World-Class Competition

Chester Weber competing in four-in-hand combined driving.

Chester Weber competing in four-in-hand combined driving.

From a nine-time United States National Four-In-Hand Driving Champion to a former NFL offensive lineman, the upcoming Hermitage Classic is filled with every type of competitor imaginable.

The electrifying combined driving event set for the weekend of Sept. 21-23 at Hermitage Farm in Goshen, Ky., will feature Limit Preliminary up to the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) Advanced level of competition. The internationally-renowned Chester Weber, a four-in-hand carriage driver, is one of the many entrees vying for first prize in the classic.

At the age of 18, Weber had already made his mark in the equine world, representing the U.S. as an individual competitor at the World Pairs Driving Championship. “I think I drove my first event at 12 and I’m 37 now, so I’ve been at it for a good deal of time,” Weber said.

In 2008, Weber earned his first individual silver medal in the Four-in-Hand World Driving Championships, the first American to win an individual medal at the World Driving Championships. Last month he repeated the feat, with a second individual silver medal and helped boost the U.S. team to the bronze medal at the 2012 World Driving Championships in Germany.

Although he’s one of the most decorated in his sport, combined driving wasn’t necessarily the natural choice for Weber growing up. His family owned Thoroughbreds who raced in the Kentucky Derby, with one competing as recently as two years ago. “I’m 6’ 2” and right under 200 pounds so the dreams of being a jockey sort of died (early),” he joked.

After learning about carriage driving, however, Weber developed a keen passion for a new equestrian sport. “Something about when four horses are working perfectly in harmony together that’s sort of magical on a natural level. Like Niagra Falls sort of magical,” Weber said.

His affinity for the sport has not only led Weber to the top of the combined driving game, but it’s also sparked his active promotion of the activity, supporting the USEF by serving as a member of the Board of Directors, the High Performance Driving Committee, the National Driving Committee and the Safety Committee. He’s acted as the Chairman for the Active Athlete’s Committee and the Dressage Search Committee, as well, and was named to the Board of the United States Equestrian Team Foundation.

Weber is also a strong supporter of Steve Wilson and the newly established Hermitage Classic. And for that reason, he’s eagerly awaiting his visit to Kentucky to take part in a tradition growing as quickly as the popularity of combined driving, itself. “I think the future of the event (The Hermitage Classic), it has a great deal of potential,” Weber said. “Steve and his wife (Laura Lee Brown) and their family, I’ve never seen them do anything sort of half-way or small. … And I felt like it was necessary to support them.”

Avery Wilson

The youngest driver in this year’s Hermitage Classic, Avery Wilson, 11, has demonstrated early promise of an accomplished career similar to Weber’s.

Competing with a single pony in the 2012 Hermitage Classic, Avery first became inspired to learn carriage driving after seeing his grandpa Steve Wilson, owner of Hermitage Farm and founder of the classic, in competition.

“I was in Florida while (Steve) was at a competition. They also had mini horse lessons (there) and I really liked it and started doing horse lessons at Hermitage,” said Avery, a student at St. Frances in Goshen.

Having only participated in driving for about a year, Avery has competed in Florida and Indiana, and will try his hand at dressage, cones and cross-country marathon next weekend, facing competitors who are much older than him.

“I like going through the obstacles and the cones fast,” he said. “I really like (driving); I’ll probably do it for a very long time.”

While he’s developed a need for speed, his mom, Dena, doesn’t worry too much while watching Avery compete. “I never worry about his safety at all but sometimes he gets a little nervous,” she said. “(But) he has a really good team of people who work with him.”

One such person on that team is Danielle Aamodt, Avery’s trainer, who’s been instructing him since April at Hermitage. “He drives well wherever we go and compete,” Aamodt said. “(And) as an 11-year-old, he’s competing against people who’ve been doing it for about 15 years.

Avery balances equine training with playing soccer, and hopes to continue participating in both sports. But, with his precocious abilities as a driver, plus support from his trainers and spirited grandfather, a future focus on driving could very well lead to an exciting, prosperous career. “Avery shows a lot of promise,” Aamodt said. “He’s actually very skilled for such a young age.”

