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Putting the horse before the cart

Boyd Exell is a winner all the way - Aachen - Photo credit Roger Fitzhardinge

Boyd Exell is a winner all the way at Aachen, 2016.

© Roger Fitzhardinge


By Jane O'Connor

There was an eight year old kid who would hang around and watch whenever Max Pearce put his horse in harness. “He didn’t know a thing about horses,” Max says. “But, he always thought he should be doing the driving.” The kid was Boyd Exell and it was the beginning of a close relationship and a sharing of knowledge and experience that would take both to the top of their game. They would drive endless kilometres together - ‘me, these two kids (Boyd and his brother) in the front of the ute with them telling jokes all the way’ - to take part in shows.

They remain tight friends today with both men now at the forefront of Equestrian Australia’s High Performance Programme in the growing driving discipline. For those who saw Boyd strut his stuff at Equitana in recent years, the person in that most precarious of positions at the back of the carriage as ‘groom’ while the champion hurtled around the course, was Max. But, more of that role later.

On the one hand, Max grew up on horseback and was also introduced to a family tradition of harness reins at the age of eight. He went on to concentrate on showing, become one of only two EA level 2 coaches and coach educators and a top level judge. These days at his Beauwood Stud in Goulburn, NSW, Max is seeing an increasing number of pupils keen to try their hand at the sport.  On the other hand, Boyd had no family history of things equine, but a phenomenal natural talent with horses and a fierce personal drive that has seen him rewrite the history books with four consecutive wins in the FEI World Cup Driving Final. Boyd’s horse team - Carrington Park, Ajax, Lucky Banjo, Bill and Spitfire - were recently collectively named the IRT International Horse of the Year in Equestrian Australia’s annual Sport Achievement Awards. The Exell team draws crowds in Europe and the horses are megastars. Back on home turf, it was Max who stepped up to accept the latest award on now UK-based Boyd’s behalf. But, given the Australian propensity to almost deify its successful international sports people, the lack of coverage on his remarkable achievements outside of the equestrian media is somewhat surprising.

Max is one of the sport’s greatest ongoing advocates in Australia and he teaches an increasing number of keen students. The days when carriage drivers would have to haunt clearing sales in search of the right vehicles - usually in need of serious restoration - have morphed into something far more professional and cost effective, with an increasing number of imports. Today, they talk about disc brakes and airbag cushioning suspension and air seats.

Both Max and Boyd’s journey began in Bega, NSW. Max’s great grandfather started the family bakery in the days when deliveries were done by horse and cart. The business continued down the family line. It was a childhood reality for horse-mad Max to see the horses and carts reversed into the driveway beside the bakery to pick up deliveries. The family also had a large property. In his 90s, great grandad lost his driver’s licence, but rather than be constrained, he told Max to go and get his old mare and harnessed her up to an old sulky. “She bucked and jumped down the drive. He went crook at me because I grabbed the reins,” Max says. But, in getting great grandad around, Max learned the ropes. An old carriage on the property caught the eye of the boy who would go on to become an engineer, so he restored it and headed into competition driving. “That was in 1978 and I really knew nothing about it. At the competitions, they told me I had a great carriage, but the horse wasn’t much chop,” he says. Max saved up and bought a Hackney. Boyd continued to spend most days after school with Max. Max set up his own engineering business in Bega and offered Boyd an apprenticeship. They would finish work for the day and dive into the horse training. Max had tired of competition driving, having had to wait until 18 before he could compete with a team. They did a deal. Boyd would help him with his show driving and Max would return the favour with Boyd’s competition pursuits. It was during his four years in that engineering business that Boyd also honed his carriage-making skills - a talent he now passes on to some of the leading carriage makers.

By the early 1990s, the two headed for the World Pairs Championship in the US. Boyd’s parents had given him a plane ticket for his 21st birthday. Boyd stayed for 10 months before moving to England and setting up his own stable yard. “In 20 years he went from being a good basic equestrian to mixing it with the best. He’s done it and he’s now my mentor,” Max says. They catch up now for a month each year when Boyd takes part in the EA High Performance Programme and then the two of them forget about horses for a while and pursue another love - waterskiing. But, the 24 drivers selected for the programme have been winning and three talented competitors have sent their horses to Boyd’s English base and will work with him there. Boyd, he says, is passionate about training and passing on his skills. Max says that at recent championship competitions in Australia, the high performance drivers ‘do get their heads together and use their tactics. We are becoming more serious about it’.

Max’s depth of experience has seen the transition from a time when more traditional vehicles were turned out for country shows to lighter vehicles with high technology inclusions that are easier to transport and pull. Skills such as leather harness making is giving way to synthetics. Very few of the old style restored carriages are used, with the majority either imported new or bought secondhand. Show or traditional style vehicles tend to come from the United States, but Poland and Holland supply many competition vehicles. One Australian supplier sources vehicles from the communities that still use horses and carts as the preferred mode of transport, the Amish in the US. China has also entered the carriage building business. A four wheel carriage with all the right features can be landed on our shores from Poland for around $9000. 

The novice driver’s guide

Like any equestrian PURSUIT, learning the ropes from the ground up often starts from a young age. But, in the world of carriage driving, Max mainly sees adults wanting to learn and all his current pupils are women. “A lot who come for lessons want to do it just for the heck of it. But, 12 months down the track many of them are show driving,” he says.

