“The aim is always to keep focused and drive my own competition,” were Boyd Exell’s words of wisdom prior to the FEI Driving World Championship Four-in-Hand in Pratoni del Vivaro. In the end, the 50-year-old Australian did just that and led from start to finish to claim a historic sixth title.
It may not be an Olympic discipline, but the sport of carriage driving is every bit as challenging, competitive and exciting as eventing, showjumping and dressage. Combined driving – the carriage driver’s answer to eventing – is a particularly exciting sport that sees teams of one, two or four horses complete three phases: dressage, the cross-country “marathon” and obstacle cone driving.
Driving royalty Boyd Exell maintains that “carriage driving is the most fun you can have sitting down”. As Boyd claimed his record sixth FEI Driving World Championship Four-in-Hand title in Pratoni last month, it was evident that the 50-year-old still has a love for the sport he’s harboured since winning the Australian pairs championship at just 16 years of age. Not the dust on the marathon course nor the torrential rain during the cones phase and presentation ceremony were able to wipe the smile off his face. “My horses have earned this!” he said. “There will be a bottle or two of champagne going around tonight.”
THE DRESSAGE MASTER
It’s no secret that Boyd Exell is virtually unbeatable in the dressage phase, and in Pratoni his campaign for a sixth world title began in textbook style, posting a strong dressage score of 34.13. It’s something we’ve come to expect from the master, but that doesn’t make it any less breathtaking to watch.
If you’ve ever attended Boyd’s clinics in Australia, you’d know that his dressage lessons are not dissimilar to what you’d expect with a horse under saddle. Indeed, carriage horses are highly schooled using classical principles to perform movements that require strength and expression. “The secret really is that there is no secret, except that the horse must be truly on the bit,” Boyd told Equestrian Life at a previous clinic. “If they’re not truly on the bit then you can’t fudge anything. They have to be self-motivated, in self-carriage, in correct balance, and truly on the bit. Then you can soften and they go forward, and you can hold and they wait, and you can ask them to move sideways and they understand the pressure.” Boyd has also said that the biggest con with driving is when carriage drivers assume riding people don’t know anything to help them and vice versa. “Well actually, a horse is a horse,” ring Boyd’s words of wisdom. His Aussie teammate at the World Championships, Tor Van Den Berge, is evidence of this, being a Grand Prix dressage rider who is now a successful four-in-hand competitor.
Although Boyd was sixth in the marathon rankings at Pratoni, his score actually saw him extend his lead over his nearest rival, moving into the final day of competition six penalties ahead. The final cones phase was anything but straightforward, with torrential rain and slippery conditions making it difficult to navigate a four-horse carriage through a tight course that allows very little room for error. Boyd showed his experience and drove a steady, measured round; not the fastest, but clean and just what was required to claim individual gold. In the end, Ijsbrand Chardon of the Netherlands had to settle for another silver, 3.76 behind Boyd’s final score of 156.09.
“The pressure was also about keeping the reins dry – I had a second pair of gloves which I hadn’t thought I’d need!” said Boyd of the conditions. “Also, the horses and carriage were starting to slip in the corners. The course was a good testing course, but only in good conditions. With all the many U-turns in the wet conditions, it made it much harder. I used the information my team fed back to me about the rounds before me and I didn’t expect my horses to spook at the wooden horse in the middle, which cost me a few seconds. But overall, I tried to stay calm and not knock any balls,” he explained. In the end it was a plan executed to near-perfection despite the weather, delivering just what was required to safely claim a sixth title.
Boyd’s unbroken World Championship reign began with his first gold 12 years ago at the 2010 World Equestrian Games (WEG) in Lexington, Kentucky, and continued on to include the 2012 FEI Driving World Championship Four-in-Hand in Riesenbeck; 2014 WEG in Caen; 2016 FEI Driving World Championship Four-in-Hand in Breda; 2018 WEG in Tryon; and now the 2022 FEI Driving World Championship Four-in-Hand in Pratoni.
