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A Visit with Driver Tracey Higgins

With more than a little determination and a spunky bargain pony, New Jersey resident Tracey Higgins has made the long list for the World Pony Driving Championships.

By Dale Leatherman, originally published at EquiSearch.com

Photos copyright 2001 Susan Benson/Somerset SportArt

Q: How did you acquire your super pony?
A: I found Trixie in an ad in a local paper. I had three driving ponies at the time, my mother was in the end stages of cancer and I sure didn't need any more on my plate. But the price was right. The ad read: "Spunky driving pony. $650." So my nephew, sister and I went on a field trip in late November of 1998 to go to see her.

We absolutely fell in love with the elderly former dairy farmer who had her. He hooked her to a big buckboard and off we went. I remember that he drove her without gloves and my sister was very concerned because it around 10 degrees with the wind chill. The pony was scruffy but fat so we harnessed her and off we went around a big field.

When we turned back to the barn he said "Careful now, she'll really take a hold of ya!" (He was selling her because she was getting to be too much for him to drive.) She did, I gave her a couple of half halts and she went into a beautiful dressage frame and just trotted on back. So I bought her and when I gave the man a check for $650, he insisted on giving me back $50 since that was what someone else had offered him for her! He's come to see her at a few events now and is just so pleased that she has found her niche in life.

Q: She's not the easiest pony in the world, is she?
A: She is quite a character. My sister named her Brick House after the Commodore's song since she was bigger and more expansive than the other ponies I had. She can't be turned out with anyone else if you have any plans to catch her. She used to run the group around and around the pasture so I'd have to catch each of them one by one and hide them till she finally would give up. The solution to that -- as I discovered how good she was going to be -- was to thin the herd to one.

Her stable manners also leave a lot to be desired. She reacts to everything -- putting on a halter, blanket or harness - as if it's the first time. I've learned to ignore it. And she can be expected to bite whomever heads her for me while I put her to the carriage. Except Foxy.

Q: Foxy is your navigator? Tell me about him.
A: Foxy by day is an OR orderly who worked with Bill Long years ago and ended up with Herb Cassidy, navigating for him with a great big pair of warmbloods. He has loads of experience and I've been after him to navigate for me for years after Herb stopped driving. He finally agreed for Gladstone, which made me happy because I worried about the weight factor in doing a five-section marathon. You trot about 7 kilometers, walk 1 kilometer, fast trot 4 kilometers, another walk, then onto the hazards and another 7 to 8 kilometers). Foxy is lightweight, wiry, strong and knows what to do.

Q: What was it like competing at Gladstone?
A: I ran through a myriad of emotions. We had to do dressage in a grass ring that saw a lot of rain the night before and about 40 other competitors before we got there. "Deep" describes it mildly. I felt like we were plowing. Some movements were impossible to get. But at the end we were second despite being the only pony in the Intermediate division. The scores were close, though. Everyone had the same trouble.

The marathon went well. We made all the section times and had some pretty good hazards so managed to move up to first. The cones on the last day did me in. I was trying to get enough speed to make the same time limit as the horses and ended up skidding a bit and hitting a few. I felt like there was no clearance at all. We lost first but learned a few things.

Q: What do you do when you're not driving?
A: I am director of business process engineering at Merck Pharmaceutical Co. in Whitehouse Station, NJ. I look for ways to do things more efficiently. And I show wolfhounds. They're big dogs, but they're gentle and get along well with the pony.

Q: Your eye for efficiency must extend to driving. Don't you sometimes have to compete against horses?
A: Yes, if there aren't enough ponies for a division we compete with the horses. You would think there are huge disadvantages, but you can sometimes take sneaky little routes the horses can't. Making the times on the marathon is hard. You really have to push your pony. But their vital signs afterward are better than the horses'. They're tough. Fortunately we had four or five advanced ponies at Gladstone, so we were competing on equal terms.

Q: Were you a rider before you became a driver?
A: Yes, I started out in eventing but found out after a couple of three-day events in 1989 that my back was no longer up to the challenge. And my good horse was getting older -- so I looked to his companion pony for my next adventure. I had a roommate at the time who had driving experience so we broke him and took him to Gladstone a month later in Preliminary. He came in fifth. I was hooked. I found that combined driving was like eventing in the old days, with everyone friendly and helping each other.

Q: How does driving compare with riding?
A: The feel of driving is definitely different. All hands and no legs! With that handicap, you learn to really use your voice commands and put the whip where you'd want to apply a leg. It's funny, people get in a carriage for the first time, pick up the reins and instantly become the chuck wagon driver from some old Western movie. They take the reins and slap the horse on the back with them. You'd get the same effect if you got on and banged your legs against the horse's sides! I guess they do that too -- in the Westerns when they make the getaway.

Q: What does the future hold for you and Trixie?
A: According to the USET guidelines, I should be on the long list for the World Pony Championships. Next year, I'll step up to Advanced level and hope we can do well. I haven't had much opportunity for professional assistance this year but hope that will change with some sponsorships. My vacation time is limited so I can't go south without using up the days I need to compete. But at least I have winter to memorize that dressage test.

If we don't make it I have a new pony that looks like a good match for Trixie. So we can always start over with a pair. Trixie is spending the winter in Southern Pines, and I hope Bill Long will work with her while she's there.

Q: What's the new pony like?
A: He's the same size as Trixie but was used for harness racing. It's always good to have a young one in the wings.

For more information on combined driving, visit www.americandrivingsociety.org

Dale Leatherman is Equisearch's Lifestyle Editor.



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