Sleigh competitions enjoyable for participants and spectators

Driver Emily Hawkins and an unidentified passenger ride in a sleigh behind Molly, a Morgan mare, during last year’s sleigh rally at the Beem Farm in Palmyra. This year’s rally is set for Feb. 11.
Photo courtesy of Jesse Schwarcz
Driver Emily Hawkins and an unidentified passenger ride in a sleigh behind Molly, a Morgan mare, during last year’s sleigh rally at the Beem Farm in Palmyra. This year’s rally is set for Feb. 11.
Posted Feb. 03, 2012, at 1:07 p.m.

This weekend I have the immense please of judging my first-ever sleigh rally. I have judged equitation and pleasure shows, dressage tests, jumping, halter classes, trail classes and all kinds of other equestrian events, but I am admittedly a sleigh-judging rookie — though not an uneducated rookie, as I have been studying sleigh driving with more gusto than I displayed for any of my college economics classes.

The sleigh rally is being held at the Beem Farm in Palmyra. Amy and Gary Beem have hosted the gathering, sponsored by the Trail Riders Of Today club, for the past 11 years. The sleigh rally is open to the public, free to spectators and with a nominal entry fee for those wishing to participate. For those of you not familiar with sleigh rallies (Not me, I have studied!), they are gatherings of sleighing enthusiasts during which there are several different classes that are judged on specific elements of driving a horse and sleigh.

The most distinctive event (thereby requiring the most studying) is the Currier & Ives class. Participants are judged on the authenticity and antiquity of their sleighs and costumes, which should pay homage to the 19th century artwork produced by Currier & Ives.

Coming back to the 21st century, drivers can participate in a number of different events. The Reinsmanship class judges the drivers’ posture, control of their horses, condition of the sleighs and harnesses and neatness of appearance. A Super-Reinsmanship class is also offered as well, which tests the drivers’ skill in a predetermined pattern of movements. Figure eights, circles, changes of gait and halts may be asked for. The halt, surprisingly, can be the most challenging to contestants. Possibly in the adrenaline rush of competition, drivers frequently rush the five-second required halt time, thereby lowering their score.

Maneuvering a thousand pounds of horse pulling a vehicle on runners no wider than shoe boxes is no big deal for these horse people, but counting to five gets tricky. Pleasure classes are judged more on the horses’ suitability and quality. Horses of every size, from miniature horses to one-ton draft horses, compete equally. There is no required breed of horse for sleighing. Nor are looks important. The health and fitness of the horse is considered, but it is the horse’s manners and movement that are the basis of the class. The horse should be a pleasure to drive and should willingly perform as requested. Sleigh horses may be asked to show a slow trot, working trot and strong trot as well as walk and halt. Backing up is usually not asked for as the sleigh runners are not built to travel in reverse.

Different obstacle courses are also available for competitors. These require the drivers to guide their horses through courses marked with traffic cones. Points are deducted for knocking over cones. One of the biggest challenges, other than not trampling cones, is remembering the course. The course is posted ahead of time and must be memorized.

There are classes for both juniors and adult age groups as well as novice- and advanced-level drivers. A challenging event is the Partners class. Two people compete as a team with one person driving for part of the class and then, halfway through, the second driver taking over. Weather and snow conditions are certainly a considered factor for this event to take place. One year, with patchy snow cover, Gary Beem saved the day by filling the (empty) manure spreader with snow from a bank and then spreading it over the competition area. If the circumstances are such that there is no snow at all, club members bring wheeled carriages instead of sleighs and carry on. Horse people can be very determined.

Spectators are made welcome with hot coffee and a food vendor at the farm, and there is a heated building where folks can warm up in between events. There will be sleigh rides offered to visitors for a small price. This year’s sleigh rally is scheduled for February 11, starting at 10 a.m. and finishing up around 1 p.m. An inclement weather date is set for Feb. 12. The Beem Farm is located at 151 Oxbow Road in Palmyra. For information on entering the competition or spectating, contact Paula Leavitt at 234-4537. I encourage everyone to come out and support this unique and adventurous activity.

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