Friday, December 31, 2010

Winding Down But One More Year

Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, driving a four-in-hand of Cleveland Bays in a dressage test at Windsor Castle in May, 1980 (Photograph by Anne Wakefield-Leck)

No complex resolutions this year, but a few straight-forward ones!
by Charlie Leck

I'm keeping my new year's resolution simple this year and pretty straight-forward and realistic.

First, I’m going to be steadfast about working out all through the coming year. I’ve been working out three times a week with a personal trainer on cardio, weight-lifting and stretching exercises. It’s done wonders for me. I’m going to keep it up!

Second, I’m going to get those hundreds and hundreds of slides in that storage closet in the basement converted to digital photographs and put on disks so the kids can each have them if they want.

Third, I’m going to finish writing a book that I’ve farted around with for the last 5 years. It won't be published, but I’ll know I wrote it as I want it to be written.

I’ve started on the 35mm slide conversion project already. That’s where that photo of me in Calais came from on my blog a couple of days ago (Waiting in Calais). This project deals with photographs from about 30 to 35 years ago and it certainly brings back memories. I won’t over-burden you with presentations of these old photographs, but you’ll occasionally need to reminisce with me here about a few of them.

Anne went on a trip as a spectator in 1980 to the Royal Windsor Horse Show in England. I can tell by the number of photographs she took of Prince Philip that she was infatuated with him, his horses and his driving. The Prince, along with Philip Hoffman of the United States, basically invented the horse-sport of combined driving. I thought the world of Mr. Hoffman and cherish yet the memories I have of my few encounters and drives with him (but that is a story for another day).

My point here is that this trip my wife took to England back then basically changed our lives and, as a result, took us to many incredible places to meet some of the most wonderful people we’ve ever known.

Combined driving is a three day driving event that examines the coordinated skills of driver and horses in three very different tests. It begins with each driver performing a dressage test. The competitors are grouped in single, pair and four-in-hand entries. The dressage portion of the competition is very demanding and requires hours upon hours of drilling and training of both the driver and the horses. I began dabbling (and that is all) in this sport after my wife came home with her exciting photographs. I was never patient enough to spend the required hours learning to be successful at a dressage test. I entered events for the thrill of the second day of the competition. At that I was willing to spend some time practicing.

The cross-country marathon event includes the maneuvering into, through and out of a set of obstacles or hazards on a drive of some distance over a set course through the open countryside. It’s really exciting and fun. Here you can see a four of well trained horses entering one of the obstacles that happens to include water. You can see the marathon vehicle tilting on the side of the bank as they enter, and notice that the driver and his grooms all lean (spike) to the high side to keep the carriage from tilting. On this course the driver and horses will encounter five or six obstacles of varying types and levels of difficulty. Scoring is done by keeping time on each team while it is in those hazards. Outside the hazards, and over the long course, there are sections that must be driven at a walk only and others at a trot. Inside the hazards the driver and horses may go at any speed or gait they wish.

To the left is a photograph of the Swiss team driving through the same water hazard. Notice the gentleman to the left of the driver. He's a referee and it's his job to make sure no violations of the rules occur during the long drive over the cross country course, either while inside the hazards or outside them. I won't go into that long list of rules for you here because I think I might be pushing you all quickly toward the breaking point. The Swiss, Dutch, Germans, Poles and Swedes really have this sport down and always excel at it.

Unquestionably, driving these courses was one of the most exciting and enjoyable sporting adventures in which I ever participated; however, over time, we came to realize how exceptionally hard the sport was on our horses, both in terms of injuring them physically but also in sometimes ruining them mentally. It became an easy decision, once we realized this, to give up participating.

Now, top competitors at the highest levels often go through quite a few horses in the course of a season in trying to keep a single group of four together.

Our steel marathon carriages, or cross-country vehicles, sit now unused and I am no longer such an ardent admirer of the sport. It’s gotten so much more demanding than it was back when Prince Philip and Mr. Hoffman drew up the rules and procedures. I do, however, enjoy watching the dressage competitions on the first day and the stadium or "cones driving" that takes place on the third day of the event. The photo to the left shows one of the competitors driving “the cones” on the third day of the driving competition (that’s Windsor Castle in the background). It's a skill I never had the patience to develop. It takes soft, but strong hands and a great deal of calmness on the part of both the horses and the driver. It's one of the amazing things about the sport that the same horses must come back and do this very delicate bit of driving a day after being driven so wildly over the cross-country course.

Windsor is an extraordinary show and happening and, after Anne brought the photographs home in 1980, I was motivated to join her on a couple of other trips across the pond to see the big show. Great fun!

There are many wonderful exhibits to watch in addition to the four-in-hand driving. The draft horses in the United Kingdom are deeply loved and big crowds gather to watch them perform (as these two big fellows are as they pull a "trade wagon") in an arena in Windsor Park. Spend a week at this fantastic horse show and you'll see ponies of every sort, jumping and hunting horses, trotters pulling sulkies and road carts and, of course, the Queen's incredible Horse Guard (below/left) that always completely wows the crowds.

The Royal Windsor Horse Show is a national treasure in England. The crowds are amazing. There are dozens and dozens of shopping stands and many pavilions for dining. The Queen is easily spotted scurrying about from place to place. She's a real horse-lover and she wants to see as much as she possibly can. She's not surrounded by guards and she can be seen driving her own Land Rover from one part of the grounds to another and sometimes her Corgis are tagging along with her. I do believe that the week of the show is a great week for her.

Now all of this has come about because of a lovely gift that I found under the tree on Christmas morning. My wife gave me a powerful slide-scanner by the German company, SilverFast. It's a beauty and it's helping me move all these photos (gathered over many years) from slides to digital format. It will certainly help me keep one of my three resolutions for 2011.

And, oh yes, how could I forget? There are also donkey or jackass classes to be taken in at Windsor. Three or four arenas have events going on constantly throughout the day. In the evening there are musical shows put on in the main arena and they usually have a horse theme to them. And, they usually conclude with fireworks.

Well, this was certainly a blog of a different sort (as in "horse of a different color") and I apologize to those of you who were bored stiff. To you, and to everyone, I present my wishes that you have a very happy, happy new year.


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