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Champion of Champions

Earlier this year Boyd Exell won his ninth FEI World Cup Driving Championship in a row. The media described it as an easy ™ win, but behind the scenes it was a different story writes CANDIDA BAKER.

Just before the competition in Bordeaux for the World Cup Final, my daughter, Olivia, had an accident on her pony while she was jumping, Boyd is telling me on the phone from the US, where he is for a few days teaching.  Her pony fell on her, and she broke her pelvis in four places. My wife, Preetha, and I were with her, and she was taken by ambulance to the hospital. It was of course very distressing. The first day of the championship I was just slightly off, and I had to make the decision to say to my wife, and to James, my son, that I couldn’t talk to them until the championship was over. I had to be able to go into the zone ™ to win, and I couldn’t do it while I was worrying.

Win, of course, he did, adding the title to his massive swag of achievements, including his current status as five times FEI World Champion for Four-in-Hand Driving, and nine times FEI World Cup Indoor Driving Champion.

But like father, like daughter.  Only weeks after the accident eleven-year-old Olivia is actually learning to carriage drive.

The doctors were amazed by her resilience, says Boyd.  Her question wasn’t will I be able to walk again, or when will I, it was when can I ride again!

Riding, at the time of writing this article, was still a fair way off for Olivia, but when she was back home and mobile again, her father made her a special padded driving seat, and off she went.  I’m amazed at how much tenacity she has, he says.  She just wants to get better.  She drives for as many minutes as she can, then when she’s tired she asks to rest for a while.

She’s bred from tough stock on both sides of the family.  Her mother, Preetha, was a successful eventer, and is in charge of training the horses while Boyd is away competing, or teaching, and Boyd, well, the Boy from Bega ™, is quite simply the best carriage driver the world has ever seen.

Curiously, although Boyd was born with a passion for horses, it’s not a passion shared by his immediate family.  My earliest memories are walking, or driving past horses, and just gazing at them, he says.  When I was old enough all I wanted to do every birthday was go trail-riding so my family used to have to come along with me, and we’d all canter around madly.  I really don’t know where it came from.  My grandmother was from Northern Ireland, and she used to show horses, so perhaps it was from her!  When I was six I started to learn how to ride, and my brother Kent, who is one year older, he did it with me for a while, but in the end Kent became an architect, my brother Blair became an accountant, my sister Lisa is a computer programmer, and I’m the odd one out the Black Sheep of the family.

Realising the depth of her son’s passion, and to help him find an outlet for his horse enthusiasm, his mother spoke to her friend and fellow teacher, Mary Pearce, whose husband Max had horses, and on the appointed day Boyd was taken to meet him.  When we got there, they were cart horses, he laughs.  I was devastated because I wanted to do Pony Club and jumping like a normal kid but within a day I didn’t notice the carriages but just loved the horses.

Sometimes a passion and a purpose come together with full force, and with Boyd his talent for the art of carriage-driving was obvious immediately, so much so that at the tender age of 16 he won the Australian Pairs Championship.

If his mum was responsible for the introduction that led him to his sport, his parents were also accidentally responsible for Boyd’s departure from Australia.  When I turned 21 my parents offered me a party, or a ticket around the world, he said.  I chose the ticket!  I thought I would be away for a couple of months, but it turned out to be a lot longer.

A lot ™ has become a lifetime, as the young man worked his way up through the ranks in the UK, building himself a reputation as a fearsome competitor on the carriage driving circuit.

But then in 2006 disaster struck. I had a driving accident, and broke my leg in five places, Boyd said.  When I recovered I was determined to catch up on that missing year, and I became even more focused on success.

It was while he was injured that Preetha learned the art of carriage driving, so that she too could participate in what was rapidly become an international career.  So much so, that after some years in the UK, the couple moved to the Netherlands where they now live with 13-year-old James, and 11-year-old Olivia.

I’m interested, as a horse person, in what makes a horse a leader.  In the fast, intense world of carriage driving where it’s not just one horse being driven, it’s four, it strikes me that a lead horse must be a pre-requisite to success, and that it must surely have some special qualities.

A good lead horse has to be continually forward and brave, Boyd confirms.  The kind of horse you don’t need to carry a whip for if, for example, you’re lunging it.  They have to be forward, but not overly strong, they shouldn’t spook at much, and they have to be happy to be constantly on and searching for the bit.

