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“Just Go with the Flow”: Balancing Jumping, Driving, and School

Driving and hunter/jumper athlete Isabelle Welch, 16, said that she hopes to continue balancing the challenges and skills of both disciplines for as long as possible.

by Emily Girard | May 7, 2024, 9:13 AM

Isabelle Welch competes in both hunter/jumper and driving competitions, with family connections in dressage and jumping. Photo: Andrew Ryback Photography

Competing in both driving and hunter/jumper classes, Isabelle Welch has learned to refine her mentality and develop skills that benefit both disciplines.

Isabelle grew up with horses all her life. Her mother, Karen Welch, competes in dressage and jumping, and introduced Isabelle to horses at a very young age. Isabelle started in the hunters and dabbled in dressage and eventing before moving to the jumpers. From there, she entered the driving world under the tutelage of driving athletes Larry Poulin and Karen Cherry.

“I started out in the pony hunters, and about two-and-a-half years ago, I got my first jumper, and I started in the jumper ring,” Isabelle said. “Last year, we took my first pony to Larry Poulin to teach her how to drive. Larry suggested that I go to a summer youth driving camp where I met Karen Cherry, and after that weekend, Karen Cherry asked if I wanted to pursue driving with her pony Sir Noble. I leased Sir Noble these past few months in preparation to go to Live Oak, which we did.”

Isabelle explained that the main difference between marathon driving and jumping is the timing; the techniques she uses to control her horses vary based on where she is positioned.

“It took me a little bit of time to understand the difference of where the horse is and where the carriage is,” Isabelle said. “It's very different, the way you use your aids, how you time them, and how you use your hands, because you don't have any other aids other than your whip and your voice (in driving).”

However, Isabelle said that she has also found a lot of similarities between the two disciplines and has developed skills she can apply to both, specifically regarding the ways she controls her horses.

“(Driving) really teaches you how to be soft with your hands, because you don't have your leg encouraging them forward, so you really learn a proper connection with your hands and how to keep a steady contact with the horses,” she said. “That's helped me a lot with not only my jumping, but just riding my horses at home and improving the dressage foundation.”

“Her jumping has improved ever since she started driving. If she can get the carriage around the marathon obstacles, then she can turn a horse in a jump off,” Karen added. “I think that her turns have become more efficient in jumping and that the driving is making the jumping rounds smoother, and I think the jumping contributes to her bravery in marathon. Doing both driving and jumping really does bring different skills into each discipline.”

Isabelle Welch competes in driving at the 2024 Live Oak International. Photo: MbDixon Photography

To navigate the busy hunter/jumper and driving seasons, Isabelle participates in school as a hybrid student, and she is enrolled in a combination of in-person and online classes. She takes hunter/jumper riding lessons in the morning and driving lessons in the afternoon.

“It definitely is difficult to learn to manage that kind of a schedule, but I found that you can plan out your day properly, stick to the plan as best you can, and just go with the flow because things always seem to change day to day,” Isabelle said. “You have to have enough time to keep your grades up and be able to ride and drive at the same time, because both are a big-time commitment, but I found that I have a pretty good schedule that allows me to improve in both at the same time without sacrificing improvements in one or the other.”

Isabelle elaborated that her schedule must be flexible to accommodate last-minute changes.

“You have to find a schedule that you can work with, even if things kind of get out of whack during the day, because it always seems to happen. The horses pull a shoe, something gets moved, somebody cancels, you never know,” Isabelle said. “You have to create a schedule and really have some discipline in what you're doing.”

“It's a huge time commitment, and she handles it so well,” Karen said. “It's getting up early in the morning. It's getting the rides in before school because the driving is in the afternoon. It takes a lot of commitment, a lot of drive, and a lot of passion for what she does. She works really hard.”

“I love going to all the shows across the U.S. I think it's really quite fun to go travel with your horse and show,” Isabelle said. “Unfortunately, the lease on my pony that I had been driving has ended, but I would really love to continue driving.”

Moving forward, Isabelle said, she would like to continue traveling and moving up the levels in both driving and jumping. This year, she hopes to compete in the youth division in the Bromont International CDE, taking place in Bromont, Quebec, Canada from June 20-23.