 centimeters wider than the wheel base of the cart.

"The third day is the test of a horse's willingness to submit to the driver," Farris said.

Locally, events are held at Fair Hill in Cecil County. In spring, summer and fall, Farris travels throughout the mid-Atlantic and New England to compete.

Her next event will be Sept. 9 in Unionville, Pa.

At home on her Glenelg farm, Farris breeds Morgans and teaches driving lessons. She wants to educate car drivers that horses have the right of way on the road.

Her farm is named Ensign's Grace, honoring Ensign, the first Morgan she owned as a child, and Grace, her grandmother who raised her and bought Image for her.

Her stallion, Statesman's Eclipse, is bred from a line of Morgans in Baltimore County; She has three pregnant mares and is hoping the offspring will give her another talented horse for competition.

"We've had such fun over the years," she said.

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