Equestrian Grace and Skill with Old World Pageantry

07 Apr 2020

Carriage Classic in the Pines — Looking Forward to the Future

By Ray Owen  »  Photos by Diane McKay

The Carriage Classic is a premiere event on the Sandhills equestrian calendar, hosted by the Moore County Driving Club (MCDC). Reminiscent of a Victorian era fair, its centerpiece one of the nation’s top driving shows with all the elegance and history it evokes. Celebrating its 30th anniversary in May 2021, the competition attracts the glitterati of the sport – a number of them area residents. This year’s competition was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The event tests the mettle of participants in a series of challenges that showcase traditional skills, magnificent animals and the pageantry of bygone days. Visually striking, many of the carriages are actual antiques or historic replicas – a defining aspect of this time-honored event.

MCDC is one of the largest and most active clubs of its kind with more than 200 members, and there are likely more horses-drawn vehicles in the Sandhills per capita than any other place in the nation. Skill levels range from newcomers to veteran competitors, and everyone with a sincere interest is welcome.

Horses-drawn carriages have been part of life in Moore County since the days of settlement. From the late 1700s through the early 20th century, artisans crafted wagons, carts and buggies. The 1850 census lists more than 30 individuals engaged in industry, including associated blacksmiths, mechanics and wheelwrights.

Among the largest manufacturers was the Tyson & Jones Buggy Company, a Carthage-based factory established in 1859. At its zenith in the 1890s, Tyson & Jones produced 3,000 units a year, but the eventual popularity of automobiles resulted in the firm’s demise.

As one door closed on the horses-drawn carriages, another was opening wide. The founding of the Moore County Hounds in 1914 attracted foxhunters to the Sandhills, and many of the riders came with harness horses and ponies. This led to the formation of MCDC, its roots reaching back to the 1920s.

The origin of the Carriage Classic is with an earlier MCDC pleasure driving show at the Hunter Trial Field on Old Mail Road in Southern Pines and Combined Driving Events held at Yellowframe Farm in the 1990s. During that time, HRH Prince Philip was doing a lot to promote the sport, and the Yellowframe event reached national prominence.  

In 1995, MCDC formally launched the Carriage Classic in the Pines at the Pinehurst Harness Track. The historic setting provided the perfect backdrop with flowers and shrubs by the truckload to decorate the rings. One of the centerpieces was a carriage pleasure drive through the magnolia-lined streets of the village, cheered by a throng of spectators.

The challenge for MCDC has been that first-rate horse shows rarely see a profit. Expenses almost always exceed what competitors pay in entry fees and other costs, with sponsors contributing the balance. The local community’s continued support of the Carriage Classic is a major achievement, setting a forward path for the sport as it wanes in other regions.

Fortifying the movement are a number of world-class professionals that call the Sandhills home including Bill Long, Megan Binge, Keady and Randy Cadwell, Fonz Hargrove, Steve Holm, Craig Kellogg, and Marcie Quist. This constellation of stars is always present, teaching students and lending advice, while guiding the future of carriage driving.

Since 2018, Big Sky Farm in Southern Pines has hosted the show that features 75 classes including Pleasure Driving and a Combined Test consisting of “dressage” and “cones.” By popular demand, there are also fun classes such as Balls in a Barrel, Egg Race and Picnic, along with a traditional hat contest.

Pleasure Driving is a show competition with participants in the ring together. Horse and ponies of all sizes and breeds are eligible, going up against others of similar size and experience. There are also divisions defined by the number of animals utilized, such as singles, pairs, and multiples such as four-in-hands and tandems.

Steeds are hitched to antique vehicles or replicas, and are categorized by the criteria for which they are to be evaluated. In addition to the driver’s skill and ability, participants are judged on their attire, which is expected to be in harmony with the color of the horse and its bridle, harness and carriage.

Fashions range from classical conservative to outfits inspired by the Gilded Age. Both women and men are required to wrap their mid-section and legs in an apron, and they must wear hat and gloves. A whip is also required for safety reasons to help guide the animal.

The Combined Test scores from a combination of two phases, dressage and cones. Drivers and equines of any size or breed participate in the competition. Participants utilize equines in singles, pairs, or four-horse teams. Grooms or navigators ride along as the second or third persons on the carriage, providing strategic support in addition to balance and ballast.

In the dressage phase, drivers and equines move in specified patterns and gaits to demonstrate their skills, obedience, and development appropriate to their levels of training. Movements include changes of pace, circles, turns and extensions, with equine and driver “dancing” together under the watchful eyes of one or more judges.

The cone phase requires drivers and animals to move through spaced pairs of cones over a prescribed course. This phase tests the fitness, agility and obedience of the horse and the accuracy and skill of the driver.

The Carriage Dog class is another category of the competition, judged primarily on the suitability of the canine to serve as a companion as well as performance and manners. The dog may be of any breed and only one per vehicle
is allowed.

The Carriage Classic marks a special time each year when competitors come together for a weekend of showing their horses, socializing, laughing, telling stories, and enjoying one another’s company. The event is made all the more special by the spectators, who have come to embrace the sport – so tied to the identity of the Sandhills.

Event: 30th Anniversary Carriage Classic in the Pines  
Host: Moore County Driving Club
Dates: May 1-2, 2021
Venue: Big Sky Farm, 390 Tremont Place, Southern Pines (must use E. Connecticut Ave entrance)
Cost: FREE and open to the public

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