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

The Field - - Content - writ­ten BY alexan­dra hen­ton

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.

pro­fes­sional in­struc­tion

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

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