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For Robin and Wilson Groves, horses and driving are their love, their work, their passion. Spend any length of time with Robin and Wilson Groves and that comes through loud and clear. Spend some more time with them and discover the depth of their knowledge of horses, equestrian sport and the people they teach.

The Groves call Brownsville, Vermont, home, except for two months in the winter when they both go south with their horses to train, teach, and compete. The rest of the year Wilson stays home and trains and looks after the horses while Robin goes on the road giving clinics.

Robin is the teacher, Wilson is the trainer. “That’s because Wilson doesn’t like to teach,” says Robin. “And I don’t want to deal with the rough ones because I don’t want to get hurt. He’s stronger, and isn’t as worried about getting hurt.” Robin talks fast, with a crisp Boston accent, and a colorful vocabulary. No one is spared. She’s been teaching for 50 of her 70 years, and there isn’t much she hasn’t seen.

Both drive competitively. And while many couples enjoy the sport of driving, few actually make their entire living from it. And combined, they’ve been doing it for almost a century. Pleasure driving, combined driving, sleighing, distance driving – they do it all.

Robin Culver grew up in Lincoln, Mass., 18 miles west of Boston, “a suburban town with enough horses that most of us could ride.” From age eight until she went to college, riding horses is what Robin did – all day, everyday, all around the town. “No one really cared about what we did as long as we stayed together to protect each other.” Often there were two kids per horse because not everyone had a horse.

One time, Robin recalls, the horses all came home without them, but with the kid’s clothes tied on the saddles. The parents figured they hadn’t been murdered but were probably swimming in the town reservoir. The horses all got loose and went home leaving the kids to lurk behind buildings and bushes to avoid being seen without their clothes on the long walk home.

Wilson grew up on a dairy farm on the eastern shore of Maryland. His sister wanted riding lessons and Wilson was dragged along. He decided it looked quite interesting, so he took it up too and began showing. Then he discovered Pony Club, and thought that looked interesting as well, so, at age 16, he wrote a letter to Mrs. Dean Bedford – founder and president of the U.S. Pony Club – and asked where the nearest Pony Club was located. This took Wilson to Middletown, Delaware, where he became acquainted with Lana DuPont (soon to become Lana Wright). They did a lot of “fun stuff” including fox-hunting and eventing (then called combined training).

During Wilson’s college years he kept in touch with his Pony Club friends, and then began building courses for eventing. He was affordable to those organizers who couldn’t pay the big prices. The concept of portable obstacles was created back then.

Robin and Wilson first met in 1972 at a Green Mountain Horse Association three-day event where they were both competing. Wilson was stabled next to Robin. They didn’t begin dating until 1981. Wilson came to GMHA to build a course, and Robin was working for some people nearby but it wasn’t until 1989 that they married.

The two segued from mostly riding to mostly driving in the mid 80s. Robin had done a little driving before that, transitioning from eventing to 100-mile distance driving. She found that driving 100 miles was a good way to calm down a hot eventer.

In 1986, Wilson recalls, Lana Wright had started to do some driving, and made a bid to host a selection trial for the four-in-hands at Fair Hill. “Lana brought me along to build the hazards, with Richard Nicoll to design the course.” The hazards were built in an entirely different section of Fair Hill than is used today. Not until the early 1990s did eventing and combined driving take place on the same weekend, on the competition site located off of Gallaher Rd.

Still just dating, they thought that driving was something they’d like to do. They brought two single entries to Fair Hill that year. The following year they put them together as a pair.

In 1989 the two drove down to Tampa, Fla., together to compete at a combined driving event that the Gladstone group put on in conjunction with World Cup Jumping, stopping off in Georgia on the way so Wilson could build an eventing course. They competed with a pair at the Preliminary level. Robin drove, Wilson navigated. They married at the end of that year, and shortly thereafter Wilson decided he wanted to drive competitively as well. “So that’s why we drag around two presentation carriages, two marathon carriages, and four harnesses, everywhere we go,” explains Robin.

Robin the Teacher

Robin started to teach riding upon graduation from college. A student at the University of New Hampshire, she planned to graduate in 1970. Those were tumultuous times with the Viet Nam war taking center stage. Students everywhere, including UNH, sympathized with the devastating events at Ohio’s Kent State, and went on strike, cutting classes. Of course, in Robin’s case, they went fishing instead, finding out too late that she was a course too short to graduate. Robin stayed on to complete her studies the following fall semester and was drafted herself – into the riding program at UNH. She taught for four years as the “second in command,” and was encouraged to take a class to become certified as an instructor. She went back to Massachusetts and got a Massachusetts advanced instructor license to add to her paperwork, “very useful,” according to Robin.

Robin teaches a monthly clinic at GMHA she calls Wheel Runners. The lessons are held as a group, with 12 students working together in a standard dressage ring. “We work on anything we need to work on. They have to lengthen and collect, shorten and go, stand and turn.” They are working individually, but always cognizant of the others in the ring. Robin says some of them have worked together for 20 years.

