I was never one of those little girls who devoured books or movies about horses, whether it was reading Anna Sewell’s 19th-century classic “Black Beauty” or watching a 12-year-old Elizabeth Taylor’s violet eyes sparkle with delight whenever she hugged her spirited gelding in “National Velvet.” The embarrassing truth is that I’m afraid of horses: of the way their eyes look out watchfully from the sides of their head, of their huge nostrils, of the possibility — faint but real — that they will sink their oversize yellow choppers into my soft flesh in a moment of skittishness or fear. As for horses and carriages, I had thought they were an artifact firmly of the past, like bustles and coachmen wearing powdered wigs.
And they are, but for a group of ardent fans and re-enactors of a certain bygone era, who invited me to join them at a 60th-anniversary gathering of the nonprofit Carriage Association of America on the Wethersfield Estate & Garden — founded by Chauncey Devereux Stillman, an accomplished equestrian, avid conservationist and grandson of one of America’s richest bankers.
The June day was glorious, reminiscent of a John Constable painting: A bright sun hung in a robin’s egg blue sky amid wafting, cottony clouds. Wethersfield Estate, minutes from posh Millbrook, is situated on 1,000 acres of rolling hills in Dutchess County, N.Y. There are 20 miles of horse trails, 13 oval reflecting ponds, fountains, and formal as well as topiary and statuary gardens. A quotation of murky provenance, here attributed to Winston Churchill, was haphazardly printed across a horse jump: “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.”
Indeed all of the participants there for the day’s competition seemed to agree.
“I really love my horses,” Frances Baker said. One of the more extravagantly inclined riders, Ms. Baker, a former real estate agent, hails from a 1,500-acre estate in Aiken, S.C., and arrived at Wethersfield in a chrome trailer that was a source of both admiration and amusement among her competitors. She had left her husband at home, she said, because he thinks of “showing” horses and carriages as “hurry up and wait” activities.
Instead, she brought with her a French coachman named Jean-Paul Gaultier (no relation to the designer, although he admits to loving clothes), two female assistants and four Hackney-Clydesdale crossbreeds. She has used her carriage, which was built in 1901 by the Brewster company in New York, for 30 years.
“It takes about six years to get good at four-in-hand driving,” she said. “You have to work at it.”
Rules of the Race
The competition was already underway when I arrived. The timing was down to the exact minute, rather like a psychiatric session, as each contender began approaching the two judges: “11:36,” not 11:15 or 11:30, was announced for the next carriage to get into place. The pacing was leisurely — “a processional trot,” as David Saunders, one of the judges, described it to me, “not a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am clip-clopping.”
Each contender began by approaching the two judges. Drivers, seemingly lifted straight from the pages of an Edith Wharton novel, sat on the right-hand side in the English way, taking turns going past the two judges as part of something called a “turnout inspection.”
Women at carriage association events typically wear long pastel dresses and flowery hats, white string gloves in rainy weather and brown or black leather ones to match the reins at other times. Men are outfitted in crisp waistcoats, polished knee-high boots and black silk top hats; some of them wear yellow boutonnieres, adding a welcome pop of color. On this particular afternoon, several women wore helmets (which is allowed under the association rules), and a few camouflaged their helmets with hats.
The drivers held the reins lightly, navigating one, two or sometimes three horses in what is called “tandem,” a difficult configuration in which one horse is out in front, leading the other two. In a single instance, there was a coach, belonging to Ms. Baker, with four horses — a maneuver that requires riders to hold all four reins in their left hand. A driving whip (rarely used) pointed diagonally upward.
The carriage driving in this competition is described as “pleasure driving,” as distinct from a more rigorous form referred to as “combined driving,” which includes dressage, gaits and maneuvering hazards, and features professional drivers.
The two judges, Mr. Saunders and Raimundo Coral, took their duties seriously, stepping up to each horse and driver as they stopped before them and, with a tip of a bowler or Spanish-style hat, bid the driver hello. They briefly assessed each presentation according to a highly detailed, printed list of criteria, which ranged from the “suitability of colors between the vehicle and the dress of the driver, groom(s) and passengers” to the cleanliness of the horses or ponies and their harnesses, many of which are sewn by hand.
Mr. Saunders, a genial Brit with a keen sense of humor who was Prince Philip’s coachman for 25 years and worked with the Dutch royal family, walked around a horse and carriage, checking it out for various aspects that would raise or lower its overall score. A loquacious man, he told tales of having been kissed twice by Elizabeth Taylor and having trained Michael Caine and Omar Sharif for movies, neither of whom seemed very keen on riding.
“Horses have minds of their own,” he said. “They have to be trained to stand still. You have to be engaged with your animal to do the right job.” Then, apropos of nothing, Mr. Swanson added: “The queen hated gadgets. Philip loved them.”
Some feet away Mr. Coral, an architect from Seville, Spain, who knew very little English but nonetheless seemed very enthusiastic, was busy doing the same roundabout. A spirit of easy camaraderie marked the proceedings and continued throughout the next two days — whether during Saturday morning coffee and pastries, or the “Cones” obstacle course, or the awards brunch ceremony on Sunday.