I ask him how he can tell when he has a lead horse in the making. Only one in 20-30 horses that I train will show themselves as a leader, he says. It’s something you can see quite quickly, when they’re as young as four or five, they ™ll have those qualities about them, then it’s your job to bring them along so they can have absolute confidence in what they’re doing.  The fact is though, that to look after a leader you have to have very good wheelers at the back.  You need horses that don’t cut corners, and hold positions they can read the distance changes from the driver to the lead horses, one minute the contact will be tight, one minute loose, so the hindlegs of the wheelers have to be super good.  They need to take the carriage deep into the corner, so you need horses who are very fit, very athletic. They realise they are doing a separate job, and that job is to keep the carriage safe.  The wheelers have to be always trustworthy.

The adrenalin of watching carriage driving is something else.  From the outside it looks so fast, so potentially full of disaster, and yet Boyd somehow makes it look easy.

For me the faster I go, the calmer and quieter everything becomes, he says.  I go into the zone everything becomes stream-lined, time seems to stand still, and there’s just this sensitive communication with my animals.  I’m just at one with the horses.  I don’t even think of the opposition.

I’m sure, however, the reverse is true.  The opposition must be in awe of the man of whom TNT Magazine said in 2014:  When it comes to dominating a sport, Aussie Boyd Exell is the equivalent of Jordan, Phelps, Pele and Bolt in the world of extreme carriage driving, a discipline combining the grace and control of a royal procession with the speed, skill and courage of a wild west chase scene. ™

But it’s perhaps the at one with the horses ™, that really sets him apart.  His awareness of what his horses give him is as high as his awareness of what he must give his horses.

If I’ve been away and I ask a groom how a particular set of horses is going, and they say Good ™, I know they aren’t feeling enough down the reins or reading behaviour, because tiny problems present themselves quite quickly, he says.  Preetha is always on the look-out for something that is just tailing off, and she tells me about it straight away, so I can come back, and I know what behaviour I might expect.

In his driving life, he’s had several what he calls milestone horses ™.  There was an Irish Sport Horse called Diplomat, he really carried me through for single driving, and in the pair World Championship, and he became a leader on my first team, he says. He was a hugely talented great horse. Then for many years my secret weapon was my horse Bill.  At 22, he was still sort of the leader if I made a mistake, he would assume I didn’t mean it, and go the correct way!  Then there was Blondie, a Gelderlander, a fantastic showroom horse.  He helped me sell a Gelderlander team into the US and that’s actually the hard part of building up a business in this industry, in order to make the money you have to sell your best horses.

But the days of needing to sell his good horses on are now in the past for Boyd.  The family lives on an estate in the Netherlands, complete with indoor driving arena, and a driving track.  Everything is designed to make life streamlined for the 45 or so horses that are on the property at any one time, at various ages and stages of their professional careers, with a few beloved retirees in the paddocks as well.

I wonder if retired carriage horses are able to go on to other careers at the end of their driving lives.  Interestingly carriage horses have quite long careers, Boyd says.  It’s not unusual for good horses to compete into their late teens.  I had one horse, Lucky, who retired at 21, then became a kids ™ riding horse, and a partner break horse.  You put an older horse with a younger one to guide them and show them the ropes.  Some horses want to compete, some get to the point where they don’t want to.  Rambo helped me get a lot of medals, but I felt he wasn’t enjoying the life of being a semi-retired indoor driving horse, so I retired him to a field.

If you’ve ever thought that travelling with a string of show jumpers or dressage horses was complicated and expensive spare a thought for carriage drivers.  To become a successful four-in-hand competitor you need some special attributes, according to Boyd.

Firstly you need to buy horses very well, and you need to be able to sell them well, he explains.  If you’ve bought something that doesn’t quite suit, you need to sell it quickly.  You need to be able to train horses well, and you need to be a good competitor.  Then you need to be able to manage a team of people, your grooms and sponsors, and your administration people.  Another quality that is not obvious is that you need to be good at getting good harness trucks and equipment, and keeping your equipment in great shape.  If you are not good at one or two of those things, you need someone around you who is, because without those qualities being attended to at a high level, the horse team world would chew you up and spit you out.  When you drive a pair it might be manageable, when you drive a four-in-hand it’s not.  I remember George Bowman once said to me, Skippy, when we arrive at a showground with all your horses and the trailer, someone should give us a rosette just for getting there! ™

It’s hard to imagine the man who seems to have lost all of his Australian accent, and replaced it with a gentle, well-modulated English one, ever being called Skippy ™.  Even harder to imagine that we almost lost him to the world of eventing.

