DADE CITY — Jan Jan Hamilton sat atop a squeaky carriage, controlling the plodding steps of her horse, Dezzy. She had one hand on the reins, the other flicking the feather-like switch as she practiced Tuesday for what is quickly becoming a showcase event of the combined driving world.
The third annual Little Everglades Steeplechase International Combined Driving Event kicks off Thursday with a full field of dressage routines followed by a welcome reception in the evening. The four-day event, which also includes carriage racing around obstacles and through an intricate cones course, is a favorite of the 17-year-old Hamilton, who is preparing for international competition as part of the U.S. team that will compete at the 2012 World Championships.
"This event is incredible because this piece of land is amazing," said Hamilton, soaking in the grassy hills at Little Everglades. "This is my favorite event in Florida because it's a good show, on top of how beautiful the location is. The obstacle course is maybe a bit flatter than what you would see in Canada, but that's probably a good thing, since a lot of the northern people who come down are only on their second competition of the year maybe."
This weekend's event is more than just a chance for Hamilton to work on technique and squeeze in a clinic with U.S. coach Michael Freund. It's also a selection trial for the world championships. Hamilton is hoping to impress, particularly on Saturday when the cross-country marathon phase of the competition gets under way, taking riders through obstacles at top speeds.
"Marathon day is incredibly exhilarating," Hamilton said. "It's a 20-minute course, but three hours after you get done you're still buzzing about it. It can be scary when you flip, so I'm pretty conservative, but we still move pretty fast. I'm still learning, but coming to these events I'm surrounded by older riders that I'm able to learn a lot from, so it's good for me."
Freund, a former combined driving competitor and champion himself, is in Dade City this week enjoying the beauty of Little Everglades, but his eyes are set primarily on riders such as Hamilton. With few young riders in the United States, Freund has to keep an eye on the prospects he does have.
"In America there are not many young drivers in the expert classes — maybe three or four teenagers, that's it," Freund said. "In Germany they have 20. The problem here is the distance that you have to travel to get to a major event. It's expensive to take a horse on a three-day trip, so the number of riders is limited."
Susan Gilliland has organized the event all three years and is excited about the 85-competitor field that will converge on Little Everglades this weekend. While she is well schooled on the technical complexities of the dressage days, Gilliland is another marathon day enthusiast.
"Dressage is beautiful and technical, but I even get bored watching it," Gilliland said. "The marathon and the cones are easy to understand, though, and it's very exciting because you see the scoreboard, and someone hits an obstacle and they'll drop four places. We had more spectators last year than in our first year, and we're hoping to see it grow again."