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Cold and in the Sleigh: When -- If -- It Snows, Horse Competition Heats Up

  • From left: Robin Groves and her horse In Due Time, neighbor Jenny Kimberly, of Brownsville, and her horse Dixie Dee, and Wilson Groves and his horse Derawnda Ricardo practice running through cones. The cones help horses bend and learn speed control and help the drivers learn to navigate smaller spaces. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    From left: Robin Groves and her horse In Due Time, neighbor Jenny Kimberly, of Brownsville, and her horse Dixie Dee, and Wilson Groves and his horse Derawnda Ricardo practice running through cones. The cones help horses bend and learn speed control and help the drivers learn to navigate smaller spaces. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Wilson Groves yawns while waiting to take his turn through the cones at the sleigh rally. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Wilson Groves yawns while waiting to take his turn through the cones at the sleigh rally. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Robin Groves drives In Due Time at her home in Bridgewater earlier this month. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Robin Groves drives In Due Time at her home in Bridgewater earlier this month. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Robin Groves drives her horse In Due Time around her arena at her home in Brownsville during a practice. Most sleigh rally participants use antique sleighs, blankets and coats during the competition. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Robin Groves drives her horse In Due Time around her arena at her home in Brownsville during a practice. Most sleigh rally participants use antique sleighs, blankets and coats during the competition. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Wilson Groves slips the halter off Derawnda Ricardo while Robin Groves adjusts the bridle on In Due Time before their dressage class in the South Woodstock sleigh rally. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Wilson Groves slips the halter off Derawnda Ricardo while Robin Groves adjusts the bridle on In Due Time before their dressage class in the South Woodstock sleigh rally. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Norma Katz, of Springfield, hands Robin Groves a blue ribbon after Groves won both dressage tests and her category overall at the rally. Standing next to Groves is her friend and fellow horse trainer Dwayne Pash, of Ringoes, N.J. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Norma Katz, of Springfield, hands Robin Groves a blue ribbon after Groves won both dressage tests and her category overall at the rally. Standing next to Groves is her friend and fellow horse trainer Dwayne Pash, of Ringoes, N.J. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Robin Groves, of Brownsville, adjusts the harness on In Due Time before their dressage class at the Green Mountain Horse Association’s recent sleigh rally in South Woodstock. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Robin Groves, of Brownsville, adjusts the harness on In Due Time before their dressage class at the Green Mountain Horse Association’s recent sleigh rally in South Woodstock. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • From left: Robin Groves and her horse In Due Time, neighbor Jenny Kimberly, of Brownsville, and her horse Dixie Dee, and Wilson Groves and his horse Derawnda Ricardo practice running through cones. The cones help horses bend and learn speed control and help the drivers learn to navigate smaller spaces. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Wilson Groves yawns while waiting to take his turn through the cones at the sleigh rally. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Robin Groves drives In Due Time at her home in Bridgewater earlier this month. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Robin Groves drives her horse In Due Time around her arena at her home in Brownsville during a practice. Most sleigh rally participants use antique sleighs, blankets and coats during the competition. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Wilson Groves slips the halter off Derawnda Ricardo while Robin Groves adjusts the bridle on In Due Time before their dressage class in the South Woodstock sleigh rally. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Norma Katz, of Springfield, hands Robin Groves a blue ribbon after Groves won both dressage tests and her category overall at the rally. Standing next to Groves is her friend and fellow horse trainer Dwayne Pash, of Ringoes, N.J. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Robin Groves, of Brownsville, adjusts the harness on In Due Time before their dressage class at the Green Mountain Horse Association’s recent sleigh rally in South Woodstock. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

Woodstock — Every winter, Robin and Wilson Groves join flocks of Northerners heading to Florida. The weather suits their purposes, but the Vermont couple isn’t looking for R&R.

The Groves are world-class trainers and competitors in the horse-drawn carriage world. During the colder months, they train horses and students at an equestrian center in Bronson, Fla. The rest of the year finds them doing the same at their home in Brownsville.