Another group Robin jokingly refers to as “The Remedials,” is a hodge podge of people who haven’t been there as long, whose horses don’t have the gaits, and who aren’t used to staying away from each other so she has to run it a little differently. These are great for getting drivers used to working in a group in a controlled situation. It teaches those drivers who are “in control” how to navigate around someone who, as Robin bluntly put it “is going to kill us all.”

The group clinic is a way to get more people scheduled into a day. “Because you are only going to get so much out of me in a day,” says Robin, “you can charge less per person and still make it profitable for the clinician.” A group can be anywhere from 2 to 12. Of course, not every clinician will be able to handle a three-ring circus, as Wilson calls these group clinics. Back in the day when Robin and Wilson were growing up, all lessons were done in groups. They didn’t know such a thing as a private lesson existed.

Wilson believes that people learn much more from a group lesson than a private one.

“The thrill I get out of it,” says Robin about conducting clinics “is watching how each one changes. It’s really a rush.” Watching Robin teach is a learning experience for the auditor. With a good sound system, everyone can hear what she has to say, and then witness the results. “I do this for a living and do it because I need the money,” she says honestly, “but the reason I keep doing it is because my reward is seeing the change, and to take what started as a tough situation and have it end up with horse and driver in harmony. I try to simplify it and take each person to the level where they can achieve.”

Another clinician asked Robin how she put up with drivers “who are going nowhere, day after day.” Her response, “All I do is try and help them with today, and if they are going nowhere, that’s not my problem. I help them with what they’ve got.” Reinsmanship is something that Robin is trying to emphasize with every lesson, and the feedback has been good.

Mostly Robin stays on the ground, but occasionally will get in the carriage. The one thing she likes from the vantage point of the box seat is seeing the horse’s back. When the horse makes a good turn, he should drop the inside hip and his tail should swing across to the same side as the inside hind, an indication that his spine is working.

Wilson the Trainer

“Give me a month,” says Wilson when he takes a horse in for training. After a month, he makes a decision about whether to proceed. He might have to tell the owner, “You know this might not be the right career choice for this horse. If I don’t want to drive it, I can’t see how you are going to want to drive it.”

Wilson sees a lot of horses that start out well and then go downhill. What is the problem? Were the basics not good enough? Is it a stage the horse is going through? “All horses will drive unless they don’t,” says Wilson. Meaning, it’s time to give up. “Some horses just aren’t going to be driving horses.”

Wilson gets his greatest satisfaction from looking at a horse in harness and being able to say “I broke that horse.”

Since Robin is often on the road giving lessons and clinics, they have a young woman who helps Wilson with the training. They don’t take in boarders. One reason for not taking boarders is that they shut the barn down for two and a half months while they go south to Florida in the winter.

“The training business has been soft for a few years,” says Wilson. During the slump in the economy, they found that people were willing to invest in clinics rather than training. Robin said her clinic business went through the roof, but the training business went dead flat.

Their barn in Brownsville is a center-aisle barn that Wilson built. It has nine box stalls, and three straight stalls. The Groves believe the straight stalls help driving horses achieve body awareness when they have to deal with everything going on behind them. Their 10-acre farm includes a sand ring, but most of the farm is on vertical rock. They only use about two acres, but they have miles of dirt roads to drive on. And, of course, all those Vermont hills for conditioning.

Favorite Horses

Robin has twice represented the United States at the World Singles Championships – in Poland (2008) and Italy (2010). Both times she drove Thor’s Toy Truck, or ‘TJ’. In 2007 and 2010 Robin was the USEF National Singles Champion, also with TJ. TJ is a Connemara/Thoroughbred gelding that was originally owned by Lana Wright and came to the Groves when he was six for training. “He’s my horse of a lifetime,” says Robin. “He was a stinker,” she says, when asked how he came to be given to the Groves for training. He was a 5-year-old 15-hand Connemara/Thoroughbred stallion running in a herd of Standardbred colts. “Treacherous” is another word Robin uses to describe TJ when they first got him. Wilson showed him the first year, and then passed him on to Robin. TJ has done it all – pleasure shows, distance drives, combined driving, sleigh rallys. TJ is 21 years old now and while retired from full combined driving events, he still does combined tests and driving derbies and is used for lessons.

UVM Worthy is Wilson’s favorite horse. “He’s now 25 but thinks he’s only 12,” says Wilson. He came to them bred to be a Park Morgan Horse, but his owner wanted something to drive around the countryside. Worthy has also ‘done it all’ from being long-listed by the USEF for combined driving, is a good pleasure driving horse, as well as a lesson horse.

Neither has a breed preference, but they have worked with a lot of Morgans.

The Groves are ‘easy-keepers.’ They are happy with their work, their lives, their friends. They lead a fairly simple life by today’s standards. Only recently have they given in and started to use a computer for email. As the saying goes, if you do what you love to do, someone will pay you to do it.

Contact Details

Driving Digest Magazine
PO Box 120
Southern Pines, NC 28387

(910) 691-7735

Email: ann@drivingdigest.com

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