Each year, the Pittsford Carriage Association hosts an international celebration of the sport and tradition of carriage driving. Held at beautiful Walnut Hill Farm on West Bloomfield Road in Pittsford, the Walnut Hill Driving Competition is the largest gathering of carriages and coach horses in the world. Now in its 36th year, the five-day event plays out like a country fair complete with 19th-century refreshments, tent-housed boutiques and Jack Russell Terrier races, in addition to the many classes of competition.
Since its inception in 1972, the competition has grown from an informal marathon drive that featured 14 vehicles, to a five-day international “event” that today has more driving competitors than it can handle. Spectators have an opportunity to view wonderful examples of 19th century carriages operated by over 250 competitors from some 20 states, Canada and Europe. Antique vehicles range from tiny pony carts to huge road coaches drawn by four horses (called “four-in-hand”). They participate in many phases of classical driving using a cross-country obstacle course, an elegant ring and a special driving route through the Pittsford-Mendon area.
Simulating the conditions of the 1890s is a major consideration at Walnut Hill. The obstacles that make up the cross-country course include farm animals, water hazards, an abandoned sugar shed, a covered bridge, woods, open country and farm machinery. All courses at Walnut Hill are challenging, yet can also be driven by novices or once-a-year amateurs.
Spectators have always enjoyed shopping the vendor booths set up outdoors under tents. They offer sporting art, antiques, books, jewelry, clothing, tack and other horse-related items.
A full and fun-filled schedule of events
The 2007 competition schedule includes the Park Driving Division, which features the kind of carriages driven by the Gilded Age wealthy. The beautifully designed vehicles with their elegant profiles create an impressive display. Juxtaposed with Park Driving is the Commercial Division, which is limited to vehicles used for work, delivery, or in the trades. Their drivers and horses will be judged on their ability to perform specific tasks of the 1890s. One of the most intriguing competitions, a Coach-Dog Performance Class, is open to any breed of dog and any style of horse/pony turnout. Judges rate the dogs’ performance and attitude.
Besides the competitions, spectators and participants have the opportunity to watch and take part in a host of unique showcase activities. Among the special guests are nationally acclaimed horse trainer Clay Maier and his elegant Friesian horses. Friesians are known for their intelligence, athletic ability and “symphony of movement,” traits they’ll showcase in a demonstration of dressage. With them, Clay will perform breathtaking feats of Roman Riding (standing on two horses), and other fancy and surprising tricks.
The Kateland Farm American Miniature Horse Dressage Drill Team will offer an amazing exhibition of precision and an entertaining musical drive, and the Morrisville College Belgian Six-Horse Hitch will demonstrate the challenges of delivering heavy cargo.
The Wegmans Ascot Picnic Night, featuring a gourmet picnic supper, will be held on Friday, August 17. The Rochester Scottish Pipe Band will perform on Sunday,
Making it happen
Walnut Hill is owned by Bill and Sue Remley, who purchased the farm in 1969. According to the Walnut Hill website, “Sue Remley was an avid horsewoman with a barn and riding horses firmly entrenched by 1972. Bill, on the other hand, knew little about the beasts and desired to know even less, but his interest in history and innate romanticism led to a middle ground in the Remley family. That middle ground was of the carriage horse and an earlier and statelier era, when horse-drawn vehicles were important to our growing nation’s transportation, cultural and social systems.”
In 1972, Bill’s idea of re-creating a drive through Central Park circa 1890 became a reality when he organized an informal marathon through Mendon Ponds Park. Then, he and his carriage-enthusiast friends began to formulate plans for a showcase specifically for carriages, and the Pittsford Carriage Association was born. Today, it is the not-for-profit educational organization that hosts the Walnut Hill Driving Competition. Its purpose in doing so is to advance the art and traditions of driving, and to promote public interest in the contributions made by the horse and carriage to our country’s cultural, social and economic history. Bill Remley is the association’s president.
Walnut Hill’s success extends far beyond Pittsford and Rochester. Its ripple effect influenced similar events in Bath, Elmira, the Genesee Valley, East Aurora and Cazenovia. The Canadian Carriage Driving Classic, held each year north of Toronto, was modeled after Walnut Hill and has become a major driving event.
The Walnut Hill Farm Driving Competition is the epitome of a well-orchestrated and crowd-pleasing event. With the support of its dedicated directors, members, exhibitors and spectators, the competition will continue to innovate and prosper.
by Tina Manzer