Reporting on Driving Trials
25 June 2004

Ian Russell is the new reporter for Horse & Hound who is going to be covering driving trials events. To start him off, we arranged a ride for him on Pippa Bassett's team carriage in the marathon at Farleigh HDT. Here is his article.

In the Hands of Pippa Bassett (Confessions of a driving trials virgin)
by Ian Russell

They didn?t tell me it was called ?the Suicide Seat? until later. Eighteen Hampshire kilometres and ninety minutes later, by which time it was too late. Beforehand there were harmless seductive remarks - ?We?ll organise a trip for you,? and ?you can go around with Pippa.? Suicide was never discussed, although life insurance briefly was, which should have been a tip in itself.

The previous morning I had arrived at the driving trials, little suspecting that within 24 hours I would be in them. But on a sunny afternoon when I might have been comfort-eating on a sofa with my eyes fixed on the televised Epsom Derby, I was perched instead on an open four-wheeled carriage in the woods of Farleigh Wallop, with my eyes fixed on eight enormous, grey buttocks.

The preparations were conducted with the mixture of gravity and gathering tension that is common to all genuinely competitive sports.

Poised in a seat beside and above me, driving doyen Pippa Bassett was gathering what looked like a dozen reins into one gloved hand just a few inches from my right cheek. She looked both cool and revved-up and I had decided I trusted her completely.

?Watch out in case I whack you in the eye with the whip,? she said.

The Lippazzaners pricked their long ears and flexed gently within their bodice of harness. Like spiders in a bath, my hands scuttled in vain around the carriage interior. I needed a safety belt or a handle, but would have settled for a crucifix, having discovered a sudden and powerful desire to hold something - anything - very tightly indeed.

?Alright?? inquired Pippa.

?I?m fine,? I tried to reply, but it came out as ?mangs-fangs? because my teeth were holding each other so tightly. A pleasant middle-aged woman sitting by the starting line began a countdown ? ?Thirty seconds - fifteen seconds?? and a squirt of adrenalin - I think it was adrenalin - rushed through my lower regions. The woman opened an oddly peaceful smile and pronounced ?Go!?

Starlings bolted from the trees as the team clopped into motion and Pippa struck out for the gentle slopes of Hampshire. My head began nodding as the unique sonic barrage of a horse-drawn vehicle crossing rough terrain rose like a storm around us. It is the noise of a giant centipede jogging down a gangplank with a ton of stolen cutlery. The dance of the carriage is as violent as its song, for the suspension appears to contain an imp whose pleasure is to whack your coccyx with a paddle at random intervals. Perhaps, I thought, these slopes are not so gentle after all. After five minutes of punching my chin with my knees, a voice behind my right ear observed that the course was actually ?a little bit bumpy.? The source of this understatement was Trisha, one of two grooms who were travelling standing on the ?back-step? of the carriage - a zone which the manufacturers have thoughtfully equipped with all manner of attractive hand-holds, incidentally.

We plunged into a rutted trail that burrowed into the woods. As the carriage accelerated round a downhill corner I attempted to magnetise my bum to the seat using nothing but the power of human will. The attempt failed, but inertia succeeded as we cornered in the opposite direction and I thumped back into place like a sack of spuds.

?I?m just going to grab you while we hit this dip,? said a voice in my right ear, and Trisha - who is a trained nurse - took a temporary fistful of my jumper in what she might call the lumbar region. I thought about removing my belt and asking her to tie me to the frame, but a mental image of my trousers falling around my ankles prompted a re-think. And I was starting to enjoy myself. There is a hypnotic quality in the experience of a fast-rolling carriage, and a gradual increase in the psychological momentum as the marathon course unfolds.

?You end up in these amazing places you?d otherwise never even get to see,? observed Pippa, and a glance in any direction underlined her point.

Paused while the vet checked the horses? pulse-rates, I found no desire to get off the carriage. In fact, I was quietly impatient to get rolling again. The second phase had a dream-like quality about it, and I realised that by some peculiar chemistry of friction and motion, all of the horses and humans involved had arrived at a collective state of near-total absorption. Suddenly the trip seemed more like a mission than a sporting enterprise, as if the journey itself was the whole point of the exercise.

Then we charged into the first of the seven obstacles and things got a little crazy. The clock was ticking in all our heads and as Pippa flung us back and forth between the gates I found myself willing the horses forward - probably the most meaningful contribution I could make, as my twelve stones of dead weight is not exactly an asset for someone trying to save time. I loved the obstacles. Pippa and co. really attacked them, and now the team nature of the game was thrown into sharp focus, with shouts and instructions going back and forth. As if racing four horses through mini-mazes of solid wooden beams wasn?t enough to occupy me, I was also operating a tape recorder and shooting pictures. Around the fourth or fifth obstacle - I lost count - the brilliant idea occurred to me that one of these busy hands could be usefully employed with the important business of hanging on. A second later we whacked the corner of a gate and lo and behold it was only my fingers that kept me on board.

And still the obstacles kept coming, and the world was now a high-speed kaleidoscope of slopes and hills and corners, with a soundtrack of rattling and Pippa?s voice yelling commands. At one point I heard the crowd cheering and the amplified voice of some cheerful commentator quipping merrily about some geezer from Horse & Hound magazine and realised he meant me. ?How?s it going Ian?? echoed across the course, and I flashed him a thumbs up, which is quite an achievement at thirty miles an hour with a dictaphone in one hand and a camera in the other. Wondering if I had gone completely mad, I found myself staring into the eyes of twenty teddy bears and a creature named Lamb Chop and wasn?t that the bug-eyed face of Bertie Bassett leering like a goblin as we barrelled through the last obstacle? I suspect the course builder is a Stephen King fan, because that collection was the stuff of which nightmares are made.

And eventually - too soon for me, although probably not for Pippa or the horses - the carriage stopped, although my head was still rolling hours later. The stillness and silence seemed bizarre. I undid my chin strap and removed a small piece of tree from my hat. Everyone was grinning and chatting as we trundled back to the box. I wanted to deliver an eloquent speech of thanks but I actually mumbled something incoherent because most of my brains were still the wrong way up in my skull. I wandered aimlessly around for a while replaying the marathon in my head and humming like a demented bee. I phoned a few people and gibbered like an ape about driving trials until they told me to shut up. I realised I was into something that most people don?t ever get to do, and it?s not easy to explain the nature of the thrill. Inevitably I trolled back towards the people who do know, and returned to the horsebox.

In no time at all I accepted an invitation to help the Bassett crew with a scientific experiment involving large quantities of fortified liquid, and thence to the Barn and the hog-roast. As is traditional in the profession of journalism, I ate and drank enough to bloat a large shark, but none of it had much effect. I was mentally stuck in gear, still replaying the marathon, still hearing the hooves.

?When does it wear off?? I asked Pippa. ?It doesn?t? she replied.