Carriage drivers, horses come cross country to relish in Villa Louis show

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Mary Baillie and her Shetland pony Arrow Warrior, aka Archie, traveled from Ontario, Canada, to Prairie du Chien for the first time to compete in the Carriage Classic. (Photo by Correne Martin)

All cleaned up, dressed up and ready to go, Mary Baillie and her pony Archie, along with their small tuxedo-clad dog, check into the carriage dog class Sunday. (Photo by Randy Paske)

Trainer Sherri Lower (left), of Rock Springs, instructs Char Ehlert, of Oak Creek, and her 17-year-old Morgan horse, Celeste, during lessons Thursday, in preparation for the Villa Louis Carriage Classic. (Photo by Correne Martin)

Tevis, owned by Ann McCombs, of Harvard, Ill., is part paint horse and part donkey. He is 12 years old and was one of two mules in the Carriage Classic this year. (Photo by Correne Martin)

Pat Riley, of North Carolina, calms his 7-year-old Section B Welsh pony, Mo, down after walking her for an hour and a half. The duo performed in the small pony class of the event.

By Correne Martin

Horses rhythmically trotting. Drivers looking lovely at the reins. Together, they competed, pulling and driving restored carriages, around the gracious grounds of the Villa Louis historic site in Prairie du Chien this past weekend.

In the days before the arena and cross country events began for the 27th year of the Carriage Classic, well over 100 contenders were found bathing and walking their horses, cleaning their carriages, polishing brass and other metal equipment, practicing their runs and otherwise socializing with the fellow participants from all over the country.

Char Ehlert, of Oak Creek, (Wis.), and her 17-year-old Morgan horse, Celeste, were busy with lessons Thursday, rehearsing the skills and poise that judges would expect of them over the weekend. Sherri Lower, of Rock Springs, (Wis.), attended the show as a hat vendor, yet she’s also been driving for 30 years and teaching lessons for 10 years. Utilizing the lawn beside the sculpture park, she instructed Ehlert on many aspects of the competition.

“Soften. Keep the contact. Can you feel that?” Lower directed her. “Make it a pretty transition. Now, pick her back up quietly. Your reins are pretty sloppy. Keep your hands quiet.”

Ehlert and Celeste were a beautiful pair, perfecting their run with a meadowbrook cart, for the large single pony class. They practiced doing figure eights, moving at a smooth and steady pace, but not running. Lower said they had some work to do yet before the event, but that she was pleased with their improvement. Ehlert said she felt comfortable and took a break from the lessons at that point to walk Celeste.

A couple blocks away, on St. Feriole Island, Mary Baillie and her friend, Sharon Crawford McKay, brushed Baillie’s 11-year-old Shetland pony, Arrow Warrior, aka Archie. They traveled two days to Prairie du Chien for the Carriage Classic from Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

“This is the first time there’s been Canadians in the show,” Baillie noted with a smile.

Having just arrived, Archie was standing outside his trailer next to the temporary stables on the grounds, simply getting used to the unfamiliar territory.

“He was on a trailer for two days. He’s full of piss and vinegar,” she quipped.

The two women were also excited to meet up with some old friends they’d met at other competitive carriage driving events across the country, such as the well-known Walnut Hill Farm Driving Competition in Pittsford, N.Y. Baillie said one of their friends, Debbie Bevan, winters with them in South Carolina. Bevan was a driving official at this year’s Carriage Classic.

Archie has “been around the block,” according to Baillie. He’s competed for five years and intended to partake in the small pony, antique vehicle and carriage dog classes over the weekend. Baillie’s miniature dog dressed in a tuxedo for the competition. They all participated with Baillie’s 1905 restored Walborn and Riker carriage, shiny black and cream yellow in color.

The next block over, behind the Villa Louis gift shop, Pat Riley and his 7-year-old Section B Welsh pony, Daddy’s Starting Rumors, aka Mo (whose full brother’s name was Larry), just returned to the stable from an hour and a half walk to get her calmed down.

“She’s been a fuss bucket,” said Riley, who also traveled two days from North Carolina. He competed with a different horse at the Carriage Classic for the previous two years and was happy to be back. Mo was getting ready for the small pony class, in which she would pull a carriage new to Riley, an early 1900s Cortland Wagon Works metal carriage that he bought at auction this spring.

“It’s such a nice show, a big show by tradition,” he stated. “It’s had anywhere from 130 to 170 in recent years.”

When asked what part of the accommodations in Prairie du Chien he appreciated most, Riley said, “Everything. Even the stabling is nice. The people are nice. The show is well run. The area here is fabulous.

“But the thing I like the most is the cross country (course). It’s not a little course where everybody does the same thing. There’s twice as many gates as any other event and everybody gets a little different course.”

Riley, who has shown horses for 40 years and initially came to the Villa Louis competition about 10 years ago to volunteer, pointed out that there aren’t too many pleasure carriage contests around anymore.

“These carriages are not a large group so we tend to know everybody in the industry,” he added. “A lot us have been to the other competitions like New York and Virginia. We have friends all over the country.”

Participants in the 2017 Carriage Classic hailed from as far as Kentucky, Ohio, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, New York, Missouri, Texas and Canada. Many traveled from various regions in Wisconsin, even Prairie du Chien.

Riley, who was champion of the country vehicle class in 2016, said he and many of his carriage friends, who came from more of a distance, look forward to visiting Prairie du Chien. After the show, a number of them traditionally enjoy a meal at Jones’ Black Angus on Sunday evening.  

Among the many horses and their owners who composed themselves for the weekend contest was a 12-year-old mule, Tevis, and his owner Ann McCombs, from Harvard, Ill. Retired from combined driving, Tevis returned to the Carriage Classic, for a second time, this year. He was one of two mules in the mix.

“There aren’t many pleasure shows and this is kind of in our own backyard,” McCombs said. “Plus, this is a very prestigious show.”

The seasonally beautiful Wisconsin weather of the weekend only added to the prosperous activity on the island, where horse and carriage lovers of all kinds showcased the elegant equine sport at its finest.

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