Debbie Lawrence

In a short amount of time, Debbie Lawrence has become quite skilled at carriage driving, though she jumped into the driver’s seat much later than Avery.

About six years ago, Lawrence’s husband, Dwight, bought his wife a pony and two-wheel wooden cart for Christmas, prompting Lawrence to seek the help of trainer-duo Leslie and Jose Hernandez in Georgetown, Ky., to learn how to drive. Once Steve Wilson asked the Hernandezes to move to Hermitage, Lawrence began training at the farm, and within five years has become a top single-pony carriage driver in her division.

“You can sort of put your other (past) horse experience to work with (driving),” said Lawrence, who rode horses as a teenager. “Everyone thinks driving is easier than riding but it really isn’t because you don’t have as much control.”

Lawrence occupies much of her time practicing driving and caring for three Thoroughbred horses, plus her pony, Lodestar, on her Shelby County farm. Due to recent first place victories in past competitions, she’s advanced to the Preliminary division in the Hermitage Classic to face more experienced drivers.

And, while the accolades are nice, one of the biggest benefits of the sport has been the ability to spend more time with her husband through driving. “The thing that makes it so great for me is it’s something I can do with my husband,” she said. “He’s not really a horse person but has become one through osmosis. … He works as my navigator (in the carriage), keeps me on time (during the race), helps me find my way around the marathon course.”

Lawrence also loves the adrenaline rush she experiences while facing challenging obstacles, such as the daring bridge featured in the Hermitage Classic. “I love the quality of the course (Hermitage Farm is) building; probably some of the toughest hazards in the state and it really prepares you for what you might face in more difficult events in the future,” she said.

With all she’s learned and proven in recent years as a driver, next weekend should be another successful event for Lawrence. From the dressage to the cones, and the marathon (her favorite component of competition), every moment of the sport is a thrill for her; a thrill all the more special with her husband by her side.

“(The marathon is) the scariest part of the event,” she said. “You have a pony full of energy and excited about being there and nervous by all the commotion … but to face that challenge and to manage to get through it win, lose or draw is just a wonderful feeling to get through the course around to the finish.”

Max Montoya

Another competitor to join combined driving later in the game is Max Montoya, former NFL guard for the Cincinnati Bengals and Oakland Raiders, who argues there’s much more in common between football and carriage driving than you’d think.

About eight years ago, after his daughter ended her hobby of showing ponies, Montoya and his wife found themselves missing the pastime. “Probably 16 years ago (my daughter) started showing (horses),” he said. “(But kids) of course move on into adulthood and move on with their own thing, and (my wife and I) decided, let’s continue with the horses.”

Montoya’s other half began showing horses herself, while he looked into the driving side of the equestrian world. Now, after about seven years of experience and training with the Hernandezes, he’s moved from single pony to pairs driving. “Steve Wilson actually talked me into driving pairs now,” Montoya said. “It’s double the fun there’s no doubt.”

Next weekend, Montoya hopes to avenge last year’s narrow loss in the single-day Hermitage Classic, where a mistake during the final obstacle cost him first place. But, with his background in football and strong competitive nature, he’s sure to turn out a solid performance, with a favorable chance at redemption.

“There’s a lot of similarities although it’s a completely different sport,” Montoya said. “(In football), we’re working together as offensive linemen, so you have to work hand in hand with each other, and it’s the same thing with the horses; you’ve got to have the confidence and vice versa; and also the competitive nature. … Each and every day you just want to improve. … If we go to the next level that’s a great thing. … who knows for me what lies ahead, but I just enjoy the competition.”

The 2012 Hermitage Classic will take place Friday through Sunday, Sept. 21-23, at Hermitage Farm in Goshen, Ky. Admission is free on Friday and $5 on Saturday and Sunday. For more information and to purchase tickets in advance, visit

Contact writer Ashley Anderson at