Driven to Distraction
by Catherine Macaulay
I faced Obstacle Two white-knuckling the handle bar on the back of the carriage, glancing down at the words inked onto the palm of my hand—“Stay right of A!”
Smeared by the steadily falling rains, my handy CliffsNotes were barely legible as I went charging across the countryside Ben Hur style during the marathon portion of the Carolina Driving Trials being held at FENCE, in Tryon, North Carolina.
I had studied for this day like a college student cramming for finals, knowing that it would fall to me to help driver Pat Belski of Aberdeen, NC, navigate all three phases of the carriage driving competition, which included dressage, cones obstacles and the marathon. Now, in the latter event, we were holding to a course marked by yellow and black directional arrows, blowing past 21 compulsory turning flags at a rate of one hazard per kilometer.
“Are we on course?” asked Pat, urging her matched pair of ponies up the hillside toward the second obstacle.
“You bet!” I replied, not having a clue, this being my first catch ride as a ‘gator’, which is short for ‘navigator’, which is just another way of saying ‘death wish.’
“What’s our time?” she asked.
I loosened my grip from around the handle bar just long enough to glance at the stopwatch bouncing about my neck, raindrops splattering my face. “Two minutes, twenty-four seconds,” I replied, desperately trying to navigate my way around the barrage of information being hurled at my brain.
We crested the top of the hill amid punishing hoofbeats, then wheeled sharply left, followed by an abrupt turn right as Pat negotiated the fastest way through the obstacle—a labyrinth of wooden posts constructed into a single, oversized, Rubik’s Cube from which there seemed no easy way out.
Straddling the back of the carriage, I leaned my weight to the inside of the corner, offering my body as ballast to the opposing, centrifugal forces threatening to send us wheeling off into the sky, employing the whole of my body to stick the turn lest I violate Rule Number One of navigating, namely: Be sure the carriage doesn’t roll over.
“You have to work the carriage from behind,” remarked Madeleine Miner, wife of DeWitt Miner III, one of the founding members of the Carolina Carriage Club, and herself a longtime navigator. “You have to be on the ball.”
…lest you get bounced off the back like one.
A rear wheel clipped the post as we rounded the turn, dislodging me momentarily from my stance. But the ponies went charging forward with barely a break in stride and we emerged from the hazard posting a solid time, leaving us free to back off the pace on our way down the hill, which, from the back of a galloping horse, or, ponies, as was the case here, seemed to fall off rather sharply.
“How’s our time?” asked Pat, seated before me, the reins steady in her hands.
Gripping the bar with my left hand, I checked my stopwatch. “One minute, forty-five,” I replied, still pretending I actually had a clue to what I was doing.
Time…always the time. Didn’t she know I was struggling to hang on here? What had ever possessed me to volunteer for this post, anyway? I already knew the score from veteran navigator Tom Bowers, who’d given me the real job description of what a navigator does during the clinic he’d staged earlier for others as foolish as myself.
“We ‘gators stand on to the back of the carriage and try not to get knocked off,” he’d announced, a broad grin across his face. As if to prove his point, he hopped onto the back of the carriage and began working the running board against a slew of imaginary hazards, contorting his body into positions I wouldn’t have tried twenty years ago.
“This is how the Eastern Europeans do it,” he said, literally hanging off the side of the rig by one arm in order to steady the rig through a make believe turn.
Good to know.
But there was more. A good navigator was expected to arrive at a carriage driving competition Boy Scout prepared. That meant carrying a Swiss Army knife in the off chance any rigging had to be cut from a horse, and making sure there were spare parts aboard the carriage in case something unexpectedly fell off, and never be without a wrench in the event the brakes locked up. Oh, and don’t forget bailing twine in case some quick fastening was needed—that, and a couple sticks of chewing gum.
Part traveling mechanic, part rubber ball, I was beginning to wish I’d signed on for one of the other spots available to volunteers: cone setter, hazard timer, course observer, warm-up steward, scribe, score runner, their retinue of clipboards, stopwatches and two-way radios making the week-end’s event, possible.
The rain singlehandedly made it something of a challenge.