For Pratoni, Boyd had 10 horses nominated, and in the end his team comprised of long-time leaders Celviro (Vulcano x Waterman), a 15-year-old KWPN gelding and Checkmate, a British-bred 16-year-old gelding; Hero (Nando), a 10-year-old KWPN gelding; Ivor (Crescendo x Patijn), a 9-year-old KWPN gelding; and Daan 8, a 14-year-old Dutch-bred gelding. All are owned by Exell Holding BV, except for Daan 8, who is owned by American driver Misdee Wrigley Miller. Celviro, Checkmate, Hero and Ivor contested the dressage and cones phases, with Daan 8 swapping in place of Celviro for the marathon.
Boyd’s human team comprised of Emma Olsson (navigator), Lea Schmidlin (dressage groom), Lisa Mitchell (groom) and Hugh Scott-Barrett (backstep). Boyd has long been vocal about the fact that four-in-hand driving is every bit the team sport: “Carriage driving truly is a team sport,” he told Equestrian Life previously. “Whereas in showjumping you send the person into the arena on their own, or the eventer you send off at the start of the course and cheer them home at the finish, in driving we actually take our teammates, friends, grooms, owners with us into the arena. And that’s what makes it a little bit special, because it truly is a team sport. The team of people are as important as the team of horses, and so I think that’s the unique thing about it because you can involve sponsors, owners and people that want to be part of your journey.”
When it comes to training carriage horses, Boyd has said that it takes about four years to get a horse to a good National level and five years to get a horse to International level – that is, if you’re skilled at what you do! When asked how difficult it is to find a team that works well together, Boyd previously told Equestrian Life that it is quality leaders that are hard to come by: “It’s hard to find reliable leaders who are honest and forward. Horses at the back need to be honest, reliable powerful and hard-working – but the ones at the front that need to be brave and independent are harder to get.”
While Boyd once used to go for movement, matching and then temperament third, he has told Equestrian Life that over the years his preferences changed to value temperament, then movement and finally matching third. “I’ve realised that there are horses that I have to compensate to help them, and there’s other horses that compensate to help me. And it’s the ones that help me win or beat the other drivers, they’re the ones that carry me… that’s what I tend to buy.”
Boyd has said that “chasing the perfect team is like chasing the pot of the gold at the end of the rainbow” and can take a while, but in Pratoni, it certainly seemed he had a brilliant line-up assembled. Following his win, he told the media that one of the pressures he faces in the arena is wanting to ensure he does the horses justice: “I have the pressure of having fantastic horses and you mustn’t let them down. That’s one of the hardest things – they are 15 years old now and so experienced. The team of people around me, all the helpers, it’s about not letting them down too. Plus (fellow competitors) Koos, Bram and Ijsbrand – they add to the pressure too. So even when you have great horses, you also have to watch out for these guys. When you look back in history, other drivers have had fantastic horses, and I’ve also had them over the years. Over time, everybody has great horses. It’s nice to remember them too.”
Boyd’s attention will likely now turn to the European indoor World Cup season. A fast and furious style of competition with completely different rules to what we saw in Pratoni, there are two obstacles (the type you would see on a marathon course) combined with a cones course – and it’s a case of the fastest wins. With laser lights, music and a packed stadium, it’s a different feel and usually a completely different team of horses – often more experienced horses that can cope with the atmosphere.
Boyd is a nine-time World Cup Final winner, however, he was pipped in the 2021/22 final earlier this year by Bram Chardon of the Netherlands. As the 2022/23 season gets underway in Lyon, France at the end of this month, Boyd will no doubt be out to make a good start as drivers vie to gain points towards qualification for the World Cup Final in Bordeaux in February next year.
Having now been based in Europe for close to 30 years, Boyd always makes the effort to travel back to Australia when he has time, delivering clinics all around the country. A keen water-skier and windsurfer, he’s often said the thing that he misses about Australia are the beautiful beaches. With summer approaching, Aussie driving enthusiasts are no doubt hopeful they might see the six-time World Champion back on home soil in the not too distant future. EQ