The glamour of driving four perfectly matched horses to a large coach laden with guests in their finest clothes was a tradition started by the British. The wealthy gentlemen of 18th century England so admired the commercial coachman’s ability to drive four 1,000-pound horses to a 3,000-pound coach to carry the Royal Mail that they sought to replicate what is called “four-in-hand” driving with their large privately owned coaches.
Carriages initially were very uncomfortable, jostling along bumpy dirt roads. With the development of suspension systems, with coach bodies first suspended from chains or leather straps, and later positioned atop springs, they began to become a more common form of transporation for entire families. It took four horses to comfortably pull these heavy coaches, so this type of driving became known as four-in-hand driving. The driver, called a “whip,” sits on a wedge cushion with a toeboard for his or her feet, in almost a semi-standing position. The reins have to be delicately manipulated in one or both hands to signal the horses through the bits in the horses’ mouths. The right hand also carries a whip to tap the horse lightly to direct its body. The whip is also used to signal other drivers when turning or changing the speed of travel. This sophisticated and complex system, sometimes called the coachman style, of holding and manipulating the reins adds to the prestige and glamour of the sport of driving four horses.
These park drag coaches, as they are known, were built on the model of those Royal Mail coaches, and were used primarily for showing off and socializing. Each private four-in-hand turnout was accompanied by two grooms in the costume of years ago with faultless breeches, top-boots, and livery coats. The driver sat on what is called the box seat, and the guests rode on “gamon” seats positioned atop the front and rear of the coach body. The grooms rode on a seat supported with iron risers, at the rear, facing forward. All of this splendor was a spectacular sight as these similarly outfitted coaches came promenading through the streets of London, Paris, New York, and Philadelphia, as well as the show rings of America.
Those who had both the funds and the skill to drive a four-in-hand team began to form clubs in the 19th century. Coaching clubs and four-in-hand clubs were and remain very prestigious and exclusive organizations, whose members enjoy a pastime available only to very few. The sight of the magnificent horses with glimmering polished harnesses attracted onlookers along the roadways and in the show ring.
Part of the glamour of these organizations was—and still is—the “meets,” at which the clubs’ members would gather to show off their skills as well as to dine and socialize at splendid club tables or elaborate picnics in landscaped, manicured parks or at private estates. In fact, the “tailgate picnic” gets its origin and name from these privileged persons bringing lavish food and drinks to parks, race meets, and polo matches. The tailgate of a park drag would be lowered, and a drawer (containing the finest of china, silverware, and linens) is slid out of the rear boot. Chilled wine and cold food are pulled from larger collarettes. Hot foods would be carried in crocks positioned on heated iron trivets inside an insulated chest placed on the floor of the interior of the coach.
Wethersfield Farm, in Millbrook, New York, will host such a meet in October. Between October 3 and 6, as many as 10 four-in-hand teams and four pairs will gather for drives, cocktail receptions, and elegant dinners. Only private guests will be able to observe the teams in action; however, Wethersfield gardens are open to the public through September.
The Four-in-Hand Club, more than 100 members strong, was formed in the year 2000 by a group of carriage-driving enthusiasts who loved the history of presenting fine horses to beautiful carriages. The Club currently holds about six or seven meets each year on the East Coast, at which the cameraderie of others with similar interests gives way to parties and dinners that rival the finest in the nation.