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Newcastle resident, CHP paramedic driven to win

Leslie Berndl and her horse Uminco win the 2012 Singles Combined Driving Horse of the Year
By: Amy Lobenberg, Journal Correspondent
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Leslie Berndl of Newcastle is no stranger to achievement. Not only did she earn a Medal of Valor during her 25 years of service with the California Highway Patrol, she and her 12-year-old Gelderlander, Uminco (called Travis by Berndl), have also won the 2012 Singles Combined Driving Horse of the Year and are currently once again ranked No. 1.
 
Berndl credits her accomplishments to her high energy lifestyle and work ethic. She is the most senior CHP flight officer in the state and works as a paramedic on lifeline helicopter missions throughout the foothills on afternoons and evenings. During the day, she trains as a United States Equestrian Team Member at Whispering Oaks Performance Horses in Newcastle. 
 
Combined driving is an equestrian sport in which the driver rides in a cart drawn by a single, pair, or team of horses. The sport has three phases: dressage, a cross-country marathon, and an obstacle cone course. It is one of the ten international equestrian disciplines recognized by the International Federation for Equestrian Sports.
 
According to the United States Equestrian Federation, “Combined driving has its roots in England. In 1970, His Royal Highness Prince Philip, established the first set of international rules that were implemented at the Royal Windsor Horse Show. A great competitor, first with a four-in-hand of horses and later with Fell ponies, Prince Philip remains a strong supporter of the sport.”
 
Berndl grew up having horses and wanted to incorporate her love of the animals into her everyday life. She enjoyed competing in various shows, but wanted to do something different. Something she had never done before.
 
“I went to a driving show, trained one of my horses to drive, and decided to start competing,” Berndl said. “I found that I really enjoyed it. The people I work with are very nice. The whole experience of competing internationally has been amazing. I have been to Portugal and Poland. The experience of getting the horse to Europe has also been memorable. All the equipment, travel, and boarding costs are super expensive. Just to get the horse out there costs about $15,000 to $20,000.”
 
However, for Berndl, being able to compete with a horse like Travis makes it worthwhile. Although he was shy and nervous when she first got him, Travis has come to trust Berndl and enjoys living with her family at Whispering Oaks Performance Horses.
 
“Travis came from a big stable in Europe and did not really have a person of his own,” Berndl said. “He was nervous and did not have much of a personality, but has a huge one now. I like the way he acts toward me. He relies on me a lot and looks to me for help because of his issues with confidence. He loves to work and work hard. He would rather be working than doing anything else. He loves me and my family. He is kind of like a pocket pony. If he could come in the house, he would.”
 
Berndl’s fiancé, Scott Monroe, also competes in combined driving. He is currently focusing on helping her and Travis train for upcoming events. He believes that her attitude toward hard work has greatly contributed to her success.
 
“Her work ethic is very good,” Monroe said. “You can’t get to the top of anything without a regimented work routine. She is the same way in her professional life. There are a lot of horsemen and women out there, but not a lot of winners. They [Travis and Berndl] are the best in the nation right now. They are at the top of their game. There are other horses out there, but they are no competition.”
 
United States Equestrian Federation Director of Combined Driving, Lizzy Staller, agreed that Leslie and Travis make a formidable team.
 
“She is very focused,” Staller said. “She has an extremely high standard and is an excellent horsewoman. She has a really close connection with Travis. For her, it’s about their relationship. She listens to what he is telling her and they have very good communication. She trusts him and he trusts her. That’s very important when it comes to this sport.”
 
Berndl believes that her dual professions of driving and being a CHP paramedic compliment one another because they both require physical and mental courage, mixed with sensitivity and insight into both humans and animals.
 
“I always like to be doing something and I have always been active,” Berndl said. “Being a paramedic is like a calling, same thing with horses. Both jobs are really disciplined. Both have helped each other and have required a lot of work.”
 
Berndl works for the CHP Valley Division, which covers all the way up to Chico, down to Modesto, and everything inbetween, including Auburn and Placer County. She received her Medal of Valor from Placer County Search and Rescue after finding a man lost in the snow. She has also assisted with several other search and rescue efforts in the Auburn and Placer County area.
 
“We’ve done a ton of rescues from the confluence,” Berndl said. “One that I remember was a base jumper who jumped off of the Foresthill Bridge. We were flying over and I saw a light flashing. It wound up being a pen light that he had. We got down to him and he had two broken legs and was down there for something like five days.”
 
Leslie and Travis’ next singles combined driving competition takes place May 3 through 5 at the Vineland Classic in Woodland, Calif.