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By Anne Doolin
The world’s top equestrians will assemble in London this summer for the Olympic Games, but other disciplines will have their world championships in different venues.
Among those are the 2012 Singles World Driving Championships, to be held in Lezirias, Portugal from September 12 through 16.
Central Kentucky is home to one of the highest-ranked competitors, Sterling Graburn, and his equine partner Ulano. Graburn is the trainer for the Gayla Driving Center in Georgetown.
The pair won the Southern Pines Combined Driving Event in April. It was Graburn’s Second USEF National Single Horse Championship title and puts him firmly in at the head of the class to make the team representing the United States in Portugal.
The native of Pennsylvania grew up in the horse industry. “My [late] mom Sally ran the Radnor Hunt Club,” he said. “I grew up in the business — did Pony Club, three-day eventing, and started combined driving when I was 15 or 16. Originally, my goal was to be an Olympic caliber three-day eventer, but once I started driving, that became my passion.”
It was a logical progression since combined driving is modeled after traditional three-day eventing. The first phase is dressage, the second the marathon (equivalent to the cross-country phase in eventing), and the third is a course of cones with small balls perched on top that the teams have to maneuver through. The phases are scored like mounted eventing, with a penalties for both time overages and knocked-over obstacles.
The most difficult phase of three depends on the horse, Graburn said. “The marathon is of course the most strenuous, but my last horse’s weakness was cones. This horse [Ulano] has won every dressage phase in every show we’ve gone to. He’s really come along in the others, and is now a very well-rounded horse.”
The marathon, contested over and around obstacles at a gallop, is the one spectators really enjoy. “At times, you only have a couple of inches clearance on either side,” said Graburn. “You have to trust your horse and navigator. The public really seem sto like the NASCAR aspect of it!”
The sport is relatively young. In 1970, His Royal Highness Prince Philip established the first set of international rules. “Prince Philip and his cronies were watching their kids eventing,”said Grayburn, “And they said, ‘hey, why can’t we do this, but with a carriage?’”
There are several divisions – singles, pairs, four-in-hand, and ponies, which also compete in all three divisions. The sport falls under the mantle of the United States Equestrian Federation, which is headquartered at the Kentucky Horse Park.
Internationally, it is governed by the Federation Equestre Internationale [FEI] based in Switzerland.
Graburn’s first trip abroad was in 1984, when he was the groom/navigator [riding in the rear seat of the carriage] for a four-in-hand competition in Hungary. He also competed overseas is 2004, 2005 and 2006.
“The navigator is equally as important as the driver,” said Graburn. “I tell my students navigating is a good way to really get a feel for the sport. It’s very much a team thing and communication is vital. Lindsey Nevitt, a former student, is my navigator, and I’ve navigated for her as well. It’s always a bonus to have a navigator that’s a horse person and one who also drives.”
Ulano, an 11-year-old Dutch harness horse, was bred in Holland and imported in utero, Graburn said. “The Amish had him for a while, then some Australians had him. Larry Denny of Lebanon, Ohio bought him, and he was the lead horse in the 2010 WEG [World Equestrian Games held at the Kentucky Horse Park] four-in-hand team. Gavin Robson drove that team for Australia.”
Graburn, who moved to Kentucky in 2010, started training Ulano last September. The strapping chestnut made the transition from a team to a single competitor very well. “Every once in a while he’ll look around for the rest of the team,” Graburn said. They competed as a team last fall just a few weeks after the horse ended up in his care.
“We won the dressage phase, and ended sixth overall,” he said. “In Florida this year, in our first competition he again won the dressage, and we were third overall. The ne t competition, we ended up second, losing by just .012 penalty points. That’s about as close as you can get to winning without actually doing so!”
Gayla Driving Center, a720-acre facility on Cynthia Road in Georgetown, offers driving lessons, breaking and training, and training for competition horses. The facility is owned by Gail B. Austin.
Some of the funding for the overseas competitions comes from the USEF, Graburn said, but competitors have to raise the balance. To that end, there will be a fund-raiser at Gayla tonight (June 22) from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. The event, presented by Team Sterling, will feature a buffet barbeque by Fat Boys of Georgetown, entertainment by Blue Grass stars Delaney Ferry, and a silent auction of select items. In additional there will be several live horse demonstrations highlighted by FEI Reiner Lyndsey Jordan, FEI Dressage rider Nikki Levy, and Graburn.
Guests will also enjoy lawn games, horse-drawn carriage rides, and door prizes. Some seating is available but guests are encouraged to bring blankets or lawn chairs. Ticketsare $25 at the door, but advance registration is encouraged. To reserve them
Or for further info, call 605-366-1831 or email info@TeamSterlingDriving.com. The address for the fundraiser is the Gayle Driving Center, 3329 Cynthiana Road, Georgetown, KY [3.7 miles east of Toyota on Highway 62].
Graburn and other competitors will be going overseas prior to the championships to compete in Holland .In addition to Graburn, Katie Whaley will compete in the four-in-hand pony division, and Misdee Wrigley in the horse pairs category. Both drivers are from Paris, Ky.