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Driving Ambition

Everything old is new again in the world of horse-drawn carriage driving.

Mandy Lorraine
Mandy Lorraine

Nothing is more stirring than a traditional "coach-and-four" making its stately progress through a sun-dappled autumn landscape. The creaking carriage is a marvel to behold, its driver resplendent in top hat and apron. The horses jog in perfect harmony, their harness jangling with every stride.

If you suddenly feel swept back in time, you're not alone. Once a vital form of transportation, driving is believed to pre-date horseback riding as the earliest form of equestrian conveyance. Its history is part and parcel of the human experience, and its practice is still cultivated around the world.

Long before there were carriages, there were chariots. As early as 1600 BC, war horses were hitched to these two-wheeled vehicles in parts of Syria and Turkey.

Horse-drawn vehicles remained an essential part of life until halfway through the last century, with their European heyday occurring from the seventeenth to early twentieth centuries.

Although most equine breeds can pull a vehicle, certain strains became renowned for their abilities "between the traces." Massive draft horses like Belgians, Percherons and Clydesdales became the musclemen of the driving world, hauling the heavier loads at a slow but reliable pace. On the other side of the spectrum were lighter, faster breeds such as the sturdy Cleveland Bays, the high-stepping Hackneys and the speedy Standardbreds. These animals pulled passenger vehicles with both animation and style. Last but not least were the trusty ponies and mules that carted many a family to church.

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With the advent of the automobile, driving enthusiasts kept the tradition alive through various regional and national clubs.

Enter the Michigan-based American Driving Society, incorporated in 1975. A national organization 3,000 members strong, it seeks to promote both competitive and pleasure driving. Working with such groups as USA Equestrian (formerly the American Horse Shows Association), the Carriage Association of America and the United States Equestrian Team, the ADS organizes and approves driving events and sponsors educational clinics. Over 60 local driving clubs are currently affiliated with the ADS, affording multiple opportunities to learn about the discipline.

Another major force is the Carriage Association of America, located in New Jersey. Founded in 1960, it is the oldest and largest international organization devoted to the preservation of historic horse-drawn vehicles. It boasts over 3,500 members in more than 25 countries.

Hitches and Such
In driving, as in automobiles, one basic rule applies: the bigger the load, the more horsepower is required to move it. "Once a vehicle is moving--especially on a firm surface--the horse can just trot along, not much encumbered by the vehicle; that is, if the weight ratio is okay," says California driver Linda Fairbanks, who is chairman of the ADS' local clubs and membership committee.

The most common types of "hitches" are the singles and pairs, which involve one and two horses, respectively. As top driver Gary Stover once said, four-in-hands (four horses arranged in two pairs, one behind the other) are ".the ultimate as far as driving horses goes."

When it comes to draft horse and mule teams, however, hitches of six or more are not uncommon. Less usual are the tandems, with one horse harnessed in front of the other, and the unicorns, with one horse in front of a pair.

The apparatus attaching a horse to a driver and vehicle is a complex affair divided into four systems. The communication system consists of the harness, bit, bridle and reins, which connect the horse to its driver. The other three systems--the vehicle support and steering system, the draft system and the braking system--connect the horse to the vehicle via a neck or breastcollar, padded driving "saddle," numerous leather straps, and the vehicle's own shafts.

Over the ages, styles and sizes of carriage have varied according to the needs and wealth of the user. The array of traditional vehicles is quite extensive--from the ultra-practical buggy to the luxuriously appointed coach designed for use with a large team.

According to Ann Pringle, executive director of the ADS, "Carriages are generally divided into the following categories: Family Carriages, Sporting Carriages, Park Driving Carriages, Coachman-Driven Carriages, Park Drags (Private Coaches), Road Coaches (Public Coaches), and American Buggies, Runabouts, Road Wagons and Buckboards."

Carriages frequently seen in competition include the Phaeton, the Meadowbrook, and the Gig, as well as streamlined marathon vehicles. Some of the most collectible vehicles are sleighs, as well as the highly decorative commercial carts and wagons of centuries past. Many a fancier prides himself on the faithful restoration of these antiques.

The Thrill of Riding - and Then Some
Why put a horse to a cart? Simply put, it's fun. "There is nothing more thrilling than traveling through the countryside behind a horse that trusts you and is happy in his work," says New Yorker Billie Hill, chairman of the ADS' pleasure driving committee.

Learning to Drive

Interested in learning to drive? Once you gain a basic understanding of horses, the next step is seeking help from the local driving community. "Training is the key," says Linda Fairbanks, chairman of the ADS' local clubs and membership committee. "There is a need for strong trust between the horse and the driver . . . and the horse must be specifically trained for driving, not just hooked up."