I’ve always loved jumping, he says.  I still have Quinny, my riding horse, but the thing is that I’m at home for four days, then in the US for a week, then off to the UK, then back home, and you need to be riding every day to become really good at it.  But in 2010 after I won the WEG in Kentucky I got very close to changing disciplines, but you know, I’d been in hospital quite a few times with all my injuries, and I remember I lay awake and thought about how eventing is one of those sports that if you make a mistake you are likely to really injure yourself, and I decided to stick with carriage driving.  At home, with my riding, I just enjoy doing my dressage at the moment.

Just enjoying ™ is perhaps relative, since Boyd admits that sometimes he ™ll keep going until he’s perfected what he wants.  I don’t pressure myself, it’s just that it’s automatic to get the horse going as best I can.  I won’t stop until I’ve achieved the best I can get, but the knock-on effect of that is that I can barely walk the next day! I often push my body beyond what it can do. It’s my MO, you aim to get the best performance, in that moment, the best you can do it’s automatic, it’s not even a choice.

That seriously competitive stuff aside, he says: Carriage driving is the most fun you can have sitting down!  It’s a huge team sport, and of course it’s the best equestrian spectator sport there is, because, if you think about it with eventing for example, you can only see a horse once or twice on a cross-country course, but with driving you can follow a competitor for eight obstacles.

Does it rankle him that carriage driving, made up as it is of the three phases of eventing, isn’t in the Olympics?

There’s a moment’s pause.  Definitely, he says.  It’s the missing link for us.  We need more countries to participate, and we need to modernise the format.  The FEI are doing it now instead of having to warm up in arenas for the cross-country phase, they’ve given us estates and forests in England, and in Holland bicycle paths, and opening it up to the public in Europe has been a huge hit.  At the European Championships in Gothenburg the carriage driving cross country event was in the local park and it had the highest attendance of all the disciplines.

Boyd and his family return home once a year to reconnect with his brothers, sister and parents.  This year, just before the World Championships in Bordeaux, he flew straight into the eye of the bushfire storm.

My parents house is in Bega, he says.  I was supposed to fly in to Merimbula, but I couldn’t because of the fires, so then I tried to drive down from Sydney, that was almost impossible, then just before I got there, my kids and Preetha were evacuated because they’d gone ahead of me and I stayed with my parents looking after the house.  We were just constantly filling up hoses, and preparing for the worst.  The fires came within a kilometre of the house, so we were lucky.

Always mindful that James, who is athletic, but not horsey, often has to give up time for the family horse obsession, Boyd and his wife organised an end of summer holiday, renting a yacht in the Whitsundays, so they could go snorkelling.

That was a lovely break in between everything, he says.  Looking back on it now, it was such a short time ago, but with COVID-19 now on the increase in Europe, it was an oasis between drought, bushfires, competing, Olivia’s fall, and the virus.  It was a good reminder to take time out whenever possible.

But not, I suspect, for long.

What is carriage driving?

While we may have visions of the olden days and grand royal carriages, the sport of driving is very different. Drivers sit in a lightweight vehicle that is drawn by a single horse or pony, a pair, or a team of four and face three trials dressage, marathon and obstacle driving. It’s the driven version of eventing.

Dressage phase

In carriage driving, dressage is performed within a 100 x 40 meter rectangle arena with a sequence of compulsory figures. The movements must be executed from memory and include gait and speed transitions as well as circles and halts. Each move is given a score out of ten with points deducted for incorrect moves or grooms dismounting.

Marathon phase

This is a timed run across a designated course that has natural hazards to judge the horses ™ stamina and fitness levels as well as the drivers ™ judgement of paces and control. The course has hills, sharp turns and water passages as well as halts for vet checks along the way.

Obstacle course

This course follows the marathon and is a test of skills for the driver. The horses and carriage must weave through a narrow track laid out by cones with balls balanced on top. The horses and carriage are not to touch the cones or drop the balls else penalties will occur.

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