Last year, by permission of Lord and Lady Allendale, a regional carriage driving event took place in Bywell for the first time in the estate’s history. Hosting the Championships for the Halspan Points League – a competition open to drivers at selected events held in the North – the Bywell trials were also the final qualifier for the National Carriage Driving Championships, and their success with both competitors and spectators alike helped introduce the sport into Northumberland’s thriving equestrian scene.
Now with a firm footing in the region, the Northumberland trials are set to be bigger and better this year by hosting the National Carriage Driving Championships themselves for both able-bodied and para-equestrian drivers. A first for the North East, the furthest north the National Championships have ever ventured was Harrogate during the 1980s, and the Para Driving Championships have only ever been hosted in venues in the south of the UK. The trials in Bywell this year will also be the first time that the two Championships have ever been held simultaneously, all as part of the same event. Open only to competitors who have already qualified at various other competitions throughout the season, both sets of National Championships will determine which drivers will go on to represent Team GB on the international stage in the World Championships.
‘Hosting the National Carriage Driving Championships is a huge coup for the event in Bywell, and for the North East,’ says Patti Atkinson, former Team GB carriage driver and organiser of the Bywell trials. ‘It’s wonderful for the competitors to be able to visit a more northern venue, because the Championships are nearly always held down south, and to be able to show more people in the region just how inclusive a sport Carriage Driving can be.’
Unique in the sporting world, carriage driving is the only equestrian discipline (and one of the only sports) where competitors can challenge one another on an equal footing, regardless of age, gender or background. Fast moving, mud flicking, water splashing and ground shaking, carriage driving already has a dedicated following of riders and spectators of all ages across the country, and is certainly growing in popularity here in the North East.
A triathlon for horses and ponies, competitive horse driving trials consist of three very different phases. First, Dressage: a sequence of set movements, driven from memory, to show off the schooling and obedience of the horses. Then comes the Cone Driving, where the objective is to drive (in a set time) through narrow pairs of cones with balls balanced on the top of them – drivers are penalised for any balls they knock off as they go round the course – to test the skill and competence of the driver and the suppleness of the horse. Most trials will then end with the Marathon, where competitors drive three timed sections of a cross-country course, which includes obstacles to be negotiated at speed. The objective of the trials is to get a thorough assessment of the overall versatility of each animal in harness.
Since 1998, when the first World Championships for drivers with disabilities was held in Germany, the sport, competition and training programs for those involved in para driving has developed immeasurably and now, 20 years on, it is a common sight to see Britain’s para driving athletes competing on the national circuit alongside able-bodied competitors. It’s a huge recognition of this development, then, that in the 10th year of the National Para Driving Championships they will be included as part of British Carriage Driving’s National Championships – and the fact that Bywell is the venue for this milestone in the sport’s history is hugely important its future in the North East.
‘There are a number of competitors who got into Para Driving through Driving For The Disabled, which is a fantastic organisation that is part of Riding For The Disabled,’ Patti explains. ‘But they just needed a bit more of a challenge than the organisation could provide; the main difference is that with Driving For The Disabled there is always a second driver and a second set of reins, so competitors have got additional support and protection, whereas for para driving there is only one set of reins and only that one competitor drives the horse. So it’s empowering.
‘The two Championships will be almost exactly the same as each other at Bywell – most of the para drivers compete in able-bodied classes at various competitions during the season and, in fact, the majority of them will have qualified for the British Carriage Driving National Championships themselves. It’s important to be able to show people in the region just how inclusive a sport Carriage Driving can be, especially as the Para Driving Championships have never been held in the North before. We’re hoping it will continue to reach a wider audience and inspire the next generation of drivers.’
Born in Sunderland, Patti has lived in the North East all her life and is now settled near Durham. She and her husband Keith have been hooked on the sport since the 1980s and have a wealth of carriage driving experience between them – having driven single and pairs at national level, before competing in the World Championships in 2014 with their last horse, Vicktor. Now they spend every weekend in the summer at equestrian events throughout the UK, stewarding at all the national carriage driving events and judging at club level in between. It hardly seems surprising, then, that Patti was approached by British Carriage Driving to organise Northumberland’s inaugural competition last year, and she now seems excited at the prospect of welcoming even more visitors and competitors to the event for the prestigious National Championships.
‘We only got good reports from the event last year, which is brilliant,’ smiles Patti. ‘Bywell is a perfect venue – it’s got plenty of flat land for the dressage and the cones arenas, and then it’s got a beautiful cross-country field which has got plenty of challenges for the marathon. And the estate just couldn’t be more welcoming – Lord and Lady Allendale are very supportive of the event. For the Championships this year, we’ve built another obstacle, so we now have eight, and we also have two dressage arenas instead of just one, because there are more competitors. We’re also over three and a half days instead of being on for just two, so there is a lot more infrastructure required.’
Still undecided as to whether you’ll head along to the trials this summer? Patti’s sure she can twist your arm.
‘Carriage driving is exciting, it’s skilful, it’s quite a spectacle,’ she says. ‘There’s everything from elegance and accuracy to speed and adrenaline – it’s a completely unique sport. You get a lot of people that watch three-day ridden eventing, so anybody interested in that would also love carriage driving. But the skill is amazing. You watch some of the four-in-hand-drivers, in particular, negotiating the obstacles and it’s just incredible to watch.’
Bywell Horse Driving Trials will take place from 30th August to 1st September at Bywell Estate, Northumberland. For more information, visit: www.britishcarriagedriving.co.uk