Guide to Sleigh Rallies, Festivals, and Combined Tests
BY ELISABETH Prouty-gilbride
Grab your hat, mittens, and winter coat, and prepare for the ride of your life as our guide to sleighing activities helps you prepare for one of the season's most exciting equestrian spectator sports. Read on to find out what types of events you can find in the Northeast and beyond, as well as the popular kinds of sleighs, competition, and attire you'll see while in attendance.
Possibly one of the most popular winter equestrian sports in the Northeast, sleigh rallies made a comeback in New England about five years ago, and appear to be gaining a following among both the driving community and equestrians in general. These organized competitions are a throwback to yesteryear, and participants enjoy getting decked out in their warmest winter furs and hitching their horses up to sleighs that date back to the early 19th century for some friendly competition.
Many sleigh rallies start out with a "Parade of Sleighs," where all of the competitors introduce their horses and rigs at the beginning of the event. Although the parade may vary from one competition to the next, its purpose is for the drivers to warm up before the start of the competition. "It's kind of like in the Olympics where they have the Parade of Nations," says Jim O'Brien, event coordinator for the Old Sturbridge Village (OSV) Sleigh Rally that takes place in Sturbridge, MA. "It's one chance before the competition where you can look at all the sleighs at once and see the variety of them on display."
In addition to the Parade of Sleighs, common divisions include Currier & Ives, Ladies to Drive, Gentlemen to Drive, and Juniors to Drive. Some competitions even consist of fun classes such as Fuzziest Horse and Sleigh Dog. The Old Sturbridge Village Antique Sleigh Rally holds both Fuzziest Horse and Sleigh Dog classes, and these, as well as the Currier & Ives division, often garner great feedback. "I would say that between 85 – 90% of our participants are dressed for our Currier & Ives class, and they stay in that attire for all the others as well," says O'Brien.
Bill Broe, a member of the Colonial Carriage & Driving Society, enjoys attending sleigh rallies when he can. Although he doesn't have a favorite division that he competes in, he does enjoy seeing how far his opponents will go to try to win in Currier & Ives. "It's a very classic class," says Broe. "Everybody, even people that may not realize what they're looking at, have seen the pictures of the winter scenes and parks in Currier & Ives prints. So it kind of brings back a bit of the past. Some people really go all out for it."
Drivers are judged on their overall appearance, and how closely they resemble the sleighing scenes depicted in Currier & Ives artwork, which was created from the mid- to late 19th century. During this class, participants will dress in their fur coats, hats, scarves, and lap robes, and hitch their horses to antique sleighs such as Portland Cutters, Albany Cutters, and even Bobsleds. "The judges of the Currier & Ives division are really picky about the accessories and every little piece of the overall look," says O'Brien. "It's more of a Victorian look, but a number of the competitors carry it off very well."
The Ladies to Drive, Gentlemen to Drive, and Juniors to Drive divisions are inspired by and closely resemble those in carriage driving competitions. "The judge will primarily be looking at how the driver handles his or her horse, the cues the driver asks for, such as a walk or a trot, and how connected the horse and driver are," says Melissa Graves, who organized both the 2010 Wilbraham Sleigh Rally in Wilbraham, MA, and collaborated with O'Brien in coordinating the 2011 OSV Sleigh Rally. "And then you have the pleasure classes, which are very similar, but you're looking at the horse and how it responds to the driver."
Many sleigh rallies will also include a cones class with a timed obstacle course, where horse and driver teams are asked to navigate around cones that are set up with balls on top of them. If the driver hits a cone, the ball will fall off, adding a fault to the contestant's time. However, the fate of these classes is often determined by the weather. In 2011, the cones class was cancelled at the OSV Sleigh Rally, because the footing was deemed too icy—and dangerous—for the exhibitors to compete on.
Although the competition sometimes gets stiff, there are other, more lighthearted classes, such as the aforementioned Fuzziest Horse and Sleigh Dog class, that both onlookers and participants enjoy just as much as the classes that demonstrate their driving skills. In the Sleigh Dog competition, the judge is specifically looking at the driver's (smaller) four-legged friend that can often be found sitting beside him or her at the helm of the vehicle.
"In the class, the judges are really looking at how the dog is enjoying himself," says Graves. "If he looks like he's ready to jump out of the sleigh, then it's obviously not a good thing. You'll also often see some of the dogs all dressed up in scarves and little jackets to match their owners, and some may even be wearing little hats…they're so cute and so much fun to watch!"
Think that you can't experience the excitement of sleighing without snow? In Oregon, OH, that's just what a number of driving enthusiasts did, as this town is home to the Maumee Bay Sleigh Festival. In January 2012, a group of avid equestrians joined forces to start the inaugural event. When they were left without snow just days beforehand, the event organizers didn't let this get to them, and the show went on.
