Horse-and-buggy championship wins hearts of Muscovites

Russian equestrian fans looking for something new may have found an answer in the up-and-coming sport of horse-and-buggy driving.

It may be raining cats and dogs but when it comes to horses, this is one competition where bad weather helps to get more adrenalin-pumping, mud-flying action.

“It’s all part of the sport – being able to compete whatever the weather,” competitor Mikhail Popov told RT. “We don’t mind the rain. We’re used to it. The horses just love it.”

Equestrian sports have been part of Popov’s life for more than 20 years. Two years ago he took up driving. Combined driving or horse-driving trials are races in which carriages are drawn by a single horse, by a pair or by a team of four.

The sport developed in the late 1960s. While in Europe it is going from strength to strength, in Russia it is something new. So new, in fact, that the obstacle course for Russia’s National Championship, held 150 kilometers north of Moscow, had to be designed with European help.

“Last year at the Russian championships we had only eight drivers and today we already have 16,” Marek Zaleski, an international judge and course designer, told RT. “Soon we’ll build a new venue in Moscow, maybe even two, and that’ll give the possibility of growing the sport…. and I’m sure in 2014 we can build a Russian team for the world championships.”

So what is it all about? There is the driver, who controls the horse, and the groom, who guides the driver through the obstacles and balances the vehicle on tight turns. Over three days, the competitors have to complete various challenges, like a cross-country marathon. Water, tight twists or steep hills all have to be negotiated at speed and require a great deal of judgment and skill. That’s where the fast moving, water-splashing fun comes in.

Speed, endurance, precision and control are the driving force behind the sport. Only the perfect teamwork of the driver, the groom and the horse can bring a hard-earned victory.

While for up-and-coming Russian drivers some obstacles proved a challenge with horses decidedly refusing to get wet, one person knew how to make the test look effortless. World class driver and Polish star Bartolomiej Kwiatek coaches Popov. After the competition, they put on a performance to show how it is done by the pros.

“The adrenaline! The speed! It’s a special connection between animal and man,” Kwiatek, the silver medalist at the 2010 World Singles Driving Championships, told RT. “It’s a sport for everyone. A 60 year old, a 70 year old, can do it. So I see a big future for this sport in Russia.”

With interest in the sport slowly but steadily growing in Russia, the country’s sportsmen are hoping for a bright future firmly in the driving seat.

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