“We have a ring to work in and lots of dirt roads,” said Robin Groves, 67, who also instructs at the Green Mountain Horse Association.

Together, they own R&W Horsedrawn Services. Robin Groves travels year round to clinics across the country to teach. Wilson Groves, 61, trains horses and takes care of the barn.

Last weekend, the couple competed in a sleighing competition at Green Mountain Horse Association in Woodstock. There, 11 equestrians bundled up against the cold to drive horse-drawn sleighs in dressage and a second event that involved maneuvering around cones. The competition drew lots of spectators, Robin Groves said. “It’s such an unusual sight that people love to go out and watch it,” she said. “Where else do you see so many pretty things in one place?”

The “combined test” is just like a regular carriage driving competition, except that it’s on the snow, said Karey Waters, events and communications manager at GHMA.

“It gives drivers a chance to get out in the winter and do something to keep their horses in shape,” Waters said.

That is, when it happens.

“(The competitions) are so fragile from an organizer’s standpoint, as the conditions have to be just right,” Waters said. Ice means dangerous footing for the horses and treacherous roads for competitors “trailering in” with trucks and equipment. Deep snow makes for hard work for the horses and sleighs that “don’t want to go.”

“We don’t need a ton (of snow),” she said. Even six inches will work.

Since she joined GHMA five years ago, “maybe half” of the sleigh competitions have run as scheduled, Waters said. The others were either rescheduled, cancelled or postponed.

This year is no different.

The first part of the contest, scheduled for Jan. 12, was postponed due to icy roads. Instead, the sleigh rally will take place on Saturday.

In last week’s contest, the Groves drove their horses In Due Time and Derawnda Ricardo — Indy and Ricardo for short. It was Indy’s first sleigh competition, and he and Robin swept their division, taking first place in both tests and earning the division championship, Waters said in an email.

“We’ve been competing him since last March,” Robin Groves said. “He’s very pretty and he’s very talented and we’ve done a lot of work with him.”

Wilson Groves and Ricardo competed in the same division, finishing in fourth and fifth place in the tests, Waters said.

In addition to offering competition, the sleigh events offer a good chance to meet new people and catch up with old friends, Robin said. “It was a lot of old home weekend.”

During a break they ate potluck — soups and desserts and “assorted things,” followed by more potluck after the competition, she said. “Horse people like to eat.”

The Groves first met in 1972 at a competition at GHMA, where their horses were stabled next to each other. Nine years went by before they met again, this time on a farm in Woodstock in 1981. They married in 1989.

Since then, they’ve continued to compete year round in combined driving, pleasure shows and distance drives.

Robin Groves has twice been named United States Equestrian Federation national champion in combined driving. She also competed with the U.S. Combined Driving teams at the World Single Championships in Poland in 2008 and Italy in 2010.

The sport requires some unusual gear: a sleigh, sleigh robes (thick wool clothing, fur or faux fur to bundle up in), and, in some cases, vintage clothing.

The Groves own several sleighs. Some they found in antique shops; others came from friends cleaning out their attics.

One of the rigs, a gift from a friend in Massachusetts, required some maneuvering to acquire.

“The sleigh got built into the barn,” Robin said. “The only way to get it down was a spiral staircase.”

The couple cut off the runners to carry it down and Wilson later rebuilt it.

Their collection of sleigh robes includes a buffalo hide, a bearskin and a horsehide. The thick, black coat Robin wears to keep warm is often mistaken for the very expensive vicuna, an animal related to the llama.

“Mine’s a fake,” she said. “I just like it because it was my mother’s.”

Editor’s note: Weather permitting, sleighing combined tests and a sleigh rally will be held this coming weekend at Green Mountain Horse Association. Admission is free for spectators. For more information, go to www.gmhainc.org. Aimee Caruso can be reached at acaruso@vnews.com or 603-727-3210.