WINDSOR--It was a birthday Trout Walk Farm’s Wendy O’Brien will never forget as she celebrated it the week she won the United States Equestrian Federation’s Combined Driving Pair Pony Championship at the Kentucky Classic Combined Driving event at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Ky. O’Brien is competing this weekend at the 10th annual Katydid CDE, the Home of the Tandem Challenge.

“It was a wild trip,” said O’Brien. I celebrated my 63rd birthday. The dressage phase was beyond my expectations because they’re (the pair) really strong and hard for me to hold. It started there, and nobody was able to catch me.”

O’Brien and her pair were pushed by another Aiken resident Jennifer Matheson and her pair of ponies during the competition.

“Micheal (Freund, U.S. combined driving coach) said, ‘Just don’t rest on your laurels because Jennifer is out to beat you,’” said O’Brien. “I had never beaten Jennifer. I said, ‘Ok’ because I’ve never gone faster than Jennifer. These are relatively new ponies and they’re very strong, so I’ve been a little hesitant with them. Michael said, ‘You’re holding them back.’ and I said, ‘No, look at the loops in the reins.’ He said, ‘Look, drive like hell.’ The hazards on the marathon course are four-in-hand hazards, so they’re wide open. We drove like hell.”

It was while in Europe last summer that O’Brien began to grow in confidence with her previous string of ponies while competing in the cones phase at Menden, Germany. The cones were the phase where O’Brien clinched the national title.

The driver acknowledges that Freund’s coaching has made a positive impact on her performance.

“It’s absolutely the best working with Michael Freund,” said O’Brien. “I’ve been working with him for two years.”

Freund also played a role in O’Brien’s acquistion of the pair of ponies she drove in winning the national championship.

“This is the first set of ponies I’ve bought with him,” said O’Brien.

O’Brien was part of the U.S. team that won the Bronze medal at the FEI World Pony Championships last September in Lipica, Slovenia.

“It’s incredible to be training at this level,” said O’Brien. “I went to qualify for the team. I really ended up on the team by default because Elizabeth Keathley couldn’t go. I hung in there. It was more grit and determination. They needed me because they had to have two drivers. They took my cones score by one-tenth of a point. So, that whole thing was a learning curve for the entire year.”

The 9th annual Katydid CDE found O’Brien in a much different role. The driver was among the spectators as she didn’t compete. O’Brien retired Avalon 279, Ben 65 and Francisco 7, the ponies who competed at the World Championship.

“I was sitting with Michael, and I said, ‘Do you think I have the grit to do this again because if I do, I need new ponies,’” said O’Brien. “‘Don’t just tell me, I don’t need to spend money.’ He said, ‘Yeah, if I find you the right pair, I think you can do this.’ So, he went back to Germany, and he tried three pair as that was all he could find. He called me back, and he said, ‘I found you one pair, it’s the pair for you to drive.’ So, I flew over on Jan. 2, and drove them for three days.”

Freund was confident that the driver and pair of ponies were an ideal match, so O’Brien purchased the pair. They competed this past winter at the Sunshine State CDE at the Florida Horse Park in Ocala, Fla., and it was during the dressage phase that she found out about the pair’s strength. The new pair are Welsh Cob Ponies.

The Katydid CDE is providing O’Brien with an opportunity to try different combinations. And it was during Friday’s dressage phase, O’Brien put one of her dressage ponies that’s normally on the right on the left, and the gelding was partnered with her marathon pony, who didn’t compete in Kentucky because of a minor injury. O’Brien is also taking four-in-hand lessons. She’s competing Braakmoore Clowny Clark and Braakmoor Conan this weekend. Clark is blind in one eye.

“In Kentucky, I wasn’t driving the right pair,” said O’Brien. “That’s all part of it. You have to be flexible. I learned about that in Germany. One of my ponies went lame. I had to borrow a pony from Michael. I have three ponies. One does all three phases, and he’s not here today.”