Carriage drivers share enthusiasm over sport
Carol Frank and Rudy go together like a horse and carriage or, in this case, a carriage driver and Morgan pony.
Frank is president of the Saratoga Driving Association, an organization of 140 members who drive horse-drawn carriages for pleasure and in competitions.
Frank is one of a growing number of baby boomers who have picked up the sport for its social aspects, the physical exercise and the fun of it all.
She had been a horse rider and knew about Morgans, the preferred breed of carriage drivers. In 1992, she decided to try carriage driving. “I thought it would be wonderful to sit in a carriage behind a trotting Morgan. You just got to like the view,” she said.
Frank, who is retired, flew to a clinic in Arizona to learn more about the sport and “was totally hooked.” Today she owns a Morgan pony she said has more experience than she does. “I’m catching up,” she added.
And though there are a string of brightly-colored show ribbons hanging in her home, Frank insists she is a novice. “I’m learning. We have a good organization and run clinics. I’m learning from the other members,” she said.
There’s a lot to know. While horse racing is called the sport of kings, carriage driving may well be called the sport of the meticulous.
There are two kinds of competitions: pleasure and combined driving. Depending of the competition, judges are evaluating the performance of horse and driver, the appearance of the carriages and the appropriateness of the drivers’ attire. More formal carriages require more formal outfits and hats and gloves are often worn by ladies in their buggies.
Pleasure driver Kathleen Conklin, 63, became interested in the sport when she was in her 20s. Today, she works with John Henry, a mule that has earned a cart full of ribbons and trophies.
Using a mule instead of a horse is unusual and John Henry has broken through many equine barriers. He was the first mule to compete in the New York state Horse Council Pleasure Driving Championship class at the state fair. That was in 2000. Since then, the handsome mule has not only won awards but has garnered fans all over the world.
“When I started, it was the very beginning of the sport in the Capital Region,” the Albany resident said. Today, membership is booming and new clubs are being organized.
Conklin believes this is a result of the baby boomers who are still interested in having horses but are no longer as athletic as they once were. “They have discretionary incomes, want to be involved in something athletic and something that is also social,” she said.
And, since awards are given only for individual shows, “No one is cut-throat. There is no need to be, as there aren’t any year-end awards,” she said.
Sharing their sport
Frank added that many carriage owners come to the sport through a desire to introduce grandchildren to horses or bring them along when they ride. That was the case for Lyn Howard, a retired professor of medicine at Albany Medical College. She grew up with horses. As a child in England during the war, petrol was scarce and ponies were used as transport, she said.
Throughout her life, she has had horses for pleasure. When she had grandchildren, she wanted to introduce them to an equestrian’s life and used a carriage to exercise the small ponies she used with the children, she said.
She is enthusiastic about carriage driving and thinks the sport would appeal to anybody who sees fitness in late life as key and who has had a long relationship with horses. Howard attends about 10 events a year and will travel 200 miles to compete.
“You can do this until you’re in your 80s,” Frank said, adding that even people in wheelchairs have participated in carriage driving.
And you don’t need to be competitive. Some members find pleasure in organizing recreational rides involving a dozen carriages. They will take a ride on a Sunday afternoon and picnic afterwards, Howard said.
Another appeal of the sport is its history, and some participants refurbish horse pulled carts and rebuild antique carriages. “There are some people who enjoy restoring antique carriages but new carriages made in the style of the old are available as well,” Frank said.
There are many types of carriages. “It’s like car models,” Conklin said. There were carriages that were only used to drive to church on Sundays and others that were meant for hauling wood or going to market.
The sport can be costly. Howard estimated the bill to be as much as “$10,000 a year.” There are farrier fees for shoeing horses, boarding expenses, vet bills and more, she explained.
And one expense can lead to another. Once Frank was committed, she bought a pickup truck to haul a four-stall trailer, a carriage, leather harnessing and Rudy, a 13-year-old Morgan purchased in Missouri.
Conklin had a special type of South African carriage called a Cape cart, constructed by Amish craftsmen using plans that dated to 1880. “It is a South African cart that was used to go cross country. I think mine is the only one in the United States,” she said.
In the combined driving competition, drivers maneuver through a course with obstacles called hazards. The drivers are judged on how they and their horse perform as they race through water, down slopes and around obstacles. The team with the best time wins. “It takes a lot of control,” Frank said.
Howard described competing as dramatic. “You hold your breath,” she said. To up the ante, Howard now drives a pair of horses which is even more challenging, she said.
In pleasure driving, horses, mules and ponies are hitched to a two or four-wheeled cart and judged based on the animal’s manners, performance and the appearance of the horse, driver and cart.
Both horse and rider are dressed for the occasion. The horse’s leather harnessing can be exquisitely decorated. And the rider’s outfit must be appropriate to the horse and includes hats, gloves and whips.
Conklin said this is a sport for a person who likes details. “Everything matters,” she said, noting that the harnesses are leather, any brass must be polished to a high shine and even the color of the scarf on her little Jack Russell is matched to the apron worn over her lap. “Traditionally the reins were oiled and the clothes could be stained without the apron,” Frank explained.
The horse or mule needs to be obedient, relaxed and steady. Frank said her Morgan pony has a nice extended stride — a desirable trait — and that Morgans have a personality that people either love or hate. “Morgans are over-achievers. They are opinionated and are always testing you. They’ll work until they drop. I like that,” she said.
Conklin, who has owned horses in the past, said the difference between a horse and mule is “a horse is like a cat, a mule is like a dog. A mule will come when called,” she said.
Conklin’s John Henry started competing in 2000 and has since distinguished himself in various ways including being photographed for calendars and developing a coterie of fans.
Conklin created a Web site for the handsome mule: www.john.henry.org. For more information on the Saratoga Driving Association visit: www.saratogadriving.com.