With no words, just a click of his cheek and a feathery crack of a switch, Chester Weber guides a pair of Dutch Warmblood horses over the grassy terrain of Little Everglades Ranch. The exercises that warm up his world class steeds for this weekend's Little Everglades International Combined Driving Event are exact, intricate and just rigorous enough to have both driver and horse pouring sweat into the reins.
This weekend isn't about winning or losing for Weber, a national champion driver for eight consecutive years. It's about preparation. While other drivers see the competition as an opportunity to take home a prestigious trophy or qualify for national competition, Weber uses this time to get his horses comfortable with travel and work on communication.
"To get a horse ready for this type of competition takes about 3,000 hours of training, or three years in terms of overall time," Weber said. "This is our first event of the season and traveling to an event like this is good to get them adjusted to going to events and seeing how they react. It's all part of what goes into their training so that they are ready for the big events."
Combined driving became a recognized discipline of the Fédération Equestre Internationale in 1969 and has grown dramatically over the decades, adding single and pair driving (one and two horses). But the four-in-hand (four horses) carriage driving portion of competitions is still considered to be the most spectacular.
Weber won a four-in-hand individual silver medal last year and a bronze with the U.S. team at the International Combined Driving Championships in Riesenbeck, Germany.
This year, he will be running a slightly different four-horse team, and the Little Everglades event is a chance for him to polish that group and work on the chemistry among horses.
"It's interesting because each horse weighs about 1,300 pounds, so trying to make them do anything is a concept you have to get out of your head," Weber said. "It's about the synergy of groups and understanding their personalities and seeing which horses work well together. I think of our team as the old Chicago Bulls with Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman, where they're vastly different types of personalities, but together they're great."
Among competitors this weekend, there is no one whose name rivals the international recognition of Weber's. With nine national titles, he's heavily favored in any competition.
"He's accomplished so much and done so much for the sport," said Little Everglades organizer Susan Gilliland. "He's not just the best from Florida, he's one of the best in the world."
Weber's disciplined work with the horses at his Live Oak Stud in Ocala is a big part of his winning streak. But according to four-time world champion Michael Freund, who beat Weber at the World Cup of Combined Driving in 2001, his success also hinges on his improved understanding of the animals' needs. A good example is Weber's horse Boris, who gets anxious in the stall. Weber provides him with a pet bunny that helps him stay calm.
"The quality of his horses is on par with the highest level horses in the world," Freund said. "The reason for that is his personal discipline and in recent years, he has begun to learn how to read the horses better and pay attention to how they are reacting to the work. Working with animals is not always easy, but if you look at how he runs his entire program, no one does it quite like that."