The Story of How We Began to Drive Horses, Spend a Lot of Money, and Make Great Memories.
Charley and I got the idea of learning to drive for pleasure after our children stayed with their grandparents in Newport, RI. It happened that “A Weekend of Coaching” was brought back to the resort in the summer of 1968. The children stayed with my parents, who owned a Newport Cottage on Bellevue Avenue. How perfect. When we saw the photos, we were enthralled. It looked like an event from some other era. And it was. But the carriages, coaches, and drivers (whips), and horses were all very real and full of energy and pizazz! It was a great success. What fun!
Three years later, we made a point of being there for the Coaching week. We took part as much as we could. I rode on every vehicle onto which I could wangle an invitation. And they all welcomed us. Looking back, I see clearly what the coaching people understood at once. If they could encourage us to drive with them, they might have access to Beaulieu, my parents’ house. We could have some event there on the extensive lawn of my parents’ house. They had no idea how right they were. My father loved the entire coaching experience. Unfortunately, he did not live to see our triumphant entry into the coaching world with our own Four in Hand. That took years to achieve. He did see the beginning when we started out with a small vehicle and one horse. Later, when we began driving a pair, he was aware of it, but Alzheimer’s was beginning to interfere with his mind. I don’t think he ever saw us drive our Road Coach, The Viking. I hope he watched us from above and puffed up with pride. He would have enjoyed that so much!!!
Watching a coaching event makes one’s heart beat faster. Everything sparkles, the brass is polished, the sheen on carriages reflects images like a mirror. Various breeds of horses work well for driving. Cleveland Bays, Dutch warm-bloods and Hackneys, all sorts of mixed breeds, and occasionally Morgan horses and even Thoroughbreds were among the horses driven. Such gleaming coats and pulled manes, hooves polished and painted with “hoof black,” every horse shown off to its best. It was glamorous, exciting, and unusual. What more could anyone want? The ladies wore hats, and the drivers who were called “the whips”, wore top hats. These hats must stay on heads and not fly off. It is essential to avoid causing extra trouble while riding on someone’s carriage or coach. Other than that, NO COSTUMES were worn. Costumes were not condoned or encouraged. And those who did not understand this were quickly informed of the proper etiquette.
We had horses, but we did not know anything about driving them. Our neighbor old Mr Julian Griffith, knew how to harness a horse. He helped us figure out some secondhand harness so that we could drive one horse and a buckboard. But we wanted more. After seeing how elegant the carriages and especially the coaches driven at Newport we knew we wanted to enter the game. The intriguing and unusual rules of the new/old sport enticed us into learning more. Our “new best friend” Frolic Weymouth of Chadds Ford, said, “You are just perfect.” He saw a pair of suckers in us. But he knew we would also have a lot of fun!!! And did we ever!!!!!
What he meant when he said we were perfect was that we already had horses, property, and barns and fields for keeping them. We had some money, we were young (and stupid), and we lived in the country. We could drive on our local dirt roads for miles. And we thought it was cool and glamorous. Wow! What a lot of trouble we got ourselves into by entering the driving world. We just loved it! But it was always challenging.
For one thing, we did not have unlimited funds. We earned our place one horse at a time. We bought one carriage and managed to acquire single harness. We began with one driving horse, Easy Rider. He was Charley’s foxhunting horse. It was exciting when we discovered he knew how to drive a carriage, already. We began driving Easy Rider everywhere. Then someone offered us a tandem gig for $1000. We bought it. The spiffy gig was much trickier to drive. Driving a tandem is harder than driving a pair, and Charley loved the challenge of four reins rather than two.
We were aiming to drive a four-in-hand. But it took us a long time to build that up. We started with a single, then bought a pair of mares whom we named Ruth and Emma after our respective mothers. Strangely, our mothers did not seem to be grateful for the honor done to them by calling these horses after them. The horses were awful. They drove OK but would not stand still when necessary. That is something driving horses simply must do. But not these mares. I overheard someone talking about our horses, and they said, “Charley should take those mares out and shoot them.”
I was shocked. But they understood what we did not. Those horses kept us from fully enjoying our driving for several years. Once we got rid of Ruth and Emma things began to fall into place. We began driving our own team, purchased with care. We traveled all over England to find horses. We bought a pair of horses from a man in Yorkshire. They were good Cleveland Bays. Then we bred our mare, Rosebud. She produced only one foal. We named him Duck Soup. What a marvelous hunter and driving horse he turned out to be.
He was marvelous once he got some experience. Before experience, we drove him as a three-year-old up in Wilmington. Crossing the Brandywine River, he lost his nerve and turned back, breaking the pole. We ended up driving the team as a Unicorn, and our groom rode Duck Soup home in his harness. He certainly made an impression on everyone that day.
Later on, we had a team of horses we bred ourselves. Our team included Winnifred, Tarzan, Jubal, and Poseidon. All the horses were related and worked together well. Charley was a gifted Whip (driver) and handled a “Four in Hand” exceptionally well. All of us learned to drive horses during this time. I learned to drive a four, primarily to drive them around in circles on our property while Charley critiqued them from the ground. I am proud of myself for doing it because it is a rare skill. But only one time did I drive them as a four, to a public event. Charley drove a second team and vehicle. It was fun but nerve-wracking for me. Charley had an innate knowledge about what worked and what did not. He could command the respect and compliance of the team without raising his voice or being rough with any of them.
It took us years to work up to four horses to complete our team. We bought a roof seat break from Doug Nicoll, who taught Charley to drive the four in hand. We purchased a dog cart at Martins Auction that we could drive with a pair or a four. We had a Brewster tandem gig, which we drove to a dinner party in Wilmington, Delaware. We had not attached the traces correctly, and when the horses moved off, the cart turned over backward, tossing us in a slow somersault to the ground. The amusing part is that we were dressed in black tie formal clothes. Charley was dressed perfectly, of course. I was wearing an off-white silk dress that had buttons all down the back, tiny ones, like a wedding dress. Over it, I was wearing a black velvet cape, which protected me from dirt or harm when we got tossed out of the cart. We re-hitched the harness to the gig, and off we went. No harm done.
We had very few accidents, but there were a couple of heart-stopping moments, which I will write about later. Over the years, when we drove our horses, we were able to carry a lot of our friends and family who did not ride horses but wanted very much to come along. It is a great way to entertain friends. Our coaching life was rich with happy moments. These float through my mind as would images in a Television series of many seasons. There are so many stories, so many pleasant memories, some bittersweet ones, too. I am so grateful we had that wonderful sport in our lives for so long.
Copyright©. 2023 Bonnie B. Matheson