"At the time we were terribly disappointed," says Dr. Susan Orosz, who can be credited for organizing the event, along with Jackie Minges. "But it was probably even better that we didn't have snow because with this being our first time holding the event, and after drawing 85 people to it, we probably couldn't have handled much more."
So how, exactly, did Dr. Orosz and her team of volunteers make the sleigh festival work without any snow? The schedule of events for the inaugural sleigh festival had included sleighing demonstrations, but when there was no snow, they instead encouraged participants to drive their carriages. In addition, some attendees still loaded up their vehicles, dressed up in their winter finery, and put their sleighs on display for a stationary Currier & Ives class.
"This worked out better than we could have ever imagined," says Orosz. "Because the competition was stationary, people were able to have a dialogue with onlookers, whereas when you're competing in a class, you go with your horse, drive around, and leave—it's a completely different dynamic."
In addition, the event included People's Choice Awards, where attendees were able to vote on their favorite sleighs and sleighing accessories, such as bells, blankets, and sleigh warmers. The festival also featured seminars about sleighing, bells, and chimes that were open to both driving aficionados and newbies.
"Another thing we did differently from what you'd see at the average sleigh rally was buy sleigh bells, tie them onto a red, blue, or yellow ribbon to represent first, second, and third place prizes, and give those to the People's Choice Awards winners. We're definitely going to repeat that again this year—people really like that because with a ribbon you end up putting it in a box, but you can hang a sleigh bell behind your door, or use it as a decorative piece in your household."
After last year's successful event, the 2013 Maumee Bay Sleigh Festival will follow the same outline, with some additional workshops, such as an Antiques Road Show themed discussion, where attendees can bring their sleighs and have them assessed by an expert. Speakers will give advice on what to look for when purchasing a harness, how to select a vehicle, and how to properly care for your sleigh throughout the winter months; and there will even be a sleigh swap, where attendees can exchange sleighs and accessories.
"Whether we have snow or not this year, I'm sure that the event will be another success," says Orosz. "The best part of the festival is meeting other people and listening to one another and learning about all the different aspects that go into the sport."
Sleighing Combined Tests
Deep in the mountains of Vermont, the Green Mountain Horse Association (GMHA)—a club that is known for their successful competitions, from horse trials to driving to dressage shows—holds another sleighing event that differs from your typical sleigh rally. Although GMHA does hold sleigh rallies, their combined tests have become just as successful.
"About 90% of the people who attend our sleigh rallies attend our combined tests," says Karey Waters, who coordinates both types of competitions at GMHA. "But I have noticed that lately, our core group of drivers seem to be leaning more toward combined driving than pleasure driving…the combined test option gives those competitors an ideal way to keep their horses in shape over the winter."
The GMHA sleighing combined tests consist of dressage and cones classes in Training, Preliminary, and Intermediate Level tests. "It's really similar to a carriage driving competition in the snow, just like our regular combined test," says Waters. "We set up a dressage ring, which is a little bit modified, depending on the size of the surface we have to work with. The drivers do a dressage test—usually everybody does their dressage in the morning, and then we break for lunch, and then everyone chips in and helps set up the cones course in the afternoon."
Waters also points out that these competitions differ from your average sleigh rally, as you may not see people wearing the same type of attire or using the same kinds of sleighs. "You're going to see more people bundled up just to protect themselves from the cold; the elaborate furs and accessories aren't required like they would be in a rally. Also, another funny side note is that for the combined tests, the dressage tests call for a reinback, which the competitors are unable to do in a sleigh. So everybody gets a 10 on their score for that."
If you enjoy watching the competitive aspect of sleighing, combined tests may be the event for you to attend. But, if you'd rather get a glimpse of the Victorian Era and learn about the gear and accessories that were used back in the 19th century, and are still preserved by driving enthusiasts today, sleigh rallies and festivals may be more your thing. Whether you're looking for a more laidback environment, or relish the idea of seeing sleighs navigating dressage and cones courses, there's something for everyone.
Looking for a nearby sleighing event to attend? Take a look at the following list of upcoming sleigh rallies, festivals, and competitions to find one near you:
n Chautauqua Sleigh Rally
January 20, 2013
n GMHA Sleighing Combined Test
January 12, 2013
South Woodstock, VT
n GMHA Sleigh Rally
January 13, 2013
South Woodstock, VT
n Maumee Bay Sleigh Festival
January 25-27, 2013
n Old Sturbridge Village Antique Sleigh Rally
February 2, 2013
This article originally appeared in the December 2012 issue of Equine Journal, and is reprinted with their permission. For more information on the magazine, please visit www.equinejournal.com.