I’d already been driven to distraction during the dressage part of the driving competition after a sudden cloudburst began pummeling the roof of the covered arena just as we were crossing the diagonal. Finding the air throbbing with an intimidating percussion of rain upon metal, it looked as though one of Pat’s ponies might launch into an unscripted performance of airs above the ground and I into a wholesale disobedience of Rule Number Two: Keep a Level Head.
But, somewhere in that voice and reins, the mare found a confidence and obediently moved on, the pair completing the dressage test with a synchronized cadence and rhythm that carried them through the figures, both balanced and moving from behind, accurately transitioning between the gaits.
And then, it was on to the second phase of the competition, the cone driving phase where presently, a silver-haired lady was wheeling her buggy around the course as though she were a born-again Barbara Stanwick packing side shooters, her wide-brimmed hat festooned with ribbons that seemed to be flying sideways through the force of her own momentum. We waited our turn in the warm-up arena, Pat impeccably turned out in ladylike attire while I was dressed in the more, male-oriented uniform of blazer, khakis, paddock boots, hunt cap and brown gloves, feeling wholly miscast and completely inept in the part.
Like she had done earlier, she drove her pair around the course with a pedigreed precision, navigating between the cones, managing to accumulate few penalty faults despite my efforts, as I was still struggling to hang on. But then, a competitor this good wasn’t likely to depend on some newbie ‘gator to help her win, Pat having already developed her strategies for success following her diagnosis of Post Polio Syndrome, a degenerative condition that affects polio survivors.
Finding herself at a crossroad, the plucky 66-year-old pragmatist from Aberdeen sold off much of her blue chip bloodstock, knowing that the Warmbloods she and her husband had bred for years at their Ashemont Farm would ultimately become too much for her to handle.
Carriage driving would now take her where she wanted to go. It seemed to make sense. So did plunking down $600 to rescue a skinny, little 12.2-hand pony named Maggie, who came with a harness and pipe cart—the deal of a lifetime, it turns out, for both.
So began their journey across the backcountry, the two of them finding their way, preparing for a new life. Before long, Maggie had herself a running mate, a mirror image of her equine, ebony self. Side by side, Pat started building up their strength and developing their skills as a team, driving her ponies 10k a day, working them through simple courses before aiming for an ever-higher flag, an old discipline and determination kicking in. She began training with six-time national, four-in-hand champion Bill Long of Southern Pines, the first American ever to win the prestigious Royal Windsor Grand Prix Driving Championship in England, in l985. From his doorstep, Pat Belski never looked back.
Now, here she was at FENCE, flying over the valleys and rain soaked hills, still on course and holding to the allotted time. “We’re doing okay, she hollered to me, “we’ve got three minutes on Section E.”
“Terrific!” I shouted, grateful that she’d finally stopped asking me if we were still on track as I’d long ago broken the third rule of navigating: Learn the Hazards, despite having walked the course with Pat earlier.
The pressure off, I began to relax and have fun, leaning my weight enthusiastically into every turn, all apprehensions vanquished by the sheer thrill of a ride that was more exciting than a roller coaster, more fun than bumper cars, both of us accelerating and decelerating, abruptly shifting right, then left, the ponies taking Pat’s cues effortlessly as they went running the hills, charging across soggy terrain, racing down along woodland trails, their fitness and stamina fully up to the test.
A glorious wall of water sprayed up alongside the carriage as the ponies negotiated the water element, their full-out effort drenching Pat and I completely, putting smiles on both our faces as we went bumping and bouncing down river. Without a doubt, I was along for the ride. But, what a ride this was turning into. This was classic amusement.
The final portion of the competition finally over, I stood holding the ponies for the vet check, still wearing a smile. In a field of 38 competitors, Pat had managed to place first in the Preliminary Pony Pair Division and had won Best Marathon overall despite my having broken all three cardinal sins of navigating.
Back at the trailer, I toweled the rain off my face, comprehending at last, why it was that carriage driving still endures as the oldest, competitive equestrian sport in the world.
In hindsight, perhaps Madeline Miner put it best.
“It’s just fun, pure pleasure.”