We recently caught up with EC Licensed Driving Coach and Driving Committee member François Bergeron to answer our questions about the discipline he has been involved with for over 35 years. Having practiced all driving disciplines such as hacking, pleasure driving, and combined driving, he has been coaching and competing since 1998. He became a combined driving competition judge in November 2021 and is now the first judge to reach the FEI 2* level in Quebec and is the only FEI Combined Driving judge in Canada. 

I Am EC: Insights on the Sport of Driving from a Canadian Pioneer

Where are you from?

I was born in St-Etienne de Beauharnois, Quebec, and now live in nearby Ormstown. I grew up on a farm where horses were always around.

Describe the driving community in Canada and Quebec.

Our community is very diverse. Its members come from different disciplines, including recreation driving, pleasure driving, combined driving and derby.

Few driving enthusiasts head into competition. It’s a real shame how few sanctioned competitions we have in Canada. Being evaluated by judges allows competitors to build on their strengths and improve on their weaknesses.   

How did you first get involved with horses? Driving?

I grew up around horses and ponies on our farm. At a young age, my father – an avid driver himself – introduced me to the discipline. We did all kinds of driving, from recreational driving and trail driving to agricultural fairs, pleasure driving competitions, combined driving competitions and derbies.

What inspired you to compete? To become a coach?

My father wanted me to go with him to a pleasure driving competition and enter with one of my driving mares. Surprise! I won the Championship that day. Since then, I’ve wanted to do more and better. I’ve picked up several championships in single and tandem pleasure driving. I have also competed with single, pair, tandem and four-in-hand turnouts.

There weren’t any driving trainers in Quebec. In 1998, I was in the first cohort of trainers. That allowed me to run clinics and workshops across Canada to help drivers perfect their knowledge. 

What are some memorable moments from competition as a team coach?

Without a doubt, the high points were the two years when we were reserve riders in combined driving singles for Team Canada at the World Championships.

And I will never forget the two years we were Tandem Champions at the Canadian Carriage Driving Classic in Caledon, Ontario. In fact, our picture was published in Horse Illustrated magazine in the United States.

Also, in 2019, I was the North American Champion at the Preliminary level with a Large Pony.  

Are there differences in coaching driving versus riding? If so, what are they?

Yes, there’s a huge difference between the two disciplines. Equestrian teams are made up of a rider and a horse. In driving, the team includes the horse or horses, the driver and one or more groom(s) and passenger(s).

Obviously, the mindset is different since our team is much more extensive. Training and approaches vary from one discipline to the next. You need a horse that has properly assimilated the basic training before hitching it to the vehicle. More harness adjustments are needed. Those are just a few quick points, but we could go into greater detail. 

I Am EC: Insights on the Sport of Driving from a Canadian Pioneer

What are some of the misconceptions about driving?

I have come across many mistaken beliefs. For example, “Driving is easy. You put on the harness and go.” You know, “My horse has years of equestrian experience. He’ll be good for driving.” That’s not always true. For example, the whip, which replaces the rider’s leg, has to be handled with care. For good results, it needs to touch the horse in just the right spot. It’s not for punishment.

What would you say is your biggest accomplishment?

Without a doubt, my greatest achievement was going to Poland in November 2021 to obtain my FEI CCA 2* Combined Driving Competition Judge rating. I have been judging competitions since 2003, and every step along the way was preparation for this. Before achieving the FEI level, I was an Equestrian Canada Senior Judge, an American Driving Society Senior Judge and a USEF “R” Judge. But being an FEI CCA 2* judge is the pinnacle for me right now. I am particularly proud to be the only FEI driving judge in Canada.

Which do you prefer – coaching or judging? Why?

I like both sides of the sport because they complement each other. As a combined competition judge, you work on a team of three or five judges. In dressage, you discover an X-ray vision for how movements are executed. Meanwhile, the trainer perfects the training program for both the horses and drivers to attain the most precise movements possible.

After being in the sport of team driving for over 35 years, how has it changed over the years?

Everything has changed: the level of competition, the event sites with the new surfaces, the new competition vehicles, the horses, the quality of training influenced by the Europeans, the rules and the training courses for officials, trainers and drivers. The sport has evolved at a furious pace over the past 15 to 18 years.

What advice would you share with someone who is thinking about starting to drive?

The best advice I can give anyone starting in the discipline is to meet with a trainer before making any purchases. They will be able to guide you, taking into account your tastes and way of thinking. Too often, people do it backwards. They start by making purchases then go looking for advice, only to discover that they haven’t made the right buying decisions.

What do you see for the future of the sport?

Even if you stay optimistic, everyone in driving needs support, encouragement and guidance, and that’s what’s hardest to find. That applies equally to every driving discipline, including trail driving, pleasure driving competitions, combined driving competitions and derbies. The different federations should offer driving enthusiasts a range of resources, information and trainers in every part of Canada to help them progress in this sport.

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