WEBSTER CITY - Details make the difference for the competing carriage drivers during the Best of Iowa in Traces Society fifth annual Summer Carriage Classic Saturday at the Hamilton County Fairgrounds in Webster City.
The event continues today with novice and experienced driving classes scheduled that require well turned out contestants and historically accurate buggies, carts and phaetons.
"I love the elegance of it all," said Sandee McKee, from Toledo, who stood off to the side of the grass arena and watched the drivers put their ponies and horses through the paces of walk, trot, working trot and trot on.
Although no longer competing herself, McKee travels the circuit with her equine and carriage supply business, Iowa Valley Carriage. She offers contestants any last minute items they may have forgotten, lost or broken. Having that go-to supply place during a show is a necessity, she said, because details are extremely important when the judge looks over the contestants' carts, harnesses and rigs.
"Everything we do is steeped in tradition," McKee said.
For instance, she said, the reins are all brown. They used to be black, but the the die would rub off on the driver's gloves and clothing. Also, imperfections in the reins could be hidden with black die, but russet hides nothing. Then there are the high-waisted lap blankets. They keep the horse hair and die off the driver's clothes. The blanket was essential in the past to keep clothes nice if the driver was going out for dinner, a party or to a performance.
Another rule stemming from tradition that is still followed now is that drivers must have the whip in hand at all times. This isn't for punishing the horse, McKee said, but rather to communicate with a touch. In fact, most of the drivers rely on verbal cues rather than the whip.
Annette and Joe Boeser, of North Branch, Minn., learned Saturday that show regulations call for the wicks in the lamps on the lady's wicker phaeton they own to be burned before entering the ring. Of course, the couple said, lamps being included on a lady's carriage were unusual in the time when the original owner had the cart made.
"Makes you wonder what she was doing out at night," Joe Boeser said with a laugh.
The Boesers have been competing and participating in shows for 15 years now, yet they still learn of new regulations every time. They also meet new people.
"You meet a lot of nice people at these shows," Joe Boeser said. "We tend to know about two-thirds of them already, but there are always new people getting involved with driving."
Lea Huber, of Paola, Kan., was one of the new people beginning a driving career, although she said she caught the bug when she was seven. She just wasn't able to get a horse and rig together until she became an adult.
"I am still figuring out the regulations and all the details," she said. "I am very much in the learning phase."
Her advice for others who might be bitten by the carriage bug is to seek out advice from members of driving clubs and experienced show competitors. Don't try to go it alone, she said, and always keep safety first and foremost in mind.