You know that horse and carriage you see regularly in Cookham village? Take just a little time to read this...

We’ve all been there I suspect, “stuck” behind the pair of horses and a carriage that can be seen regularly in Cookham.  Might be quite annoying?  Slows your journey slightly?  Possibly calls for a difficult overtaking manoeuvre on the narrow roads – pass wide and slow and all that irritation?  So those horses come from The Forge in Cookham Dean and what you may not realise, is that they compete internationally, and at the highest level in this sport.

The Forge in Cookham Dean is thought to have been in existence for 400 years and David Matthews (Junior) is currently on the reins of both the farrier business and the aforementioned pair.  As a member of the British Advanced Horse Pairs Carriage Driving Team, David and a second driver recently set out for the 3,700 KM round trip to the Lipica Stud Farm in Slovenia, home to the world famous grey Lipizzana horses and host of the FEI World Driving Championships for Pairs between 20th – 24th September.  Team GB competed with 80 others, from 20 countries for the title of World Champion.

If you have ever watched any equestrian eventing, the carriage driving competition is not a million miles away.  Teams have to compete three disciplines – dressage, marathon and cones:
  • You may recall the “dancing horses” from the ‘Lympics in London, and the dressage in carriage driving is similar, in that it is held in an arena with a series of pre-set movements being judged, not just on the execution, but also the performance of both the pair as a team and the horses with the driver.  
  • The marathon section is akin to the cross country stage.  With an optimum time, it is divided into three stages, including the hugely exciting obstacle section.  Eight fixed challenges approached at speed, with specific doors for entry and exit, but with more than one route through.  As with ridden cross country, the shortest route is the most technically difficult and therefore potentially the riskiest.  
  • The last section is back in the arena to navigate another timed, fixed course that is all about accuracy, with routes barely wider than the carriage and penalty points for knocking a water filled ball off the cone.  
The sport is highly regulated from a welfare perspective.  The horses are all vetted 48 hours before they leave their home countries to make sure they are fit to travel, and then again when they arrive. During all three disciplines they are vet monitored, assessed for ongoing fitness and are withdrawn if they do not pass - this includes having their heart rates monitored at "The Halt", compulsory before the demanding obstacles section.   
So this is what was ahead when on the 15th September, David and team set off from Cookham, heading to the ferry at Dover and on to Slovenia via Frankfurt.

We all know “there is no I in team” but of all sports, I believe this is never more proven than in the equestrian events.  Setting aside the village of grooms, farriers, dentists, saddlers, trainers, vets etc. required to keep horses on the road (at any level, let alone competitive world class standards), the equestrian disciplines require a further critical partnership that few other sports demand.  And in the case of this event, it’s an even more complex three way relationship - driver to horse(s) and horse to horse.  Consider then the achievement when you learn that after 4 days' worth of intense competition – through torrential thunder storms that stopped play and made conditions challenging - team GB came in 6th place.  In fact, missing 5th by only the tiniest of margins.  And David was placed 12th individually.  In the world.  The 12th best carriage driver in the world.  Lives in our village.  Oh and did I mention that he won Team Gold at Pratoni in Italy in 2006 driving a single horse?

So next time you see that carriage and pair (and it will be either Vince, Zorro or Tel - who is the chestnut), and you pass wide and slow, wave and wear your very best Proud Face.  Know that you are looking at one of this country’s - arguably the world's - finest carriage drivers.

Follow the British Pairs Driving Teams and see lots more photographs here.

David Matthews in the obstacle section of the marathon FEI World Driving for Pairs Championships 2017


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