Linda Willis made the decision to transition to driving after her riding horses aged out and retired.
So, she began acquiring miniature horses to compete, first as a pair, and now as a four-in-hand. Willis and her team competed at training level Saturday at the Katydid CDE.
One of the challenges Willis has had to overcome has been finding four horses that can work together, get along and move properly.
“I’ve driven pairs for years, but it’s quite a step up from that,” said Willis. “When it goes well, it’s very easy. When it starts to go wrong, it’s a mess.”
All four of Willis’ horses are different shapes and sizes, one is short-coupled and another is long-bodied, but they work in unison. The wheelers are named Smudge and Dreamer.
“They’re both about 38 inches high, and they were a pair,” said Willis. “They moved into the wheel position.”
The lead horses in Willis’ four-in-hand were experienced campaigners, battled tested veterans with one horse having competed as high as the intermediate level. Commander is a 19-year-old, a horse now with the personality of a curmudgeon. West Wind is 14-years-old, and like Commander, boasts a significant amount of experience.
In the dressage, the four-in-hand team is either on or it’s not, said Willis.
“They’re well-suited to one another,” said Willis. “These two (the lead horses) are fancy movers. They like to throw their toes out and be fancy. That’s good because that’s what you want in the dressage.”
Smudge and Dreamer are the ideal wheel horses because of their steady demeanors, said Willis.
“They are willing to plod along, and go where the other two horses are going,” said Wiilis. “It’s a challenge for me because even though I’ve driven all these tests a thousand times, it’s just so different with four. All the geometry looks a little bit different.”
It’s been an evolution process for the driver and the horses which at times has provided a steep discovery curve, said Willis.
“They’re learning, having been pair horses, some of them having gone up through intermediate,” said Willis. “They’re used to running in hazards. I don’t want them to do that anymore. I want them to wait for me. I’d like for the whole turnout to get through, not just the two of them. So. that’s a bit of a challenge. They have to understand that they can’t rush like they used to.”
Commander’s former partner was a mare, and they were together for 12 years, before she went onto another owner, said Willis. Commander is a veteran of more than 40 CDEs, competing for 15 years.
“They’re great little guys,” said Willis. “It’s kind of given me a new challenge to try. As long as I had four, I thought, ‘Why not?’ This may be the only chance ever to have four that can do this. I have a new one at home that’s 4-years-old that’s going to replace Commander.”
The aged veteran of the team seems to be the least interested in competing, but possesses the ability and fitness to participate actively at his current level. Willis and Commander have a long history together.
“I’ve had him since he was three or four,” said Willis. “When I went to buy him, I didn’t have any minis at the time. I went to a farm. They must have had 40 of them in a field. This guy was trying to pull him (Commander) and one other gelding out, and this little brat came over to me, plastered himself to my leg, and defied any of the rest of the horses to come near. I said, ‘All right, you picked me, I’ll take you.’ But he’s been a wonderful horse. He’s kind of developed that old man attitude now, so he’s a little harder to get along with then he used to be. But he’s still a good guy.”