Taking position between the traces
So, it’s easy, isn’t it? Just sitting there, pulling the reins… After a stay in Scotland, our Deputy Editor reassesses the challenge – and appeal – of carriage driving
Deputy Editor Alexandra Henton tries her hand at carriage driving
Hands up, I admit it. Prior to bowling along a Scottish lane with my own pair clasped firmly in hand, I had often dismissed carriage driving as a sport for those made from less stiff stuff than us hedgehopping sorts. When I broached the subject in a Shire pub I was hooted at, as though I might turn up to the opening meet in a dog cart, perhaps clutching a vegan pamphlet for good measure. Carriage driving appeared to lack something red blooded for its detractors.
But I challenge any of the polo-playing, hard-riding thrusters to sit up behind a pair, get them underway and then tell me what
they think. The reality is that the carriagedriving world can do demure – and it can also do daring and dashing. There was a reason why the glamorous set swooned at the sight of HRH The Duke of Edinburgh deftly steering his horses round the trials circuit in the 1970s and ’80s. It is an adrenalin rush like no other, rooted in history, with a real element of danger and jolly difficult to master. If you think getting one horse to do what you want is challenge enough, try two – or four.
Horses have been harnessed since Ben Hur walloped around the Roman arena in his chariot – for war, for transport, for industry and for pleasure. It is the latter that dominates now and it was to Scotland that I journeyed, intrigued by an offer from Gleneagles to see its equestrian school and try my whip hand with Duke and Baron. Not dissolute peers but a stunning matched pair of greys that needed nothing more than a twitch to set them in motion. There was to be no highwayman cracking of the whip, which dented my romantic sensibilities but is far from necessary when a pair responds so well to voice and hand.
Duke and Baron have been in residence at Gleneagles since July 2017 and happily transport the hotel’s guests on luxury tours of the estate or surrounding countryside during their stay. However, I was to have the unique chance to drive, rather than be driven, and as soon as we woke in the spectacular surroundings of that evocative glen, it was kippers and kedgeree to prime ourselves for the morning’s endeavour.
Michelle Kenny runs the carriage driving side of the equestrian school at Gleneagles, keeping Duke and Baron in top-drawer condition for their work at the hotel. For my visit, Andrew May was drafted in as he holds an instructor’s licence and runs his own driving trials team. “A matched pair is the ideal,” he informs me as we looked over Duke and Baron, “but first you want them to work well together. It is easiest if you choose breeds that are easy to match, such as the Friesians I have at home. Bay warmbloods tend to be easy to match, too.”
Driving horses differ from your average hunter. They have a higher head carriage and a higher knee action so that they trip less when pulling a coach. “Over the past 100 years driving horses have become showier and most competition horses come from the Continent now,” he says, where carriage driving is far more popular than in the UK.
As May starts to harness the horses he talks me through the process. “No part of the harness is ornamental and each full collar is made for a specific horse. The collar looks hefty but is made from twisted straw covered with leather.” With traces and reins attached May emphasises balance. “The setup [how the horse is attached to the carriage and the bit] needs to make it as easy as possible for them to fall into step together. If you can get them both thinking forward they will learn to adjust and go on together.”
The wagonette attached to Duke and Baron was built specially for Gleneagles, a reproduction of a traditional country estate vehicle from the 1890s, and is used for ferrying house guests to shooting lines or similar. Every week the greys make an appearance at the front of the hotel and May parks smartly outside. “Right, who wants to drive first,” he asks, and in no time I am sitting in the driving seat, legs covered with a blanket (warmth and elegance are called for here), being instructed in the technicalities. “Up
to the roundabout, back here and park under the canopy,” breezes May, as though the drive is not littered with supercars dropping their guests at the doors of the hotel. Clipping a Bentley’s wing mirror suddenly becomes a chilling prospect but Duke and Baron respond to my inexpert aids like the professional duo they are and we negotiate the roundabout and come to a halt. It is rather thrilling. A few more practice weaves through the hotel forecourt and May hints that a drive round the village might be in order.
No prompting was needed and we set off at a rolling pace, passing golf carts, negotiating speed bumps and heading out of the gates. Just hand me some goggles and I’m rocking Mr Toad’s love of the open road. What is surprising is how much like riding it is, the hand and voice aids identical to those used when sitting astride. There is no feeling of just sitting and steering, which I had anticipated. It’s riding sitting down. And it’s hard work holding a strong pair as they turn for home and we rocket back towards the hotel.
Back at the equestrian school, May has set up a course of cones and a spot of friendly competition ensues, driving the carriage through the narrow course at what feels like breakneck speed but transpires to be a steady trot. In competition, balls are balanced on top of the cones and penalties given if they are knocked down. Dismounting, as stiff in shoulder as after a morning in the saddle and with as much brio as a sharp morning’s hack musters, the thrill has started me thinking about a pair of new bays.
“You need to be physically strong to drive four in hand,” says Karen Bassett, carriage driving supremo, when interviewed about her love of the sport. “If one pulls, they all pull and a trot around the lanes starts to become impossible.”
Bassett started driving when she was eight. “I’d outgrown my Shetland pony but he came back as he was proving too naughty. With nothing else to do with him my mother broke him to drive,” she says, soon progressing to two and then four in hand.
“The first international driving trials were in Lucerne in 1970,” says Sarah Radford, Horse & Hound’s driving correspondent. “HRH The Duke of Edinburgh was instrumental in the sport, helping to devise the rules based on the principles of three-day eventing.”
Bassett drives in seven or eight competitions a year, and when driving four in hand you need at least five or six horses to field a team. “You can compete five, changing one horse for each element of the trials,” she
You need to be strong to drive four in hand. If one pulls they all pull
says. “The cross-country marathon is the most difficult and there is a dangerous side to it. I have tipped over and have had a horse tank off. Body protectors and hard hats are used by the driver and the grooms and we all dress in the same colours, too [red and black for Bassett]. But for the dressage it’s beautiful pieces of millinery, with the grooms in proper livery and top hats.”
Bassett drives Dutch harness horses, their line descended from the Hackney Cambridge Cole, prolific 50 years ago and found in many driving bloodlines. “The Hackney gives them a lively movement and a good back end. In fact, the Dutch harness horse looks more like a Hackney now than ever before.” Prince Philip now favours The Queen’s fell ponies and was still driving them at Windsor Horse Show earlier this year; Her Majesty is the patron of the Cleveland Bay Horse Society. This beautiful British rare breed holds a special place in my affection. When examining her passport closely, having thought she was an Irish sporting type, my last and much adored hunter showed herself to be half Cleveland Bay and couldn’t have been a better advert for the breed. So perhaps now it is time to look at those bays again. Whether for the hunting field or between the traces.
Top: HRH The Duke of Edinburgh driving at the Royal Windsor Horse Show on May 15, 1982 Above: the writer driving Gleneagles’ pair Duke and Baron, with Michelle Kenny acting as groom
Above: Deputy Editor Alexandra Henton enjoying carriage driving instruction at Gleneagles
Above: instruction from expert Andrew May Left: heading back up the drive at Gleneagles