Drivers were then given 38 minutes to traverse 4.2 miles of trails. (Horses can generally go seven to eight miles in an hour.)
One of the high points of the event took place at the Saturday night auction, led by Dick Lahey, a retired teacher, and Mark Duffell, a co-chairman of the auction committee. Mr. Duffell jumped up and down in a frenzy when it looked as if he might extract a higher bid for a pair of carriage lanterns, a silver stirrup-foot bowl or a leather-bound “spares kit.” The kit contained a variety of items in case of emergency: a sharp knife, a wrench, a screw, a leather strap, and an adjustable horseshoe and nails, which no one seemed to actually know how to use.
Barbara Tober, a vigorous 88-year-old who was the editor in chief of Brides for 30 years and is a former chair of the Museum of Arts and Design, is a principal sponsor of the C.A.A. event and a font of information about horsemanship, although she will not personally get on a horse again.
“I have very strong legs,” she said. “You need them to hold on to an animal. Perfect grip is what keeps you from falling. I had a bad hip replacement a few years ago and can’t do that anymore.”
A general lover of wild creatures since growing up on her grandparents’ 200-acre farm, Ms. Tober taught herself to ride from a book, “Teaching the Young to Ride,” by Margaret Cabell Self. She divides her time between a Manhattan apartment and Yellow Frame Farm, a stunning, crafts-filled estate doubling as a working farm in Millbrook with more than 125 acres, pigs, cackling chickens, guinea hens, cows and bulls, alternating corn and soybean crops.
Tom Burgess, a former president of the carriage association and a veteran (“a lot of vets are involved with carriage driving,” he said), was a co-chairman of this year’s event, traveling from his 125-acre working farm in Bridgewater, Va., with his wife and an 1893 Stanhope phaeton, a carriage that used to belong to John Rockefeller Jr. that he bought from David Rockefeller.
Despite the ritzy lineage of his vehicle, which includes documentation of its provenance, Mr. Burgess insisted that “horses are great equalizers — they don’t give a damn what your status in life is, from millionaires to farmers.” He said that it took five days to get his high-stepping horses, black Dutch Friesians named Hessel and Ada, and the moving pieces of his carriage ready for the competition.
‘Not a Class Thing’
One could argue, somewhat reductively, that these pseudo-aristocratic games are the fancy person’s version of Civil War re-enactments you can catch on TV. It costs more than a few farthings to house, train and groom horses, after all, not to mention maintaining the carriages themselves. But that wouldn’t be quite fair in terms of the hard work, the discipline and, most of all, the consuming passion for historical accuracy that goes into carriage driving, which is both an international sport and a private, obsessive pastime. Many of the people at the event were at pains to stress that the sport is not about displays of wealth, so much as an effort to preserve history and not lose the roots of horse driving.
One of Ms. Baker’s assistants, who described the sport, sotto voce, as an “ongoing expense,” also pointed out: “You can go in at any level. There is nothing to do with class about it.” Although she doesn’t own her own horse, for instance, she has her own carriage — “a small single cart I found on Facebook, for $200, and a harness, and I am by no means rich.”
Among the predictably wealthy sorts who own sizable collections of horses and carriages (one participant, Charlie Poppe, owns 58 antique whips) and brought a staff along with them to do the sweeping and cleaning and sprucing up, were some intriguing outliers: Albert Anderson, a laconic, good-looking welder; his wife, Lisa, a bus driver; and his son Eric. The Andersons had been unable to participate with their Dutch harness Petronas, Amos and Encore, because one of their carriage wheels broke the day before. They stayed around to watch the festivities all the same, with Albert evincing a sense of self-conscious superiority compared with some of the more entitled participants.
“I muck out my own stalls,” he said with a note of pride. He also pointed out that horses “feel everything, even a fly on their back,” and that their drivers are talking to them all the time. “The animals understand the tone,” he added. “A lot of it is voice.”
Then there were Ray and Lynn Tuckwiller of West Virginia, who brush and take care of their two horses themselves. At their gentle urging, I stroked their horses’ smooth, velvety backs.
Susie Haszelbart drove a trailer just short of 2,000 miles from her ranch in Elizabeth, Colo., together with her 18-year-old pony-size Haflinger named Shasta, who looks a bit like a Palomino and has a flaxen mane and tail. “She’s the first Haflinger to win the division championship at Walnut Hill, Ms. Haszelbart tells me. “She stands alone, and we’re just along for the ride.”
As it turns out, there are no real “winners” in this egalitarian-minded competition, except for a cascade of awards — bronze, silver and gold certificates — that are given for specific carriage traits. No one seems to be left out, which is perhaps part of the pleasure in “pleasure riding.”
By the end of my three days at the C.A.A., I gingerly fed a carrot to one of the horses in Ms. Tober’s stables, and I inhaled the smell of hay mixed with sweat and manure as if it were a seductive scent. I was not yet a bona fide horse lover, but after spending three days in this curious and rarefied world, I found myself wondering what it would feel like to get up on a horse and gallop away over the hills, the wind at my back like a riding crop.