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.
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.