The sport of spills and thrills

Horse Driving Trials groom talks to Island Life about the challenges of an all-consuming discipline.

You know you’ve found your metier in life when you say things like: “It’s not a job it’s a lifestyle.” This is Matt Green, a Freshwater boy who is part of one of the top driving trials teams in the country.  He is groom to top trials driver Georgina Frith, and is to be seen most weekends between May and September driving a carriage and four in competitions up and down the country. The event saw the team trying to trump their success last year at the National Horse Driving Trials at Royal Windsor.

It’s a sport of thrills and spills, a magnificent balance between speed and control, discipline and striving for the winning post. Immaculate horses and team work through three days of varied events to achieve an overall goal. “I’m ballast really,” Matt jokes, when asked about his role. “I stand on the back step and shout!” In fact Matt’s role is navigator, and prior to the competition will have walked the course up to five times, plotting a route and a counter-route if a wrong turn is made. “If Georgina misses a turn or the horses go through the wrong gap my job is to tell her how to get back on track. That’s when I come into my own.”

It’s hard to believe but there was a time when Matt Green didn’t like horses much. He had ridden from a young age, but aged eight he was ‘spooked’ by a pony, and he went right off horses until he was around 16. “Then Mum bred a little Dartmoor Pony. She had trouble handling it, so I got involved,” smiles Matt.

Even though horses had re-entered his life, Matt wasn’t about to be deflected from what he saw as his calling – aeronautical engineering. Until, that is, he found the University course for which he’d striven wasn’t quite his subject after all. “I took a step back and thought about what I really wanted to do.” He transferred to an equine degree, and the rest, as they say, is horse play.

Hardly that. As part of his course he had to take a work placement, and it was his mother who saw the advertisement and thought he’d enjoy the job of groom to Georgina Frith. Today Matt’s week consists of grooming, bathing, trimming socks and beards, all the usual groomy things.  But at the weekend he is there in his glad rags, hanging off the back of a three-person carriage as four powerful horses charge up hills, dales, through gates and over water. Somehow you can see that flying planes would pale by comparison.

“Competitions are three-day events,” explains Matt. “We start by getting the horses all pretty for the dressage, which tests the ability of the driver and the obedience of the horses. But on the second day it’s the marathon, which tests the horses’ fitness.”

A timed section, to begin, penalises the team not only for being slow, but for being too fast too. “There’s a two-minute window in which to complete,” he explains. A walking section cools the horses down, before the final section. “This is the fun bit, the obstacles. You have to go through the gates in order and in a set direction.”

And, of course, at speed. Given the length of the set-up, the dexterity of the team of four and its human team-mates is remarkable, but thanks to articulated points between the steering wheels and the carriage it does a handy about-face around a post. How fast, how neat and how safe a turn reflects the skill of the team.

With such a time-pressured event it is inevitable that something, sometime, will go wrong. Body protection and hard hats can’t mitigate against everything and a quick turn in slippery conditions a few years ago caused the carriage to hit a tree. “We were all three thrown out of the carriage: Georgina and the other groom were knocked out. I was thrown into a tree, but got straight back up and tried to catch the horses. But, with nobody guiding them, they’d run into a tree and one was so badly injured we lost her.”

Given the heat of competition – at the National Championships up to 26 teams compete – it is amazing such accidents are comparatively rare, and this is due to the part played by each member of the team, human and equine alike.

Forming the team is a painstaking business, and again Matt’s experience and instinct play a huge part. “You can’t just stick some horses together and expect them to perform,” he explains. “It’s a very dynamic discipline – there’s so much going on. The leader, particularly, needs to know the difference between the driver pulling the rein and the back horse nodding its head. As well as matching stride and heights as far as possible you have to think about temperament too. Some horses don’t like being so close to others: some are calm, which is great for dressage, and others are more spirited. So you go through a lot of horses to find the right temperament to work with other horses, and to work with you.”

A uniform look is ideal, though not essential, he says. Georgina’s team are all 16.2-3 Dutch horses, weighing around 500kg, and the horse and carriage in all is about 20ft. However, beneath the lookalike exterior, equestrian personalities are quite different. “We have five horses – we can take a spare to compeititons in case of injury, though we’ve got one who only does the marathon and not the dressage. Gus, who is eight, is the left leader, Billy is seven, then  Tickana, a Dutch cross-Hackney.  Sam who’s the stalwart of the team, he’s a real superstar. At 11 he’s in his prime, though people run a good horse as long as they can. They do love it, and experience is worth its weight In gold. They can get you out of so much trouble.”

Matt, the boy once spooked by a pony, has grown into his role over time. “In competition there’s no point being tongue-tied. You’ve got to shout any commands three or four steps ahead of where you are at a given point, because it takes so long for the driver to get the horses set up for the next turn.” He and Georgina have been working together for five or six years, and know each other so well they can anticipate the way each other work. Georgina and her team reached their pinnacle in 2008 when they became reserve champions at the National Championships at Royal Windsor Great Park. Then in 2009 Georgina took time off to have a baby.

“It was a bit of a shock. After five years of hard work with Georgina, the horses and I were with a different driver for the Championships.” Thankfully this  was international driver Boyd Excell, who was resting his horses after a hard season, so stepped in. “Well the horses didn’t notice the difference – they did their damnedest and won!”

Rather than feeling sore that her team got the ultimate result without her, Georgina, Matt says, has been inspired to repeat her team’s success. “It was down to her that they were quick enough to be driven to the necessary speeds. The confidence comes down from driver and grooms to the horses.”

In the run-up to this year’s Championships, Matt’s confidence is tangible.  His parents, at their home in Freshwater, and his wife Veronika, follow his progress with ever burgeoning pride. Somehow you feel he’s taken the right turn in life.