FEI Driving World Championships Singles 2022, Written by Sarah Dance
Right down to the last set of cones, all bets were on France’s Marion Vignaud and her KWPN gelding First Quality being crowned the new FEI Singles World Champions. But nothing is for sure in sport, and it was not to be for Marion as heart-breakingly the ball rolled off the final cone, so handing defending champion Saskia Siebers (NED) the gold medal.
Together with her 17-year-old KWPN gelding Axel, with whom she won the world title in Pau (FRA) in 2020, Saskia kept her nerve, and they produced a near-foot-perfect cones round, only tallying 0.03 time penalties. Sitting overnight in silver, she was the penultimate athlete to take on the challenging course, full of twists, turns and narrow pairs of blue cones. After her polished performance, all she could do was watch and wait as FEI number one ranked Marion seemed to feel the pressure and go unusually off the boil. Despite her comfortable margin of 7.67 points over Saskia, with an unassailable lead after winning both the dressage and marathon phases, Marion’s 9 cones penalties were just too expensive and cost her the title. Slipping to silver by a hair’s breadth, she was a mere 1.3 points behind Saskia’s tally of 135.16, who, although not a winner of any phase, showed consistency throughout, which coupled with her considerable experience at the top tier of the sport, ensured that she retained her World Singles title.
The bronze medal went to the equally experienced Kelly Houtappels-Bruder, competing as an individual for Canada, driving her 14 year old Oldenburg gelding Flip. Dutch based Kelly had lain second after the dressage and was one of the favourites for a podium place, as the previous world silver medallist in Pau, also with Flip. She ended the weekend on a total of 139.64, well ahead of host nation’s Claire Lefort in 4th on 145.85 and Holland’s Eline Houterman, whose 2nd placing in the marathon and zero cones score gave her a tally of 145.89, pulling her up the leader board to 5th. In the end, the top eight places went to ladies.
But justly rewarded for their strong performances across the board, the French team resoundingly won the gold by 13.1 points, pleasing the enthusiastic home crown who supported and cheered on their squad all weekend. Marion was joined by her 2020 team-mate Fabrice Martin, plus Claire Lefort. The Dutch team of Saskia, Eline and Frank van der Doelen’s remarkable rounds in the cones helped seal their silver medals, 10 points ahead of bronze placed Germany whose team was Dieter Lauterbach, Anne Unzeitig and Marie Tischer.
Interestingly, Eline’s father is FEI course designer Jeroen Houterman, who designed the FEI Driving World Cup™ course in Leipzig (GER) in April, and he will be Technical Delegate in Pratoni (ITA) next week for the World Four-in-Hand Championships.
With the stunning backdrop of France’s premier national stud, Haras National Du Pin, host to many events in its long and eventful history, 77 drivers from 19 nations arrived in Normandy in anticipation of another memorable competition. Built between 1716 and 1728, during the reign of King Louis XIV to reform and improve the royal stud farms it is often called ‘Versailles of the Horse’ and covers an area of over 1,000 hectares.
After the initial horse inspections, there were two days of Dressage on the Thursday and Friday. Using an 80m long x 40m wide arena, drivers performed the Senior Test 3* HP1 which includes collected and extended canters, and shoulder in movements. Overseen by five international judges, only Marion scored sub-40 on 39.32, with Kelly on 41.59, Fabrice Martin on 43.78 and eventual winner Saskia in 4th on 43.85. With so little between the top places, it was all to play for in Saturday’s marathon.
The approx. 15 km marathon in the park tested the skill and stamina of both the horse and driver, rewarding forward and flowing driving. The eight mobile obstacles, which included two water challenges, had solid sections making the gates which were secured to the ground for the event. Designed by Johan Jacobs (NED) they demanded accuracy and tight teamwork between the driver, back stepper and horse as the turns came on quickly. Adding to the pressure, there were a total of 129 knockdown balls on the gates, which each time they became dislodged, added another 2 penalties to the scores. From the 75 starters on the marathon, 71 successfully completed.
After another veterinary inspection, Sunday’s demanding cones phase benefited the bold horses who remained fit enough after the marathon to hold their poise while covering the ground well, and having the suppleness to quickly change direction without foregoing their balance. Some combinations further down the order found it harder to establish a rhythm with so many changes of rein and few of the early drivers were near the time, as there was no leeway and little chance between the gates to gain any valuable seconds due to all the loops and questions being asked. But those who could stick to their chosen lines and stop the balls from rolling, while maintaining their consistency of pace and impulsion, were rewarded with being on point time-wise.
Driving at this level involves close teamwork, not only from those on the carriage but from families and friends, plus trainers, Chefs, vets and the large contingents who travel with the athletes and horses. Having also been the venue for the 2021 FEI Driving World Championship for Ponies, Haras Du Pin, with its picturesque backdrops, provides the perfect setting for international driving championships for the competitors, their teams and the many spectators who came to enjoy a fantastic spectacle.