God Forbid There Be a Heaven without Horses

Monday, May 31, 2010

When people in the rest of the country think of driving and Memorial Day weekend, most likely it's the Indianapolis 500..........that is unless of course you are in Devon, Pennsylvania, then there is no question the driving you're talking about is the Devon Pleasure Carriage Drive.
This 45 year old tradition is not only a crowd, but a town favorite.  Residents along the 4 ½ mile route have a front row seat to a Concours d'Elegance with horses, and they took full advantage of it. Every possible type of entertaining from simple BBQ fare to over-the-top elegant could be seen on the front lawns of the stately homes, many of them flying Devon Hackney logo flags waving in the warm breeze throughout the route on this crystal clear day.

For those who wanted to see the initial judging at St. David's Church cemetery, there was no lack of space to tailgate your hearts out, and that's exactly what hundreds of people did.  From monogrammed linens to fathers and sons playing catch, the theme was red, white and blue, family, tradition, and the passion for horses.  One group of tailgaters raised their mimosa filled glasses to a beautiful toast, "God forbid there be a heaven without horses."

The Event
The 42 carriages began appearing over the ivy covered stone bridge at noon, many of them making a loop around the cemetery before entering the field to be judged.  Spectators were immediately transported in time, cheering and clapping for their favorite carriages.  The initial judging was done by division (Horses, Ponies, Light Commercial and Farmers) before the carriages began their journey to the Dixon Oval.  The judges were looking to see if the vehicle had the proper appointments, if they believed the turnout was correct, if the right horses were hooked up to the right vehicle, and if people were dressed reasonably, but not necessarily in period outfits.

The competitors were then judged on their performance on the road by road judges placed strategically along the route.  The road judges watch the competitors working on the road, and look for obvious mistakes like failing to stop at a stop sign, if horses gallop up the hill and have a problem, go too fast down a hill, or if they are crowding another carriage and don't use their whip correctly.

Henry L. Collins, III, Vice President of the Devon Horse Show and Chairman of the Carriage Marathon since its inception in 1966 has a deeply personal connection to this event. "This event used to be at my family's place in Berwyn where the grounds were more extensive, and we used to have thousands of people tailgating.  When it was at the farm, people came in three days before to nail down their spot...some people even slept in their spot to make sure someone didn't come along and take it. To this day people still plan their Memorial Day holiday around this event.  Along the current route the residents plan for months to have their parties and watch the carriages go by.

Where else do you see a collection of period 1890 vehicles? The vehicles are for the most part original antique vehicles; there is the occasional reproduction, but they are few and far between.  It goes back to the glory days of when Devon began in 1896. It's always been the thing to do on Memorial Day."

Once the carriages had finished their course, they entered the Dixon Oval in the order and division in which they left St. David's.  At this point they were asked to work the ring, while the judge evaluated their performance and condition looking to see if any of the horses were overheated, or if the 4 ½ mile trek appeared to be too much for them.  Once the judge had made his or her decision, the carriages were asked to line up while the judge took into account what they observed at St. David's, the feedback they received from the road judges, and what they saw in the Dixon Oval in order to make their final decision. The groups are judged one after the other, with the winners of each division coming back to compete against each other for the Championship Drive-Off.

And the Winner is......
The pomp and circumstance and full blown regalia of the Four-In-Hand carriages make them a crowd favorite, and for the 2010 Championship Drive-Off the Judge agreed, tapping John Frazier Hunt, his wife Penny and their team from Spring City, Pennsylvania as the overall winners.  Hunt drives four perfectly matched dark bay Canadian Crossbreds, also known as Scottish warmbloods which are technically a Hackney/Clydesdale cross, each of which is named after prominent whips in the sport.  This was Hunt's 17th year showing at Devon, originally starting with a pair and working his way up to the Four-In-Hand.

Hunt explains what it takes to get to this level, "We try to drive the horses every day, six days a week as pairs mostly, but a few times a week as fours, getting them out regularly to keep them in shape.  We've had the oldest one for 10 or 12 years, and the youngest one for 6 years, so we've had the same horses for a number of years. As they get older we supplement them with a younger horse, looking for the size, conformation, color and markings on the horses.  They are wonderful friends, and sure did us proud today!"

Photos: Carriage, Tailgaters, Trophy, Henry L. Collins III, 2010 Devon Pleasure Carriage Champion John Frazier Hunt