It attracts those who may no longer feel confident riding or have never ridden but wanted to and see it as a good option. And, like other disciplines, there is often a tendency to put the cart before the horse. Finding the right breed, with the right qualities first is extremely important and once it has been harness trained, then the right vehicle can be sourced. Max says many assume that any horse is capable of pulling any sort of  cart. While it is true that some horses within each breed could make good harness horses, the levels of excellence now required for competitions is seeing a quest for better, custom bred horses. There are specific breeds that Max describes as ‘traditional carriage pullers’ such as the Welsh Cobs, Welsh Ponies, Clydesdales, Shires, Hackneys and Fresians - and a variety of crosses - to name a few. Max has bred Hackneys for many years, but has switched to a mix of Hackney/Warmblood crosses to gain the right temperament and height for his needs and the general demand. Again, certain breeds suit certain drivers. The competition tests and standards are also changing. Driven Dressage, for instance, calls for a specific type of temperament along with the general skills. In open sections, a canter has entered the picture. Many horse breeds are difficult to teach to canter in harness, Max says. Marathon drivers require a different set of skills.



Photograph supplied by Cathy Pearce.


When we observe the precision and skill of Boyd in action at a World Cup Final, a thought has to be spared for those two grooms on the back. Their role is vital in the heavy, four-in-hand arena as they tighten and loosen brakes to manoeuvre around obstacles and balance the vehicle. In a Dressage test they will sit as still as a statue. For marathons, they will keep an eye on time, as well as performing other functions in tight cooperation with the driver. As Max puts it, ‘they really have to be on the ball.’ Boyd’s grooms, he says, are almost always females and they are a crucial, switched on part of the team. In domestic competitions, the word will often go out that a groom is needed for a weekend competition. But, Max says, the serious competitor and in the high performance programme, the same trained grooms must be on board all the time. When Max jumped on board as groom for Boyd for the Equitana demonstration, they knew exactly what they were doing and how a special brake had to be worked.

Another misconception for beginners is that if someone is used to riding a horse then the same training methods will apply or that carriage driving is somehow easier. Perhaps there is a romantic view of more genteel times when you could drive your horse into town or out for afternoon tea. Think again. You are - or should be - in full control of a large, live animal with flight instincts. On a horse you have contact via the reins and the legs. Put yourself in a carriage and the distance between you and the horse and the length of the reins will dictate the contact. Then it becomes a case of holding the horse in the right frame and being able to balance it. A common scenario is when an owner brings a horse to Max and he puts it through its paces in harness. It is in the hands of an expert. He might find it great in the frame. But, the learner driver takes the reins, the horse senses the lack of contact and it tries to bolt off. Not something to try alone at home. There is no instant way to learn the art. Max is a stickler for safety.”A horse out of the control in a carriage is not a pretty sight,” he says.

Max starts by putting the horse before the cart. “I encourage them to bring the horse to me first before they go out and find the cart,” he says. Absolutely basic, but you have to make sure it is suitable and then see if it can be educated to harness. “If that all goes well, then we recommend what type of harness is needed and after that source the right vehicle.” 

Another bugbear is when beginner drivers fail to follow the most basic safety rules. “Owners have sometimes taught their horses the wrong tricks. Any harness horse has got to tie up, stand and not pull back. If it doesn’t, it is not going in a carriage,” he says. Ensuring there is a proper tie up area is crucial. There is a lot going on with getting the harness right and making sure the carriage is ready. Leaving the horse untethered or, as Max has observed with horror, tying it to a fence with bailing twine, is a recipe for disaster. Max has taken his teaching back to the most basic level and hammers the simple messages. It is a symptom, he says, of the loss of basic horsemanship skills as an increasing number of more urban-based enthusiasts seek an equine pursuit, so we really do have to go back to basics.

Once he is confident a driver has mastered the basics and if they are keen to compete, Max urges them to get EA accreditation and to ensure they are insured. There is a lot more gear going on than straight riding tack. They should also keep abreast of any changes in the way competitions are assessed and any changes that are brought in. Constant, ongoing training is what keeps standards high and our competitors abreast of what is happening overseas.

The newfound interest in the sport is seeing a reversal of a dramatic decline in competitors from the highs of the 1980s. Max says it was not uncommon to see 100 entries line up for a championship class. That spiralled down to around 20 or 30. But, at this year’s Sydney Royal Show there were 52. The light harness categories have remained low, but the heavier classes are growing again. “I think the show ring will turn around and over the next five years we will see the numbers nearly double,” Max says. But, event organisers find it difficult to handle high numbers. The logistics to stage carriage driving are enormous. The set ups, precise measuring and safety aspects require great expertise.

The other attraction is that the discipline is now not out of reach financially. A four wheel carriage with every desirable feature included can be imported for around $9,000. A set of harness will cost from around $1300. Then it’s a matter of the right horse. Competition vehicles are also much lighter and easier to transport. But, on all of those aspects, Max urges potential drivers to seek the right advice and training. 

While Boyd Exell continues to wow audiences on a global scale, he has highlighted what a crowd puller and exciting visual sport it is. Max says that greater promotion of it here that encourages people to follow it would see a lot more people become involved. 

For further information visit www.beauwoodstud.com.au 



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