Aiken resident Jennifer Matheson is no stranger to the Pony World Championships.
The upper level combined driver has been to 10 Pony World Championships, either to support the U.S. team or as a competitor. Matheson qualified for this year’s world championships, which will be held Oct. 30 to Nov. 3 in Pau, France. Matheson won the National Pair Pony Championship at the Southern Pines CDE in April, having previously won the title in 2010 and 2011. Matheson will be joined by another Aiken resident on the U.S. team, Wendy O’Brien, in the quest for a medal.
Her outstanding team of ponies have had the last two months off, and went back into work Wednesday, June 12, in preparation for this fall’s world championships.
It can be a challenge keeping the ponies at their best, being that the bulk of the combined driving events are in the winter, said Matheson.
“We don’t have enough competitions leading up to the world championships to sort of fine tune or tweak the ponies,” said Matheson.
The ability to maintain one’s focus prior to the competition, and during the event itself provides its own set of challenges.
“The last go around, we were in Germany with our coach,” said Matheson. “We were at his facility every day, and that’s (the world championship) all we talked about. We didn’t have to focus on all of the other things we do in life, like our houses and yards. Our focus was on driving and preparing.”
An emphasis was placed on training exercises, said Matheson. It gave the team an opportunity to bond as they had a chance to watch and encourage one another, while providing insightful feedback. The drivers are in the process of making their final adjustments before the competition.
“I think it’s very important when you get to a certain level,” said Matheson, about the feedback from the other drivers. “You really need that experienced eye to help you get there.”
The atmosphere at the world championships is far different from that of other CDEs, said Matheson. Those who are participating in the event have earned the right to be there, and the athletes have great respect for each other. When watching one another, it provides them with a chance to gauge their ability as to where they stand in relation to the other drivers.
“The world championships are so unlike the competitions in this country, where our advanced divison is small,” said Matheson. “It’s fun to go and watch the other competitors when you’re not preparing for your part in the competition.”
However, it’s extremely important for the ponies to have some variety in their training routine, to keep their minds fresh as they prepare for competition at the elite level. Drivers often find themselves placing an emphasis on dressage as it provides a strong basic foundation for the marathon and the cones phases.
“You have to be careful about driving your (dressage) test over and over,” said Matheson. “So, sometimes you do it backwards or do other tests, just to work on the movements and the transitions. You’re trying to mix it up, so they don’t get stale because they learn those tests so quickly. It’s like driving the cones course. You can only drive the cones course so many times, and by the third time, they know it. So, when you’re schooling, you drive it like when you’re in the show.”
The ponies started their training routine Wednesday, having a brief respite after a busy winter and spring, and should be in fine form for the world championships this fall.
“The ponies have spent the past two months on the tread mill, four days a week,” said Matheson. “Today, they returned to work, and went out into the woods.”
The venerable campaigner, German Riding Pony, Dannyloo, an 11 year veteran of competition at the FEI level and participant in three world championships, should make his presence felt in the dressage ring.
“I’ve never seen that pony march out so strongly (when he returned to work on Wednesday),” said Matheson. “Dannyloo, he was on a mission. I was like, ‘Wow.’”
Bax, the newest member of the team is in top form, said Matheson. The 11-year-old German Riding Pony is a strong three phase pony, and veteran of two world championships.
“When we bring a pony over from Europe, I like to take a picture of them the day or week they arrive, so I can see how much their body changes,” said Matheson. “I’ve noticed a huge change in the seven months he’s been here, how he’s filled out. He has a lot more muscle. He has a great disposition, and is a great mover.”
But, it’s the 11-year-old Welsh Pony on Team Matheson’s roster, who does the marathon and cones phases and brings a smile to the combined driver’s face. Cees, also a veteran of two world championships, has a penchant for one phase in particular.
“He’s a little bratty,” said Matheson. “He knows his job and gets excited about doing the marathon. He doesn’t want to do dressage, but he loves the marathon.”
The upper level combined driver has spent the last two months rehabilitating an injured ankle and shoulder, injuries she sustained this winter during the cones phase at the Little Everglades CDE in Dade City, Fla.
The world championships provide Matheson with the opportunity to maintain relationships with friends she’s made over the years on the other side of the Atlantic. The Europeans approach to the sport is somewhat different as they stay on site, she said. There’s a certain camaraderie between the athletes, and the social aspect makes the event special.
“There’s always people gathering, having a bite to eat or a drink,” said Matheson. “The parties are always good. The world championships aren’t just about competing. There’s something going on every night.”
The German and Dutch teams will more than likely be battling for the Gold and Silver medal, but the U.S. team is strong, and has a lot of depth, said Matheson.
“We’re in medal contention,” said Matheson. “I would love to see us grab a Silver. It’s competitive. In the end, it’s up to the driver. The driver and pony combination try to do the best they can.”