Wayne Porter has been riding horses since he was in high school. But after he broke his hip in a car accident outside the Pentagon in 1984 and arthritis set in, it became uncomfortable for him to sit in the saddle and absorb the bounces and occasional spills from a fast-moving horse.
"You get off and you stagger around," he said, describing riding's effect on his healing body.
In 1988, Porter discovered recreational carriage driving, which he said is "exciting without being scary" and "easier on the body than riding" but still allows him to remain active with horses.
Porter, 57, of Alexandria, who works in insurance, has enjoyed the activity so much that he helped found the Potomac River Driving Association, which for the past five years has organized summer carriage driving clinics at Morven Park International Equestrian Center in Leesburg. About a dozen people took this year's four-week course on the basics of carriage driving, including a mother with a newborn, a recent college graduate and older, more experienced riders.
Carriage driving emerged as a recreational activity and sport about a century ago, as cars began to replace horse-drawn carriages as the most common means of transportation, said Ann Pringle, executive director of the American Driving Society in Lapeer, Mich.
The sport requires a driver and an animal that can pull a wheeled vehicle, either a two-wheeled cart or a four-wheeled carriage. Harnessed dogs and goats can pull children and small adults, but horses, ponies and mules are the more common choices, said Pringle, whose organization has standardized the rules of the sport and has attracted nearly 3,000 members in the United States and Canada since it was formed in 1974. Carriage driving is a less elaborate activity than coach driving, which involves a larger, covered four-wheeled vehicle and more horses.
Just as running enthusiasts range from casual joggers to professional marathoners, carriage drivers can enjoy anything from a jaunt to a rural picnic to triathlon-type events involving cone-filled courses and obstacle marathons.
Many carriage drivers are middle-age to older riders who often have considerable experience with horses and want to prolong that relationship. Nearly half of the American Driving Society's members are 40 to 60 years old, Pringle said. The demographics are similar for the two area carriage driving clubs, the Piedmont Driving Club, which has about 80 members in Loudoun, Fauquier and Clark counties, and the Potomac River Driving Association, which has about 90 members throughout Northern Virginia, Maryland and West Virginia.
Kathy O'Neill, a student at the Morven Park clinic, said she decided to learn to drive after riding for 16 years.
"I thought, 'If I get too decrepit to ride maybe I can still drive,' " said the 53-year-old Philomont resident. "It seems like a lifetime sport."
Others say carriage driving allows them to extend the sporting life of their horses because driving causes less stress on the front legs and develops the back and hindquarters. Sometimes it allows riders to enjoy ponies that are too small to ride but strong enough to pull a small cart or to make use of horses that are too slow to race and too ugly to show.
"Driving is something to do with the horses and ponies that don't fit in at the show rings or races," said Lindsay Swan, 27, of Leesburg, who has taken up carriage driving after a 10-year absence from the sport. Swan said she wants her 2-year-old daughter, Gwyneth, to have something to do when she gets too big to ride her new pony, Training Wheels. "It's a sport for sort of the misfits of the horse world, as well as the thoroughbreds. Even the donkeys can do this," she said.
The Piedmont club, founded in 1982, began offering driving clinics in 1997 but stopped in 2002 because of a lack of public interest, organizers said, and has since focused on organizing pleasure rides.
"It's a beautiful thing," said Maryalice Matheson, 46, of The Plains, who is vice president of the Piedmont club. "They drink champagne off the carriages. It would be like tailgating at a football game."
For some of the Piedmont club's recreational picnic drives, participants arrive with the traditional and functional hat, glove, whip and apron, Matheson said. The gloves improve the driver's grip, and the apron protects clothing from road debris and horse hair that rubs off under all the straps. "We frown upon baseball caps," she said.
At the Piedmont club's 23rd annual horse show, which takes place Sept. 18 and 19 at Foxcroft School in Middleburg, one of the most formal carriages is expected to arrive with a groom dressed in a heavy frock coat, top hat and black boots, Matheson said.
"It's kind of Victorian," she said, referring to the style of dress and adornment of horse and carriage. "They're putting together a picture, like a painting."
For the first few weeks, students at Morven Park had to use pictures and diagrams -- and even small water bottles -- in place of actual horses as they learned driving techniques. For safety reasons, they were not allowed to harness their animals until the last class.
During the second class, the students lined up in front of a jump bar, over which 1,000-pound horses usually leap. They grabbed reins attached to water bottles on the ground and lifted them to experience the constant pressure needed to communicate clearly with a horse. Instructors said the weight of about 16 ounces of water in the small bottles let students learn how much pressure a driver should use on the reins to guide a horse.
"You want to feel the horse's mouth on the other end [of the reins], or you have no communication with the horse," said Hagan Baturay, 23, who took the class with his father, Allen, 65, as a bonding activity after the recent college graduate returned home to Catharpin in Prince William County.
Horseback riders signal directions to the horse by pulling on the reins the way they want to go. Drivers do the opposite. They maintain constant pressure, releasing it on one side to guide the horse in the opposite direction.
It is easier for horseback riders to communicate with horses because they are in direct contact with them, not relying solely on reins and whips, said Hagan Baturay. "You kinda tap the horse with your feet" when you ride, he said.
On graduation night, Porter brought his pony Chocolate, who rolled his eyes and tossed his head impatiently as his handlers adjusted a web of straps and buckles around his face and torso. Nearby, Tina, a muscular draft horse, and a couple of mules were already hitched up to their own carts and ready to trot across gravel roads and grassy fields. They left without him.
Tina was wearing blinders on either side of her eyes. The leather-covered metal plates attached to the cheek pieces of the bridle obscure her peripheral vision, preventing Tina from getting "spooked" by things behind her, such as a twitching whip or passing cars, said Glenn Smith, president of the Potomac River club.
These days, Loudoun County can be a pretty spooky place for carriage drivers. Purely recreational outdoor venues -- gravel roads and other paths -- are disappearing as more roads are paved and people unfamiliar with horses complain about the manure near their driveways. At the same time, area horse shows are responding to growing interest in carriage driving by including carriage events along with more traditional riding and appearance-based events.
A couple of weeks ago, a woman with three children approached Smith, 52, as he was driving his horse through a neighborhood near his home. Smith, of Round Hill, said he thought the woman wanted her children to see the horse, a common occurrence since so many Loudoun children are "city transplants."
"She said, 'You know, your horse just took a dump on the road. We don't want you back,' " he said. It is the second neighborhood near his home that has banned him from entering with horses. Smith said the children in the first neighborhood were so saddened by the ban two years ago that they offered to shovel manure off their streets if he brought his horses back. But he never returned.
Unlike riding a horse, which can travel across a wide variety of terrain, carriage driving is restricted for safety reasons to low-traffic roads, usually gravel ones, and wide paths. Irate car drivers or fast-moving vehicles pose too great a risk of spooking a horse or causing a collision on asphalt roads.
"[Carriage drivers] can't just easily get off the road like a horse and rider can," Pringle said. "A horse can just jump across a ditch."