Steve didn’t start combined driving until he was 62, but in eight years, he’s won four national championships — all while being legally blind.
When Steve Wilson sets his mind to something, he goes all in. So when he decided to jump into combined driving at the age of 62, he was immediately determined to reach the pinnacle of the sport.
Never mind that he was entering the game at a later age than most. Or that he had a company to run full-time. Or that he was legally blind. Steve won four national championships while becoming known worldwide as one of the sport’s top talents.
Now, at the age of 71, Steve is retiring from driving, having accomplished what he set out to achieve — even being named to the U.S. team in 2017 at the age of 69 and again in 2019 at the age of 71.
“Whenever I take up something, I want to be the best I can be,” Steve says. “It’s turned out to just be a passion. I’ve won four national championships. I could do it again, but I feel like I’ve done a good job of reaching the top.”
A Multifaceted Challenge
Steve discovered driving at the 2010 World Equestrian Games in Lexington, Kentucky, a short drive from his home near Louisville. He was instantly enthralled. “It inspired me to get into the sport,” he says. “I thought, ‘Wow, that’s something I can do.’”
Steve was right, despite his diminished eyesight.
The sport we know as combined driving is relatively young on the world scene. The first comprehensive and standardized rules were laid down in the early 1970’s under the leadership of HRD Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.
Combined driving has been patterned after eventing, which has its roots in the exercises of comprehensive mounted military exercises. Like eventing, driving takes place over three days and consists of three disciplines: dressage, marathon and cones. So, Steve relies on muscle memory and visualization and has extensive rituals to prepare for competition.
For the dressage component, Steve says it’s a matter of simple memorization. For the marathon, it’s a bit more complicated. The marathon consists of a 13-kilometer race with hazards throughout the course. The drivers must take on the hazards in a progression of A, B, C, etc., which is particularly challenging for Steve.
“Everyone knows their dressage pattern, or they should,” Steve says. “For marathon, I have to really walk the course. I often walk 10-15 miles a day during the week so that it becomes second nature and I don’t have to see the A, B, and the C.”
The final day of the competition is obstacle driving. Drivers must learn a pattern and then proceed through a series of 20 cones with a ball on top of each one. “You have a 20-centimeter clearance between your wheel base (and the cone),” says Steve. “It’s very narrow and you’re trying to do it at speed.”
The challenges of the sport — and of his unique situation — are what have kept Steve so engaged.
“When you’re in the ring, no matter how many times you’ve done it, you’ve got your brain and the brains of two horses — so the three of you are trying to reach impossible, perfect movement,” he explains. “And nothing ever goes quite like you think it should … But it’s always striving to do it a little bit better, a little bit better.”
A Bittersweet Moment
Though Steve feels confident that he’s made his mark on his sport, retirement comes with mixed emotions, he says. He’ll continue to work to further the sport in the United States — it’s much more widely known in Europe — as part of his many professional endeavors.
Along with his wife, Laura Lee Brown, Steve hosts a driving competition called the Kentucky Classic every other year at their Hermitage Farm in Oldham County, Kentucky. This year, Steve says, exciting plans are in the works with the hopes of expanding national interest in driving.
The cost of the sport is often a challenge to potential participants, Steve explains. “It’s an expensive sport because of the multiples of animals and equipment,” he says, which is why USET Foundation supporters are so vital to empowering athletes to train, compete and reach their goals the way Steve has.
Post-retirement from competition, Steve will devote time to his other interests and ventures: currently, a restaurant and bourbon-tasting event built inside of an old horse barn. “There’s going to be all the cribbing marks of the horses and tabled seating in the stalls,” says Steve. “It’s going to be lots of fun.”
He’ll also be busy running 21c Museum Hotels, an art museum and boutique hotel experience he and his wife founded in Louisville.
What Steve will miss most of all about driving is the mindfulness it asks of its competitors.
“One of the things I loved about driving was the intensity of it,” he says. “It really requires you to focus. When I’m on the carriage with the horses, I can’t worry about a hotel opening or what the average click rate is or anything like that. It forces you to be present.”