By US Equestrian Communications Department
Four newly-minted USEF National Champions exited the arena on Sunday, March 6, at the conclusion of the 2022 Live Oak International CAI. After the event was canceled in 2021 due to COVID-19, competitors and their families were happy to be back at Live Oak International in Florida’s warm and sunny late-winter weather. Sunday’s competition brought the cones phase to the main arena, and the athletes and their horses and ponies rose to the occasion with numerous excellent performances to close out the competition.
2022 USEF Combined Driving National Champion – FEI Advanced Single Pony
Jennifer Keeler (Paris, Ky.) held on to the lead she’d earned during Saturday’s marathon phase, driving Zeppo, her 2011 Hackney gelding, to the fastest cones round in the FEI Advanced Single Pony division. Even with three faults, the pair was able to comfortably hold off the competition to earn the National Champion title.
Keeler says that Zeppo’s heart is much bigger than his diminutive size—he stands only 13 hands tall.
“Live Oak International is an incredible course. I think it’s the toughest course in the country,” said Keeler. “It certainly is a challenge for a 13-hand Hackney. He gave everything he had yesterday, and thankfully, it was enough. The course design was terrific; it was challenging, but there were options where you could make things more open or make it as tight and difficult as you wanted for whatever suited your horse or pony best. It really was just an incredible day, and I thank Live Oak International for that one-of-a-kind experience that we have here on marathon day.”
The pair had a successful lead-in to the National Championship, winning two prep events earlier in the season.
“We felt confident this weekend, but it was an incredible field of competitors,” said Keeler. “I’m just honored to be back here at Live Oak International and competing with such a great group.”
2022 USEF Combined Driving National Champion – FEI Advanced Pair Pony
Katie Whaley completed an uncontested FEI Advanced Pair Pony division, enjoying a successful outing with her own Tanner, a 2006 Welsh Pony cross gelding; Gail Riley’s 2012 Welsh Pony gelding, Clanfair Sunglow; and a relatively new addition to her team, her 2015 Welsh Pony gelding, Timmy.
“This was only Timmy’s third show in his life, and to bump him up here and go FEI and for him to do the dressage and the cones with this atmosphere, I was just so thrilled with him,” said Whaley. “My other young pony, Topper, went all the way through, and he’s great. I had one of my veterans [Tanner] in for the marathon, and I have another veteran at home that I’m just wrapping in bubble wrap for next year’s FEI World Championships. And I was thrilled. I didn’t know what was going to happen, but I’m really excited about this.”
Whaley enjoyed tackling the challenge of the Live Oak International marathon course as a prep for the season ahead with her ponies.
“I like the variety of obstacles here. There’s some open, some technical, some endurance,” said Whaley, adding that she’s grown to love the gulch—a unique obstacle that includes crossing a steep bridge and navigating gates in the hollow below. “It used to scare the life out of me, but now it’s one of my favorites. The obstacles are world-class, so they prepare us if we want to go to Europe. You feel really strong when you leave here and you’ve had a good marathon.”
2022 USEF Combined Driving National Champion – FEI Advanced Four-in-Hand Pony
Mary Phelps (Micanopy, Fla.) and her team of pinto ponies were the lone entry in their division, but they turned in a National Championship-worthy effort throughout the week and were a crowd-pleasing favorite. This year marked Phelps’ first time competing a four-in-hand at the Live Oak International venue, having previously competed with a pony pair.
“Taking my first four-in-hand over the Live Oak International course was a bit daunting,” said Phelps. “But when I walked it, I saw that I had enough options that I could drive safely and use it as a good confidence-builder for not just my ponies, but myself. I was really relieved to see that there were all the options that were helpful for me to do things safely yet step it up at the same time. The course designer, Gabor Finca, is brilliant. He does an amazing, wonderful job.”
Phelps thanked her support team for helping her have a successful weekend with her four-in-hand team: Bugsy Malony, a 2007 American Shetland gelding; Al Capony, a 2010 American Shetland gelding; Tony Da Pony, a 2013 Shetland/Welsh gelding; and Kimba, a 2006 American Shetland mare.
“I was blessed to have my trainer here from the Netherlands, Bram Chardon,” said Phelps. “He came and coached me through the whole week. And Melanie Van de Bunt is here, so I had a lot of help, but it was a big step for me. This was our goal and we made it here and it was the greatest week of the year.”
2022 USEF Combined Driving National Champion – FEI Advanced Pair Horse
Jacob Arnold was the wire-to-wire leader in the FEI Advanced Pair Horse division with Steve Wilson’s 2015 Dutch Warmblood geldings: Kenji V, Kian, and Kenzo. He capped off the strong performance with a double-clear cones round on Sunday.
“For the dressage, I used [Kenzo], who had literally done one test before this, and he honestly performed better than the other, more experienced horse,” said Arnold. “My marathon and cones pair had only done one event together before in that combination. To run three 7-year-olds at an FEI show and get these results, I was really pleased.
“The obstacles here, especially the way they were flagged this year, really felt world-class,” said Arnold. “It’s a very good startup going into the European season. I was really happy with my pair. I was very pleasantly surprised how they performed. I made two small mistakes myself, but that’s part of the game. The obstacles themselves really gave me a good feeling. There were enough options so you could do something technical or something long. Overall, I was really pleased.”