To find an experienced instructor - as well as the appropriate "turnout" (horse/pony, harness and vehicle) - join the ADS and study its official publication, The Whip. Chances are, there's also an ADS affiliate club in your region. "This group is well known for their friendly outlook and helpful behavior," Fairbanks said. "They love to share their sport!"

Driving need not be expensive. An experienced trainer can sometimes teach your favorite riding horse to drive. Good, safe harness--which starts at about $600 new and runs into the thousands of dollars--can occasionally be purchased secondhand through the right contacts. A single-horse steel vehicle can cost between $2,500 and $5,000, with antique reproductions and specialty carts also in the thousands. But according to Fairbanks, a tube cart with pneumatic tires can be had for about $500.

When age or disability halts a riding career, driving can offer a new way to enjoy horses. "There is less impact on the body, particularly the lower body," said Linda Fairbanks. "People who have back problems, for instance, can usually drive without difficulty.. [and] the need for excellent balance is lowered."

Plus, non-horsy folk can share in the fun. "My son, who won't even handle the reins, is able to understand, appreciate and enjoy driving," Fairbanks explains. "And our time together while driving is something we both cherish."

Ponies too small to ride can be driven using the appropriate vehicle. And a horse's useful life can be extended in harness, since driving causes less stress to the front legs, while developing the back and hindquarters. "Horses are made more for pulling than for carrying," Fairbanks noted. "And most of them prefer to be driven once they get properly introduced to the idea."

Driving offers all the thrills of riding, with some added challenges. "Contrary to what you might think, it is much more difficult to drive a horse than to ride it," says Billie Hill. "The only aids you have are your hands, voice and whip!"

Showing a horse in harness requires smart appointments and brilliant presentation--which is why "gaited" breeds such as American Saddlebreds, the "peacocks of the show ring," often steal the spotlight. But breeds from miniatures on up to drafts can all compete in a variety of classes.

"Pleasure driving" can mean anything from an informal solo junket or a multi-carriage camping trip to competition in a Pleasure Driving class. Among the most popular events are cross-country classes involving natural obstacles like railroad crossings, numbered gates and covered bridges; "scurry" classes featuring a self-designed, timed course of eight cones topped by balls; and "fault and out" classes, also involving a course of cones.

Part of the fun, Hill noted, is researching the traditional turnouts of antique carriages, harness and appointments.

Combined driving--popularized by the British royals over 30 years ago--is now a hotly contested international sport. Any breed can participate, but warmbloods and Morgans are particularly popular.

Based on the ridden sport of combined training, the combined driving event (or CDE) is divided into three phases--driven dressage; marathon; and obstacle (or cones)--all of which are scored on a penalty system. In the dressage test, precision, elegance and obedience are key, with marks also for overall presentation. The faster marathon phase takes its contestants cross-country, where they negotiate a variety of unusual obstacles (called hazards) that challenge the stamina, fitness and judgment of both driver and team. The final phase, the obstacle or cones competition, tests a team's ability--after the previous day's grueling marathon--to handle a course of narrowly spaced traffic cones, raised rails and other obstacles with multiple changes in speed and direction.

Thomas Hilgenberg of Georgia, a former show rider who is now a world-ranked driver, was quickly sold on this thrilling sport. "The competitive nature of the CDE really got me hooked after our first one at Rowlett Creek, Texas," he recalls. "The real selling point, however, was the friendliness of the carriage competitor. It is still that way today, and that is why I still compete!"

Hilgenberg--a member of the US Silver Medal Team at the first World Singles Championships in 1998--also confessed, "Riding in a carriage is easier on my 65-year-old body [than horseback riding]. I spend over an hour a day with my friend Gus, and we know every bump in our pasture!"

Besides shows, pleasure driving events and CDEs, there are numerous exhibitions by the famed Budweiser Clydesdale, Heinz Percheron and Coors Belgian hitches. And for those who prefer more speed, harness racing might appeal. In this sport, Standardbred horses--their movements restricted to the trot or the pace--are driven to lightweight sulkies, or "bikes."

Driving is certainly part of the Kentucky Horse Park experience. Draft and mule teams pull the park's trolleys on tours of the facility. Carriage rides take visitors through the park's back roads for an unparalleled view of the countryside. And lessons in basic, obstacle and team driving are even available through the park's equine education programs. "We have an entire draft and carriage horse division," says Breeds Barn Manager Denny Chapman. And don't miss the team of Norwegian Fjords driven by Horse-Drawn Tour manager Tracy Walker. For general information on driving, contact the American Driving Society at P.O. Box 160, Metamora, MI 48455, 810-664-8666, www.americandrivingsociety.org; or the Carriage Association of America at 177 Pointers-Auburn Road, Salem, New Jersey, 08079, 856-935-1616, www.caaonline.com.

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