7 June 2002

HERES REAL HORSEPOWER

Carriage driving can be fast

and furious, as Jeremy Hunt

finds out when hes taken on a

white-knuckle test-drive

TWO sets of twitching grey ears pick up Lesley Coxs high-pitched command and from a leisurely trot we suddenly burst into a flat-out gallop. Trying hard to keep my balance as I stand on the platform at the back of the carriage I grip the side rails tightly as we circuit the paddock on a white-knuckle "test drive".

Anyone who thinks carriage driving is an equestrian discipline designed for the middle-aged – forget it. This is driving trials – and youd go along way to get more of a buzz from a horse sport.

But as Lesley beams with pride after showing just what a turn of speed her two grey ponies are capable of she knows that her recent major win at the national indoor carriage driving trials championships is even more remarkable.

In between the shafts are two Eriskay ponies and they belong to Britains most endangered equine breed which registered just 37 foals last year.

A riding-instigated back problem led Lesley to take up driving trials 10 years ago. She still has the original "spotted" pony that she began with – now 25-years-old – but the new kids on the block are the Eriskay pony cousins Oss and Luath.

"I needed a new pony, saw an advert for Ersikay ponies and decided to find out more about them.

&#42 Best decision

"But I have to admit as soon as I saw Osss head hanging over the stable door I was hooked. It turned out to be one of the best decisions Ive ever made," says Lesley.

When the breed was most at risk there were just 12 mares left on the island of Eriskay. There are still only around 300 Eriskay ponies worldwide but several UK mainland breeders are now supporting this very sociable and often rather "cheeky" mountain and moorland breed.

But for Lesley its the breeds driving ability, agility and intelligence that she finds invaluable for competition work.

The ponies compete in tandem classes and are involved almost every weekend in competitions all over the UK. Lesley works full-time so, with the help of partner Andrew Goodden, the day starts at 5am on her yard at Middlewich, Cheshire. The ponies are turned out during the day and schooled in the evening.

"They are wonderful ponies to work with. They stand about 13.2hh but they are very strong and powerful for their height. They love people – in fact they sometimes think they are human!

"They want to be with you all the time. If you think of them as mischievous little school boys in short pants you wont go far wrong with an Eriskay.

"Some people have trouble catching their pony. With an Eriskay thats never a problem – youre mugged in the nicest possible way every time you go into their field," jokes Lesley.

On the island of Eriskay – where there are currently around 18 ponies – they were traditionally handled by the women and children of the crofting communities while the menfolk were away fishing.

"They lived close to the families who owned them and thats why they just love to be with people. The ponies worked hard and would carry two heavy panniers as well as a man on his way home after a days work collecting seaweed and peat."

Andrew Gooden weighs around 13 stone and says an Eriskay can comfortably carry him for several hours.

Driving trials are becoming hugely popular throughout the UK. "Its a wonderful sport with some really great people involved. Theres no prize money, we all do it because we love it," says Lesley.

&#42 Not expensive

It isnt an expensive sport. A driving pony can often be bought for a few hundred £s and a carriage and harness from around £800 to £1000. But competition entries are not cheap at £120-£160.

The national competitions are a similar format to a three-day event – dressage, marathon and the show-jumping phase replaced by a driving course of cones against the clock. Lesleys recent national victory set her against six of the UKs top driving teams. She and Andrew had won all five of their qualifying regional heats.

In some parts of the UK driving trials have become so popular that entries are balloted. It differs from carriage driving in that the obstacles are close together so its very exciting to watch as well as take part in.

Lesley says Luath is the most intelligent pony she has ever owned. "He can read my mind. Its uncanny. Hes an amazing pony to compete with; tremendously agile and able to react to my commands in a split second."

&#42 Strong willed

She admits that Eriskay ponies can be strong willed and are not really suitable as first ponies for inexperienced young children. "But we know of some Eriskays that have made excellent childrens ponies – one in particular actually enjoys playing football in its paddock!"

As the leader of the tandem pair Luath, now 17 years old, should be able to continue competing for several years. "The leader doesnt take any pressure; they are only carrying their own weight but they are the real brains of the outfit."

Lesleys success is very much a team effort in every sense of the word.

"The ponies are inseparable and can even be schooled without any harness. If I stand in the paddock and give the command "trot on" they will go round me in a 40m circle in tandem formation with exactly the correct distance between them just as though they were in harness.

"They are a truly remarkable pair," says Lesley.