story and photos by Dotti Hydue | Click on the images below for a larger view.
As far back in history as 2,000 BC horses were hitched to conveyances and used as driving animals. Their domestication continued and expanded under the Greek, Egyptian, and Chinese civilizations. Through the centuries, as their use as work animals diminished, enthusiasts refined the art of proper training and driving techniques into the sport of combined driving events (CDE). In 1970 combined driving was recognized as one of the ten international equestrian sport horse disciplines recognized by the Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI).
A few miles south of Bronson on County Road 337 sits the 250-acre Black Prong Equestrian Center. Formerly the Griffis Hunt Camp, it was purchased in 2001 by Alan and Maureen Aulson who had originally planned to use the property for their personal farm. It is named after a creek in Goethe State Forest of the same name. Black refers to the color of the water, dyed dark brown or black from tannins in the leaves that fall from the native trees (similar to making a cup of strong tea). Prong refers to a fork of a creek.
The Aulsons have always been horse people. When their two daughters were young, Alan and Maureen enjoyed throwing hay and sleigh rides for their kids and friends. They also provided carriage rides around Boston Common, the oldest city park in the U.S. Eventually the large draft horses and bulky wagons gave way to sleeker driving horses and carriages, and they started competing in the U.S. and abroad. Mr. Aulson was an alternate for the 2005 FEI World Pairs Driving Championships in Austria. The USA team finished 7th, and Mr. Aulson finished 57th overall out of hundreds of drivers from around the world. They both continue to enjoy the sport, although Maureen now finds her talents as a navigator—the person who rides behind the driver guiding him or her through a course—more in demand than her driving skills.
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But their plans for their personal farm changed once they discovered that Lawrence Poulin, the renowned carriage driver, horse trainer, and coach, was looking for a new location to train. And because one of England’s combined driving events was also looking for a new site, the Aulsons decided to turn their property into a state-of-the-art facility for carriage driving enthusiasts. In order to have the facility ready for the scheduled CDE, they needed to plan and build their equestrian center in just nine short months. They worked long and hard, many times long distance from their home in Boston, with local experts to clear and contour the land, to design and mark the trails, and to build the actual courses and dressage rings.
Soon the acres of bare sand were turned into lush green lawns with islands of pines and oaks. Because the center is nestled in the Goethe State Forest, they were careful to preserve the natural beauty and feel of the site. Carriage-driving course experts spent countless hours designing and building the first-class course that is friendly to both spectators and drivers. Competition veterans helped coordinate the organization and deployment of officials and volunteers that work in harmony to make a successful carriage driving competition. The center is maintained year ’round by a small staff of paid employees who work alongside a core group of volunteers at equestrian events.
Combined driving events are three days of competition that include dressage, the cones course, and the marathon. Dressage entails precise movements by a trained horse (or horses) in response to barely perceptible signals from the driver. For this event drivers are smartly dressed and the horses groomed to shiny perfection.
The obstacle cones course is a series of 20 or so pairs of plastic cones (similar to those used on roads to mark hazards) set a certain distance apart and along a twisting path inside an arena. The driver must successfully navigate horse(s) and carriage between the pairs of cones, without knocking off the ping-pong-size balls on top of each cone, within a set time period.
Perhaps the most exciting event for spectators, and most challenging for drivers and horses, is the cross-country marathon, a series of natural or man-made obstacles such as tight twists through trees, fences, and pens; tunnels and hills; and water. This event tests the speed and endurance of horse and driver as they are scored for taking too little or too much time at each hazard, and for their total time on the course as well.
Classes of competitors range from training and preliminary to intermediate and advanced. Horses are classified as Very Small Equine (VSE) to ponies and horses that can be arranged under harness as a single animal; a pair side-by-side, four-in-hand (two pairs); and even tandem, a pair where one animal is harnessed in front of the other.
This private training facility offers on-site world-class trainers, nine regulation-size dressage arenas, practice obstacle and marathon courses, a 4,300-square-foot pavilion and conference center, acres of turnout, and more than 150 miles of trails in the Goethe State Forest. Humans and their horses can stay for a night, a month, or longer in well-appointed apartments, some with attached barns. Guests can also dry camp or choose an RV site with full hook-ups.
Black Prong Equestrian Center draws carriage drivers and their horses from across the United States, Canada, and Europe to train and vacation among champions in this field. Here you can enjoy carriage driving, dressage, endurance riding, trail riding, and the company of like-minded equestrian enthusiasts. I even know of one couple that moved here from Seattle to take advantage of the services and competition available at Black Prong.
The next equestrian event is the Black Prong HDT and CT on March 8, 9, and 10, and marks the tenth anniversary of the Aulsons’ hosting this milestone event. Spectators are welcome to attend and share in the excitement of this equine competition.
www.blackprong.com (352) 486-1234 or BlackProngCenter@gmail.com