image points to stable

Driving Sleighs

Sleighs: History site section Logo of ancient snaffle bit.

By Joan Gilbert ( Horse History Article copyrighted by Saddle & Bridle Magazine. )

This is how the poet Elizabeth Coatsworth saw it for her poem Sleigh Bells : There are no bells in all the world, so sweet as sleigh bells over snow. She pictured horses arching their necks, pleased with the music they are making, and she commented that though it is too dark for us to see them curvetting and prancing, one knows, to hear the bells, that those who wear them must be dancing.

A modern day horse owner in  St. Louis shared the poet s fancy to the extent of recreating it in the living horseflesh, but she also gives us a note of practicality: in days when they were a necessary mode of travel, sleighs were required by law, in some states, to have bells. Otherwise, moving so silently, they would be in danger and a danger to other drivers on the road. Some states required lamps, too, so they would show up from a distance. These also enabled the whip to see the team better. But unless required by law, lamps usually were found only on the more expensive sleighs, seldom on little everyday ones.

Thes project of bringing to life those delicate Currier and Ives pictures we all love, has been a solid combination of sometimes hard research and holding onto a dream through assorted difficulties. To begin with, it s hard to find books that give practical advice about the differences in driving vehicles that glide instead of roll, and that are quite different in weight (her six-person, two horse sleigh weighs about 600 pounds and her one-horse racing cutter about 70). One need to adjust to a surface that brings unaccustomed concerns about the well-being of ones team and ones passengers.

Sleigh horses must, of course, have special shoes, too. Creating a team of two horses who are well suited to each other was and is more of an undertaking than one might think. The animals must be well-matched in size and stride. If not identical in color, they must harmonize and they must both be willing to work with a partner. That last requirement was not easy but according to this one owner dedicated to re-enacting history,   all that power and beauty together magnificent a spectacle that is far greater than the sum of its parts! She watches her horses working as a team and says to the horse world, Why haven t we been doing this all the time?

The trainer s criteria for choosing suitable sleigh horses includes good big leg bones; a larger, rounder, flatter hoof than you might want for a show horse. He s among those horsemen who are convinced that a solidly dark colored hoof is stronger than a white one. And he likes it that this team is long necked and pretty headed. They were going to be show horses, but they don t quite have the most desired action or conformation, he says, yet they are very good horses and awfully pretty together.

A few of the trainer s practices for creating a striking team? To get them accustomed to being close together, he serves their food from a single long trough so they have to stand side by side to eat. He turns them out together, apart from any others. While training each of them to go alone in harness, he also gave them sessions of being tied together in turnout, or tied to the wall together for short periods of time. They caught on quickly that the less fussing they did, the sooner they would be released. Like all the best trainers. The team was trained in long lines, going over hill and dale, over rough terrain on the farm, and then out on the nearby blacktop road. They go in all these places later, while hitched to a breaking vehicle

And as to sleighs? Where does one find those? As it turnedout, there was a master sleigh builder and restorer right near St. Louis.  Within six months, very quickly as sleigh searches are reckoned, the located an exquisite antique built in New York City some 115 to 125 years ago. It was restored by an Amishman who is known beyond the US for his work. It was two years before the sleigh was finished but it s a thing of dainty beauty.

Capable of carrying six people, the vis-a-vis was restored with all pale wood ash, birch and poplar and is upholstered in deep pink. Many people have searched out the kind of sleigh they want sometimes long abandoned on a farm, maybe in eminent danger of destruction and had it repaired and beautified by skilled workmen . Others went in the beginning to Amish or Mennonite craftsmen who regularly build and repair the workaday sledges and sleighs their communities require. The skills of these men are well up to doing more ornate work and some of them specialize in it. As to costs, a price range on true antiques of $1,500 to $30,000, with as much as $80,000 for some of the most choice. Reproductionsrange from $1,500 to $5,000, depending on how many passengers they will accommodate.

Some advice from  this particular owner and trainer is to use no gait beyond a walk and a trot. because you have  to remember that sleighs behave differently on curves than wheeled vehicles do. You have to think always of the surface you re driving over.You must concentrate on your team at all times and communicate clearly with them. You have to allow more time and space for turning. You have to keep plenty of space between yourself and everyone else.

That last arouses in us the question of how authentic then, can the very close-together racing scenes Currier and Ives show us be. Perhaps we shouldn t ask, because at that time, running horses to death in private wagers was commonplace.

We are further advised that new snow is best for sleighing, because it gives more traction under shoes. Packed snow, with surfaces grown shiny and slick from melting and refreezing, is another matter. At least four inches of new snow is ideal.

How will a sleigh team be utilized other than for pleasure on one s own property?   Horse shows offer no sleigh or pairs harness classes.  It might be fun to fit sleighs out with tiny wheels and donate appearances as a speciality at shows or in holiday parades. They would be wonderful for Santa s visits to children s hospitals or for therapy groups or senior facilities.  Another possibility is simply Play Days among like-minded friends who would assemble in small groups to show off their horses and sleighs and to network on how to obtain them and how best to enjoy them. One objective might be the Currier and Ives rallies in some of the Northern states. There snow may be on the ground for weeks at a

time and there some roads and other areas are set apart especially for the use of sleigh enthusiasts. These rallies are reenactment at its most elegant, something that flourished in our country through the late 1800s and peaked about 1905. Recently, they are regaining popularity. in the late 19th century costumes that some of the drivers and passengers wear, and in the carefully restored and accessorized sleighs. Activities and competitions, planned to fascinate any horse lover, focus on driving skills, authenticity of costumes, racing and the judging of restorations.

All this leaves only one major segment of the story, the bells that we began with and there is much more involved than just finding some that will jingle. Straps of maybe a hundred large bells are so noisy enough to be almost unpleasant; passengers are forced to shout at each other in order to converse.  Such bells were perhaps intended for teams of large horses in city traffic or regular movement on the open road.  Sleigh bell volume goes from that a tiny voice to large , according to the size of each bell, but as this St. Louis horse owner and now sleigh advocate says,   It is hard to say which is more pleasing, the joy evoked by the sound of bells or the immense beauty of her  Saddlebreds put to pairs, or the quiet sound of sleigh runners muffled by the snow.

Thinking of  such restoration of history gives us new appreciation for words that have been an unexamined part of our lives forever. Just think through the stanzas of Jingle Bells and see what they show of our collective past. And what is encapsulated in the horse knows the way to carry the sleigh ? And don t forget sleigh bells ring; are you listening ?

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