A 41-year-old Carmarthenshire man is riding high after qualifying for the world’s largest competition for para horse carriage driving.

Carl Ward, a resident at Pant-Y-Cendy Hall in Abernant, near Carmarthen, will be competing against other carriage drivers from all around the country at the Riding for the Disabled (RDA) National Championships, to be held at Hartpury College in Gloucester on July 12.

As the RDA’s flagship event, the National Championships sees over 500 competitors take part each year and has been the springboard for many para equestrians, including 11-time Paralympics gold medallist, Sir Lee Pearson.  It is also the biggest event of its kind in the world for disabled horse riders and carriage drivers.

Carl, who has learning difficulties and cerebral palsy, has been carriage driving since the age of 23 and competed in local events before qualifying for the RDA Championships for the first time in 2018.  Having won the Novice carriage driving class in last year’s National Championships, he now hopes to repeat his success in the Intermediate class with his horse, Badger.

A resident of Pant-Y-Cendy Hall – a three-bed facility for adults with learning disabilities and a member of Care Forum Wales – for the past 20 years, Carl is now training hard for the competition. The Intermediate final will see him take on the three carriage driving disciplines of dressage, obstacles and cone driving.

Carl said he was excited about competing at Hartpury for a second time.  “The Championships make me proud of myself and I am so pleased to be going. I feel good when I drive, and it keeps me fit and active,” he explained. “I have been practising a lot and I hope I win, but I don’t mind if someone is better than me as I always have fun doing it.”

Having taken up carriage driving at the age of 23, Carl is an ‘absolute natural’, according to Pant-Y-Cendy Hall owner and manager, Penny Hopkins,

A former college lecturer on learning disabilities, Penny, 68, who also rides and drives and has worked in social care since 1990, said she introduced Carl to carriage driving as a way to keep him active.

“We’ve always kept horses and were looking for something Carl could do to keep motivated and focused so we took him on a four-day carriage driving course to see if that would have any impact – and he took to it like a duck to water!”

Penny, who has run Pant-Y-Cendy with her husband Ray, 72, since 1999 and also set up the Carmarthen RDA carriage driving group, said she was extremely proud of what Carl has gone on to achieve.

“He has such a natural talent for carriage driving, and it has really turned a light on for him. Carl has really worked at his driving, but he has also made so many new friends and his confidence has really grown.

“We think he has a good chance of getting placed again at this year’s Championships and it will then take his carriage driving to the next level.”

Mario Kreft MBE, the chair of industry champions Care Forum Wales congratulated Carl on qualifying for the RDA National Championships.

“The passion Carl has for his carriage driving is obvious and the commitment he has shown in preparing for this year’s RDA Championships is remarkable.

“To be competing for the second time at the world’s biggest disabled carriage driving event is a fantastic achievement and I wish Carl and his support team from Pant-Y-Cendy Hall all the very best.”

Thanks to the facilities at Pant-Y-Cendy, which includes paddocks, an outdoor training arena and block of five stables, Carl keeps his horse on-site, meaning he can train whenever he can, with the dedicated support of Penny and Ray.

“The dressage test does take me a long time to learn, but Penny and Ray help me with it. If I concentrate, I can do the obstacle course, but I am really good at the cones section.

I have a lot of fun carriage driving – I would be bored if I didn’t and it gives me an interest. I’m really looking forward to Hartpury and working hard!” he added.

As Penny and Ray get set to accompany Carl to the Championships, the team are now putting in the last few training sessions to ensure both Carl and his horse Badger are fully prepared.

“Carl is very much part of our family and we are so very proud of him,” Penny added. “He is not showing nerves yet but then he is doing something he really loves. The cones are Carl’s strength and he is very good on the obstacles. We just need to work a bit more on the dressage and are driving every day to get it right.

“We think Carl has a very good chance, he is very competitive and the Advanced final next year is now in our sights!”

The 2019 National Championships are also extra special, as the RDA celebrates its 50th anniversary.  RDA National Championship Coordinator, Sarah Hadley, said reaching the finals was a massive accomplishment for all this year’s competitors and wished Carl the very best of luck.

“The Intermediate Carriage Driving competition requires skill, precision, accuracy, and close communication between horse and driver. Each element challenges driver and horse in different ways and Carl will have to demonstrate speed and control throughout.

“We also hope Carl has loads of fun and his friends and family will be there to cheer him on, on what will be a very special day for RDA.”