Throughout Europe equestrian competitions are so popular that most are now regulated professional sports and award surprisingly large cash prizes. Riding and driving contests are far less popular in the United States, but the sport is slowly catching on here.
Americans tend to put their own special brand on any foreign import and equestrian sports are no exception. It's hard to imagine a horse show in Paris or Brussels, for example, opening with a parade of mule teams.
American carriage contests differ in more significant ways as well. Professional athletes dominate European shows because of the large cash prizes, but American competitions are strictly for amateurs. Veteran pleasure driver Elizabeth Cole says it gives the shows a very different atmosphere. "Granted, everybody wants to win a ribbon when they're in the ring," she said. "But at night, we all like to socialize together. And it's a different type of sport where people will help each other; if someone forgot a whip, or they forgot part of their equipment, one of the other competitors will probably come up and say, 'Well, I have an extra you can borrow.' It's a very friendly atmosphere."
The absence of big prize money also tends to draw competitors of a different age. Jim Keithly, host of the Cannon Classic, says American carriage enthusiasts are generally older than those in Europe. "Our oldest competitor here, he drives two ponies, and he is 78! When people are young, they tend to go out and ride hunter-jumpers, and do a lot of activities," said Jim Keithly. "As the body ages a little bit, that's not as much fun as it once was, and so a lot of those folks learn to…hey, this carriage driving is kinda neat. It doesn't hurt the body as bad as being thrown around on top of a horse."
The horses themselves aren't always members of distinguished breeds. At this year's Tennessee Classic, the big winner was Linda Ward and her pony Casper. Casper has no known bloodline and was on the verge of starving to death when Ms. Ward bought him for $100. Four years later, the pair won the most prestigious carriage competition in America. "Last year I went to Walnut Hill, Pitsford, New York," she said. "It's pretty much by invitation, so you pretty much have to be you have to have won a lot, be very competitive. So I wrote them a letter and sent them a picture of my turn-out. And so, I was invited to go up there. And we won four ribbons there."
One thing that American and European equestrian sports do share is a respect for tradition. Show Judge Dede Bushneck inspects each team to insure that the carriage, harness and even the driver's clothing are all authentic to the heyday of pleasure driving - the late 19th century. "We carry spares with us," said Dede Bushneck. "In the old days, everybody did, because you would leave your farm, and maybe go I don't know how many miles to another farm. And if you broke down, you had to have your tools with you, so, tools to get you back on the road and home."
After the inspection, each team is given a driving test that challenges both man and beast. The competition also includes a single timed event where horse and driver dash through a series of tight turns and narrow gates.
Two organizations here in the United States help keep carriage driving on the road to success. Cannon Classic host Jim Keithly is a member of the board of directors for the American Driving Society. "It regulates the shows, it issues and writes the rules, and licenses the officials," he said. "There is another organization, the Carriage Association of America that is not concerned about the rules of driving or about the licensure of judges, but it's concerned with preservation and restoration of antique carriages."
While some competitors use reproductions carriages, most prefer to drive authentic antique rigs. But they've been surprisingly hard to find here in the South. Jim Keithly says work-a-day wagons were more common in this part of the country. "Up North, you tended to have special purpose carriages the finer carriages were located in more places," said Jim Keithly. "The roads were better up North. In the South, you just didn't have the fine vehicles because they didn't have the roads to support them. They generally had to be double-duty: they had to be farm vehicles as well as people transporters."