Rocky Mountain Carriage Club continues old-fashioned horse and buggy traditions
March 11, 2016
As recently as 100 years ago, motorized vehicles were far outnumbered by horses pulling surreys and buggies.
Milk and egg deliveries in large cities and small towns alike were made by equine-powered wagons well into the 1930s. But when automation forced loyal equines to hang up their harnesses, most people thought it was for the last time, with thousands of years of routine relegated to history museums and dusty, rusty barn hooks.
Around 1982, enthusiasts in Greeley and Fort Collins joined forces to assure that harness was cleaned, oiled and again used. The group became known as the Rocky Mountain Carriage Club. Although no current member seems to recall the founders' names, current Vice-President Nancy Bruckhauser assures the organization's goals remain the same.
"We promote the sport of carriage driving through education and safety," she said.
RMCC defines carriage driving in generous categories. Participants' many horse-drawn vehicles can range from show pieces to farm wagons to pony carts. Toting them are representatives of myriad equine breeds that include minis, mules, drafts, Saddlebreds, Morgans, Standardbreds, Quarter Horses and a Friesian/Arab cross, said Bruckhauser, who joined the club in 1991 with a half-draft, a Belgian and a Clydesdale.
Horse-drawn implements certainly aren't out in force on 21st century roadways, so the club's formal activities are relegated to organized competitions and special exhibitions.
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Safety is the number one priority at all times.
Bruckhauser said that club mentors, like herself, take novices under their wings. For example, if a mentor notices an improperly adjusted or damaged harness, they will be certain the driver makes immediate necessary modifications/repairs to prevent injuries to humans or horses.
One highlight of events, called marathons, require drivers to wear helmets, although many choose to wear them at all times. Bruckhauser said that most drivers wear safety vests, some of which are now similar to air bags that contain carbon dioxide cartridges. Safety inspections are conducted at all events as soon as an animal is hitched, before contestants can enter the ring or even warm-up areas.
Still, problems come up. Bruckhauser recalled an incident in which she had been competing. As she neared the end of a long drive, another club member noticed something looked wrong with the way her rig was traveling. He urged her to stop and get out. Closer inspection found that several bolts had worked loose during the extensive course. Rather than continuing on even a short distance and finishing, the horse was led back to fix the problem. Accident prevention trumps points or awards, she said.
RMCC's Combined Driving Event is modeled after riding's Three-Day Event, which tests the overall condition and versatility of the horse in sport. Generally conducted over three consecutive days, Driven Dressage, Cross-Country Marathon (with up to eight special obstacles/hazards), and Cone Driving Competition determine the winning entry with fewest penalty points accrued. Horses and ponies compete separately in several categories: one horse/pony; pairs (two horses/ponies side-by-side); tandem (two horses/ponies, one in front of the other); teams of four horses/ponies with two pair, one in front of the other.
Dressage tests a designated sequence of movements judged against a standard of absolute perfection. Entries demonstrate their adeptness in obedience, freedom, regularity of movement, impulsion, correct position and training.
Cross-Country Marathon tests fitness, stamina and obedience of horses as well as drivers' judgment and capability.
The objective of cones is to cleanly drive through a course of narrowly spaced pairs of cones. This feat must be accomplished within an allotted time. Each cone is topped with a ball which will become dislodged if any miscalculation occurs, thereby accruing a penalty. Fitness, agility and obedience of horses combined with the drivers' skill and accuracy is key here.
A groom may accompany the driver in dressage and cone competitions, but is vital in marathons to help the driver stay on course, track time, hold paper work, direct the route through obstacles and help balance the vehicle by weight shifts around tight turns or over uneven ground. Grooms are prohibited, however, from handling reins or the whip. They can give verbal assistance only in the marathon. Verbal communication in dressage or cones is prohibited.
All tests might seem like fun and games but, in reality, mirror skills mandatory for equines long ago responsible for day-to-day survival of their people, our nation and its economy.
RMCC's major show is its Fall Follies held each September, usually in the Loveland, Colorado area. Admission is free to the public. Non-show fun days and competitions are held on second Sundays each month (as weather permits) April through November.
Bruckhauser mentioned that competitions always include nearly every kind of emergency one could think of. When they do, stressed competitors bring their concerns to the office, where she is usually on-hand to assist. Breast collar or bridle forgotten at home? Girth or axle broke? Wheel came off during warm-up? There's always a mad dash to replace or repair something. Bruckhauser quickly puts out the word for spares or assistance and, without exception, it's as quickly answered.
"Yes, driving is very competitive," she said, "but we're a big family who will help. Everyone wants all to have a good time while competing."
Drivers live for the marathon, she added. They are "higher than a kite" when they finish the course. Bruckhauser never had anyone say less than they absolutely love it.
She's even seen husbands and wives eagerly compete against each other… yet the marriage somehow survived. But she has also seen marriages get rocky in "domestic battles" when spouses navigate marathon courses for one another.
Regardless of test-day tensions, competitive driving is a family-oriented, fun event that prioritizes safety and treasures teamwork. Anyone who would like to observe or participate is welcome.
More information can be found on the American Driving Society website, http://www.americandrivingsociety.org or at http://www.rockymountaincarriageclub.org. Nancy Bruckhauser can be contacted at email@example.com or by phone at (303) 776-6246.❖