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Carriages: A Cherished Steeplechase Tradition in the Main Line Region

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Photos by Jim Graham

Carriage parades add history and pageantry on the Main Line to Point-to-Point at Winterthur and the Radnor Hunt Races.

It starts with the rhythmic sound of hoofbeats and the jingle of bits and brasses—the prelude to a spectacular procession on its way to Point-to-Point at Winterthur for a day at the races. Afterward, spectators can have a look at the immaculately groomed horses, gleaming carts, carriages and coaches, and nattily attired drivers, passengers and grooms. “Grooms love to show kids how to open up their hands to the horse,” says John Frazier Hunt, the lead whip. “For us, it’s the day to put on your bonnet, pack a picnic and strut your stuff. You want to come to the dance with some sparkle.”

carriage ride

Whipping is the carriaging term for driving—and Hunt has been doing it for a quarter century. The master of Bellwood Hunt Club, the oldest continuously active club in Chester County, he’d been foxhunting for years and owned two riding horses when he first bought a cart from his farrier. “I loved it— and so did my wife,” he says. “I was driving one and then two horses. I got to know the great George Weymouth, known as Frolic.”

A noted conservationist who founded the parade at Winterthur, the late Frolic Weymouth frequently hosted other carriagers at Big Bend, his farm in Chadds Ford. He was also the co-founder of the Brandywine Conservancy & Museum of Art. Along with the late Mrs. J. Maxwell “Betty” Moran, he was the reason the Radnor Hunt Races became a fundraising event for the Brandywine Conservancy.

steeple view

Frolic was a friend and mentor to Hunt as he learned to drive larger conveyances and more horses, moving up to a coach and four-in-hand. “Whenever I was discouraged, Frolic would provide me with encouragement and an adult beverage,” he says. “Someone who drives four horses once said to me that it takes seven years to get the confidence and lightness in your hands that it takes to translate to four horses. You must do exercises to strengthen your left hand and forearm. And you need grooms who make you look like you know what you’re doing.”

hornsman

Hornsman Richard O’Donnell.

Hunt and his wife, Penny, immersed themselves in the sport, participating in events in the United Kingdom and continental Europe while amassing a collection of coaches and carriages at their farm in Chester County. Before his death in 2016, Weymouth asked Hunt to take the reins in leading the carriage parade. Among his responsibilities is clearing the path for the carriages to make the drive to Winterthur. It’s a complex undertaking that requires bringing together law enforcement officials from various jurisdictions, owners of private properties the parade will pass through, and insurance companies. “With development and land changing hands, trying to stitch together places to enjoy various equestrian sports—and what goes with it—is getting more difficult,” Hunt says.

carriage ride

Weeks before the event, carriagers will begin polishing brasses and leather harnesses. Carriages and coaches will be spiffed up until they shine. “You have to polish the horses, too. We’d get up at 4 o’clock in the morning to give them a bath,” says Richard O’Donnell, who will be driving a pair of horses in the parade.

O’Donnell is a hornsman, or tootler. The horn acts as a signal to other coaches, alerting them of such commands as “clear the road” or “turn to the right.” “The tootler also entertains the passengers with traditional tunes while the carriage is en route,” says O’Donnell.

tailgate spread

A classic tailgate spread.

In the 17th century, the hornsman’s duties included collecting tickets from passengers on road coaches, large carriages pulled by four to six horses. “It was like a Greyhound bus in the days of conveying people,” O’Donnell says.

Historically, coaches often carried mail, and guards were armed with blunderbusses. At Winterthur, carriages are equipped with picnic hampers and stocked with bubbly, to be served at tailgate parties.

O’Donnell has been tootling for 50 years and is the author of The Coach Horn, sold with an accompanying CD through the Carriage Association of America. He first got the bug at the Devon Horse Show when he asked friends to suggest a way he could “get a ride on a coach.”

carriage rides

The 2013 drive at Big Bend.

Although he already played trumpet, O’Donnell learned that sounding the horn requires an extra layer of finesse, as there are no keys on the instrument. And while musicians in an orchestra play from a stationary position, tootlers must adjust their playing to the terrain. “When you’re on a moving coach, it’s very bumpy,” he says. “You have to use your knees as a shock absorber.”

For 27 years, O’Donnell tootled for Jack Seabrook, a champion of the sport and a founder of the carriage association. In 1998, he traveled to England with Seabrook, sounding the horn for the Duke of Edinburgh, an avid carriager. O’Donnell currently has four coaching horses, 13 restored carriages and 25 coach horns at his farm. He enjoys carriaging with his wife, Enid, who typically dresses to match his tie.

For their first drive to Winterthur, Jeff and Brittany Parris will be garbed in black, navy and maroon, color-coordinated to match their carriage. “The hardest part will be choosing a hat and scarf,” Brittany says.

“It’s easy for me,” adds her husband. “A top hat.”

In their 30s, the Parrises represent a new generation of carriage enthusiasts. Both grew up in the saddle, hunting and jumping. They decided to give driving a whirl because it’s an equestrian pursuit that allows them to both enjoy Winston, their 6-year-old Friesian, a powerful yet graceful breed developed in the Netherlands to carry knights in armor.

They learned to drive at Big Bend and were immediately smitten by the sport. “Driving is a very different connection than when you’re under saddle,” says Jeff. “It’s with your hands and your voice, building an incredible level of trust.”

The couple takes turns driving—and they’ve found a warm embrace in the carriaging community. “It’s such a welcoming group,” Brittany says.

The Parrises are buidling a barn on their four-acre property in West Chester, Pa., for their burgeoning collection of carriages, which includes a Brewster T-cart built in the 1870s. “It’s so magical being up on the box and driving when everything is clicking,” Jeff says. “For us, driving to Winterthur will be a very big day indeed.”

Related: All You Need to Know About the Races Around the Main Line Region

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