Ocala, Fla. – Combined driving competitors started the season off strong this week at the 2023 Spring Fling CDE hosted by the Florida Horse Park. This year, the event hosted USEF Combined Driving National Championships for CAI3* Advanced Pony divisions, CAI3* Pair Horses, and all Preliminary divisions. In total, seven national championship divisions were contested at the event.
USEF Preliminary Single Pony National Championship
Suzanne Smith (Paradise, Texas) and her 2015 gelding, Branson, had three strong phases to top a deep Preliminary Single Pony division, highlighted by a double-clear cones round. Smith has owned and driven Branson since he was a 2-year-old, and their championship finish at Spring Fling was an excellent result on the way to their planned next event, next month’s Live Oak International.
“I was really proud of him in the dressage,” said Smith. “He did everything I asked him to do. We had some really good rounds on the marathon, and he was absolutely perfect in the cones. I’m just really proud of him.”
USEF Preliminary Single Horse National Champion
Topping the largest division of the show was Bettina Scherer (Wellington, Fla.) and her 2017 Westphalian mare, SF Arendell. Scherer and “Wren” turned in an excellent dressage test to put them in second place with a 42.30 penalty score and moved into first place after the marathon phase. With one ball and no time penalties from the cones phase, they finished first out of 16 in the division.
“I’ve had her for three years and started her slow. We did training last year and just moved up to prelim,” said Scherer. “She did really well in the dressage. I work with Jacob Arnold and he has really helped me get her to where she needed to be for this level. She came out and did her job.”
USEF Preliminary Pair Horse National Champion
George Dickerson (Colfax, Iowa) drove to the USEF National Championship title with his contrasting pair: Nifty Shades of Grey, a stunning dapple gray 2014 American Dutch Harness Horse gelding, and the dark bay Falcon. As the only American entry in the division, Dickerson and his pair were uncontested for the National Championship, but had a dressage score just over one penalty point from the leader and turned in the winning marathon phase on Saturday.
USEF Advanced Single Pony National Champion
A talented class of eight ponies and their drivers competed for the championship in the FEI Advanced Single Pony division. In the end, it was Dana Diemer (Raeford, N.C.) and her own 2011 Welsh Pony gelding, Clarwood Mack the Knife, who came out on top.
“Two years ago, he was the bronze medalist in the national championship. Last year we were the silver medalists, and so this year we decided we needed to come back and go for gold,” said Diemer. “He gave me 1,000% the whole week. I suffer from bad show nerves, but on Thursday, everything clicked. I have terrific trainers, Randy and Katie Cadwell, who have dragged me kicking and screaming all the way up to this level and are ultimately responsible for the success that we’ve had here this weekend. And I would not be here without my husband Manny, who back-steps for me and is also my groom and all-around good guy.
“I love the [CAI3*] dressage test. I think it asks all the right questions and makes you train for everything that you do out on the marathon,” said Diemer. “I was thrilled with ‘Mack’ and how he went. We had two breaks in the canter, which is unusual for us, and it caught me off guard and hurt my score a little bit, but the 53 is a personal best for us in the advanced. The marathon was great; I tend to be kind of cautious and I just decided it’s time to go for it, and we did, and I’m very happy. Then on the cones round, I decided I had about a seven-point lead going into the cones and I thought, ‘I am not going to screw this up.’ So we attacked the course. It was a great course with a lot of really good questions, and I believe this was the first time that I’ve made the time at advanced. I am so over the moon, and this pony is just fabulous!”
USEF Advanced Pair Pony National Champion
Defending National Champion in the Advanced Pair Pony division, Katie Whaley (Paris. Ky.), held on to her title this year driving her 2015 Welsh Pony gelding, Timmy; her 2006 Welsh/Arabian gelding, Tanner; and Gail Riley's 2012 Welsh Pony gelding, Clanfair Sunglow. Whaley and her perfectly matched set of chestnut ponies were the wire-to-wire winners in the Advanced Pair Pony division, leading the dressage, marathon, and cones en route to the overall National Championship.
"The young ponies did the dressage and had their best test to date," said Whaley. "The marathon was a little rusty, but that was fine. We had a double clear on the cones, so we finished the weekend on a high and I feel like I'm on track. My plan is to ship to Europe in July and compete over there, and hopefully go for the team [at the FEI World Championships.]"
USEF Advanced Four-in-Hand Pony National Champion
The Advanced Four-in-Hand Pony division saw another returning champion defend her title. Mary Phelps (Micanopy, Fla.) and her team of pinto American Shetland Ponies won both the marathon and the cones phases and won the division and the USEF National Champion title. Phelps’s ponies, affectionately referred to as “the gangsters,” are Kimba, Bugsy Malony, Tony Da Pony, and Al Capony.
"Our longtime trainer and friend Bram Chardon took the time out of his busy schedule to come help us for the Florida Horse Park Spring Fling where we earned our second qualification score [for the FEI World Driving Championships for Ponies] and the USEF National Championship. We had a great time on the well-designed marathon course, ramping up our training and skills with the help of Bram Chardon," said Phelps, who competed at the FEI World Championships with her pony team in 2019 and is aiming to do so again this year. "As the first FEI Combined Driving Event on the International Calender who wouldn't want to start their year at this beautiful Florida facility?"
USEF Advanced Pair Horse National Champion
Jacob Arnold (Goshen, Ky.) teamed up with Steve Wilson’s 2015 KWPN geldings, Kenji V and Kenzo, along with Misdee Miller’s 2010 KWPN gelding, Frank, to defend his National Champion title in the Advanced Pair Horse division. Arnold had an excellent dressage test, earning a 42.74 penalty score from the judging panel, then turned in a winning marathon phase and a fault-free cones round to post a decisive victory.