The Devon Horse Show and Country Fair, streaming live now on USEF Network, is one of the nation’s most prestigious venues for hunters, jumpers, and saddle seat riders. But for the American driving community, it’s both a historic, world-class competition and a homecoming.
The show—the United States’ oldest and largest outdoor multi-breed competition—is famous for the variety of world-class competition it offers. But for those in the sport of carriage pleasure driving, the prestigious horse show has a special and historic significance.
Drivers were there at the show’s inception, after all: the show began on July 2, 1896, thanks to the efforts of a group of local farmers and landowners to improve the breeding of their carriage horses. In those days, of course, horses and carts of every description were the basic means of conveyance. The spectators who attended the inaugural show—and watched as exhibitors put hunters and hackneys, yearlings, mares, and stallions through their paces—got there by horse and carriage or pony and trap. They enjoyed 26 classes held on a single day.
Today, spectators arrive in a very different variety of vehicles, all of which have considerably more horsepower and a lot less tack to clean than their late 19th century counterparts. And the Devon Horse Show has expanded to 11 days, during which it serves as a superbly impressive showcase for the high-quality American Saddlebreds, Friesians, Hackneys, hunters and jumpers, and for star hunter set equitation riders and saddle seat riders, too.
But the ancient sport of driving, which incorporates everything from the speedy roadster to the classically elegant four-in-hand, remains an essential ingredient that makes this United States Equestrian Federation Heritage Competition one of the world’s greatest equestrian spectacles.
“When people in the equestrian world think of Devon, they think of the heritage, and that heritage is tied directly to the USEF,” said Wayne Grafton, the Devon Horse Show’s chairman. “They’re a partner with us in this, and it keeps it in the forefront of people’s minds.”
International driving competitor Misdee Wrigley Miller, Devon’s coaching champion in 2015, agrees with those who believe that Devon continues to be the U.S. driving community’s most anticipated event.
“It’s special because there’s such a history,” she said. “Some of the greatest whips of all time have competed there. At Devon the stands are packed, and they’re filled with people who really appreciate the different disciplines.”
A Varied Sport
The sport of driving has a reasonable claim to be one of the world’s oldest, when you consider that the first known depiction of a horse and chariot is on the Standard of Ur from southern Mesopotamia in 2,500 B.C. The driving discipline has diverged in numerous directions since then. But whether you get involved in pleasure driving, fine harness, combined driving, or coaching, once the driving bug has bitten, it tends to become an enduring passion.
Grafton has been connected with driving for almost 40 years. His driving addiction started out innocuously enough, as he tells it.
“I was scratching my head trying to come up with a birthday present for my wife,” he recalled. “She grew up around horses and was a pleasure rider, and although we weren’t involved in coaching at all, we had a friend who was. So I thought a single vehicle for a single horse would make a nice gift.”
From that simple start, his family’s collection has grown to include over 40 carriages, a number that reflects the couple’s participation in a whole smorgasbord of different driving styles available to those eager to get involved.
“Over the years, we’ve done everything from singles, pairs, four-in-hand, show driving, combined driving, and pleasure driving, and they’re all exciting,” Grafton explained.
Devon accommodates almost all of these classes and more. There are the roadster horses or ponies who pull a two-wheel bike at lightning speed, driven by men and women dressed in racing silks. There are Hackney horses and ponies pulling a four-wheel buggy called a viceroy, and smoothly elegant Saddlebred fine harness horses who seem to float into the ring. And there are the stately coach horses: four horses pulling either a road coach—a closed 12-seat passenger vehicle—or a lighter open-topped park drag.
Devon also presents a rare opportunity to see other driving competitions, such as the scurry, a timed obstacle course for four-wheeled vehicles; the tandem (two horses driven one in front of the other); and the unicorn (three horses, one in front and two abreast).
Like every other equestrian pursuit, driving comes with a language all its own, which adds to the event’s color. Drivers are called “whips,” while the footmen who stand on the back of the magnificent coaches and carry long hunting horns are known as “tootlers.”
For spectators who see the sport only occasionally, the four-in-hands are an especially evocative sight. Their driver’s task looks daunting, to say the least: to control a team of four powerful horses, two of whom (the wheelers) do the pulling and two of whom (the leaders) control the direction of almost 3,000 pounds of carriage with up to 10 people on board. It’s no wonder many participants, most of whom are also experienced riders in other disciplines, believe driving and coaching to be the hardest of all equestrian activities.
If the prospect of such a mammoth undertaking as coaching is not for you, the various types of driving on display at Devon might inspire you to try one of the sport’s many other highly enjoyable styles.
“We have many, many people who have one horse or pony and a gig, and who have a wonderful time showing here,” Grafton said. “The thing about Devon is the range of opportunity it provides.”
Taking It to the Streets
One of Devon’s most famous events actually takes place outside the ring and brings together all of the driving disciplines in one almighty jamboree known as the Devon Marathon.
Held on the first Sunday of the show, the marathon involves a 4 ½-mile drive through area neighborhoods, starting from the fields surrounding St. David’s Church in Wayne, Pa., although on occasions inclement weather can require a change of venue.
Since its inception in 1966, the marathon has become one of the great Devon traditions, both for competitors and for local residents.
“The marathon is open to all different types of carriages and all different types of horses and ponies,” explained Miller. “People there love it so much that they plan their Memorial Day barbecues around it. So you have these huge crowds with their families and the barbecues, and they’re all cheering. It’s just a truly amazing experience.”
And that’s just the beginning of competition for a Devon coaching driver, who can expect every aspect of the carriage, its accouterments, and its driver’s ability to be judged. “One night we might be doing cones, another night we might be doing a timed activity,” said Grafton. “One night we’ll judge appointments, another night we judge the footmen blowing the long coaching horns. And we not only judge the quality of the coach, the horses, and the team that’s been put together, but we judge the harness and the dress. Everybody is supposed to be in period attire. It’s quite an attraction, a real crowd-pleaser.” Driving and Devon have always enjoyed a symbiotic relationship. The show continues to keep this historic sport fresh in the minds of a modern audience, while the panoply of horses, carriages, and formal attire help make Devon, with its many glittering breeds and array of disciplines, one of the most elegant events on the U.S. sporting calendar, for spectator and competitor alike.
“To be able to show in front of that kind of crowd, and with that kind of electricity in the air,” said Miller, “really is special.”
Catch it Live: USEF Network
Devon's First Year: 1896
Claim to Fame: It's the nation's largest and longest-running outdoor multi-breed competition
Show Motto: "Where Champions Meet"
What It's All About: Devon is a show of huge variety, featuring world-class competition for hunters, jumpers, equitation, saddle seat, roadster, English pleasure, carriage pleasure driving, and coaching, with such breeds as American Saddlebreds, Hackney horses and ponies, Friesians, and more. The show has benefitted the Bryn Mawr Hospital and is the hospital's single largest contributor.
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