With the call of a horn, the rhythmic clop of hooves, and the sway of the carriages, the crowd is swept back in time. Although they’re at the Laurels at Landhope International Combined Driving Event, in 2010, it feels like the late 1800s as a dozen antique horse-drawn carriages sweep across the greensward.
Each coach is piloted by a driver, or whip, who steers his coach, drawn by four regal horses, with skill and seeming ease.
Behind the reins of one sit Wayne and Marjorie Grafton, resplendent in period attire. Today they are in their 1870 Van Tassel and Kearney roof seat break, just one in their varied—and envied—carriage collection. The West Marlboro couple owns 14 in all.
Nearly 20 years ago Wayne surprised his wife on her birthday with a large four-wheeled coach. From there, they began collecting singles, then pairs, and eventually moved into combined carriage driving and pleasure four-in-hand coaches. While a few of the vehicles are German-made Kuhmle practice vehicles for combined driving, almost a dozen are antiques.
"I get myself in a lot of trouble buying gifts," says Wayne with a broad smile. Marjorie grew up riding horses on her family’s farm near Des Moines, Ia. Wayne, a land planner since the early 1970s, grew up near Wayne, Pa. They met while attending Drake University in Iowa.
While Wayne enjoys collecting carriages, the sport of driving is Marjorie’s passion. Today she is perched high above her team in a "break," a casual style of carriage once typically used for going to view horse races. She controls the horses’ immense power with her hands, voice, and precise body movements. Typically, a carriage horse can pull one-and-a-half times its weight, depending on the terrain (their task is easier on roads than on grass). The team trots down country lanes rapidly enough to cover ground but slowly enough to take in the glimmering ponds and farmsteads spread out on either side.
The Graftons’ mix of park and sporting coaches are kept in an expansive two-story carriage house on a 200-acre farm near Unionville. Most of them date from 1860s to 1910, and represent some of the finest European and American manaufacturers.
The couple owns, for instance, a very rare 1885 Shanks Pedestal Roof Seat Break, purchased just last year. The vehicle is fully turned out, complete with its original equipment: candle-lit lamps, pole leader bars, ladder, leather basket, and brake shoe and chain. The proper appointments for entertaining are stowed in the rear compartment.
The collection also includes an 1880 Brewster Park Drag that seats four inside and 12 outside; this was the limo of its day, used to take a party of friends to a fancy ball. Then there’s a Waggonette Break, made by Holland and Holland of London, that seats 12 in an open wagon-style exterior; it was used for picnicking in style.
There is a delicate and finely finished phaeton once owned by Princess Clementine of Belgium; a very rare Brewster demi-mail hub Roof Seat Break; a Phaeton by Whitlock, of which only two are known to exist; and a Brewster Going to Cover Cart. This vehicle was meant for tandem driving (one horse in front of the other) and for carrying the dogs to the hunt. The metal cage inside the carriage is intact; the slats in the sides of the vehicle let in air for the dogs.
In addition to the vintage coaches, Wayne owns a pair of classic cars, including a 1930 DeSoto and 1933 Packard Phaeton. He understands the necessity of a good mechanic.
"With these coaches the brakes, frame, wheels, and the tension of a spring need to be checked out all the time," he says. To this end he employs two mechanics to clean and maintain the carriages. "If the brakes, the wheel, or something major goes wrong, we ship it to people from Lancaster County who specialize in these types of repairs. You also need to carefully inspect the harnesses. The harness and collar are broken down over the winter and built back up."
Down a hill from the couple’s home at Great Oak Farm sits a handsome stable and its tack room—where thick leather and brass harnesses hang on hooks and extra feedbags are stacked in a corner. Two stable hands brush and clean, dress and harness their five Gerlander horses and three older Dutch harness horses. A Dutch Warmblood, the Gerlander was bred to be an elegant but versatile farm horse possessing a quiet temperament. An infusion of thoroughbred blood into the breed has produced an eye-catching, medium-weight carriage horse. The Graftons bought their original team in Crofton, England, two years ago
"They are quieter than Hackneys (a favorite carriage horse) and can be quite flashy in their leg action," Marjorie says. "They are affectionate and very willing to please. Ours were trained overseas and took a third at the Royal Windsor Horse Show."
A superior carriage horse is strong and has a fluid gait, whether a walk, slow trot, working trot, or extended trot. A driving whip carried in the right hand is used to give the horse signals to change gait or direction. From afar, driving a carriage may look easy, but danger is always lurking.
"It’s not for the faint of heart," says Wayne. "I’ve been there when a carriage goes over and people wind up in the hospital."
I think you need to be a much better horse person to drive, than ride. "If something goes wrong, it goes wrong big time," adds Marjorie. "You only have the reins, your voice, and your body weight to control them. I think you need to be a much better horse person to drive, than ride."
Marjorie learned the sport of driving from Lisa Singer of Chadds Ford. The internationally acclaimed Singer has won the pairs championship in combined driving in the US more times than any other driver. On seven occasions she has represented the US in the World Championships.
"Lisa is a wonderful teacher, she has taught me so much," says Marjorie, who practices three times a week. "It’s really a partnership with your team. They are expected to stand for long of periods of time, stay calm on the roads when traffic goes by, and work well together."
Some of the couple’s fondest moments are evening carriage rides—with just the moon, the stars, and the flickering carriage lamps to lead the way.