Young Carriage Classic participant invites spectators

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After 23 years of competing in the Carriage Classic, Gracie Ferries, and her style, have evolved.

Gracie Ferries has participated in the Villa Louis Carriage Classic every year since she was 6 years old and driving her grandpa’s Arabians. She’s now 29, married to her groom, Josh (pictured), and owns her own horses and carriage. (Submitted photos)

By Correne Martin

 

At only 29 years old, she is the second longest consecutive competitor in the country’s largest carriage-driving show, the Villa Louis Carriage Classic in Prairie du Chien.

Gracie Ferries started driving Stormy and Rocky, her grandpa Jim White’s pair of Arabian horses, in the Carriage Classic at the age of 6. 

“I just drove the horses because that was fun,” she said, admitting she also used to get “super nervous” about participating. 

It wasn’t until years later that Gracie learned and became passionate about the finer details of training and driving the horses as well as the beauty and history of the carriages.

The show itself is now a large part of her life and driving is something she plans to continue “forever,” or at least until she no longer can safely compete. 

The 40th Villa Louis Carriage Classic is this weekend, Sept. 10-12, on the grounds of the Wisconsin Historic Site in Prairie du Chien. One hundred trucks and trailers will fill St. Feriole Island as 120 competitors descend upon the grounds with their horses and carriages, hailing from 17 states.

“What we do, you can’t Google it to learn how to do it,” Gracie explained, noting she has consulted some books and old paintings. “I’ve met a lot of people through the really strong driving community in the Midwest. That’s how I’ve learned, like, what to wear or how to buy a carriage. It’s a whole training support system.”

Other hobbyists of all ages have become her friends. She keeps in touch throughout the year, and at the Villa Louis Carriage Classic, but also sees many of them at shows across the Midwest. 

Gracie has competed with seven horses over the past 23 years, all Warmbloods. She started with a pair, then ran a single pony for about 10 years. For around eight years now, she’s practiced with her current pair, Captain and Korbel (owned with her brother, Noah White), four to five times a week from spring until fall in preparation for hitting the courses.

In June 2021, she drove in the Elkhorn show, and in August, she did the Kansas City show. She’s also appeared at shows in Iowa and Nebraska in the past, typically doing all four in one year. She also got to experience a show in London in 2019, although she didn’t participate. Gracie earned the honor of 2019 Pair Horse Champion at the Prairie du Chien contest and won the Division title at Kansas City this year. 

When asked about the prizes awarded, Gracie shared, “We compete for fun” in addition to bragging rights, mostly. She said there is also a fantastic director’s chair and long ribbon presented to winners in Kansas City. 

“Everybody wants it. When people see that, they know you’ve done well,” she said. 

Gracie has two good antique carriages of her own, a Henry Hooker Slat Side Phaeton made in New Haven, Conn., and an 1897 Brewster Stanhope Phaeton, described as a sporty open carriage popular in the 18th and early 19th centuries. 

“[The Brewster] is known as the Cadillac of carriages,” she said. “I have the pieces of paper showing how it was made with the serial number on it.”

These are, of course, in addition to her late grandpa’s reproduction carriage that she still uses. 

Gracie traveled all the way out east, to New Holland, Pa., to purchase her antique carriages at the renowned Martins Carriage Sale. 

“There are springs on these we can’t recreate. They’re so smooth compared to reproductions,” she stated.

This aspect of horse driving is where her interests lie the most strongly these days. 

“I really liked the horse aspect of it as a kid. Now I’m more into the carriages,” Gracie quipped. “I like learning about the things we do because of traditions.”

Plus, Gracie really loves dressing up for competition. She follows American Driving Society rules but otherwise designs her outfits from pieces she’s purchased at the Pennsylvania carriage sale.

“You have to wear an apron from the waist down. These were traditionally used to keep your outfit clean from the reins,” she pointed out. “The apron should match the color of the (carriage) seat.” The rest of her outfits consist of blazers, skirts, hats and scarves—the fancier the better, in her eyes.

Gracie isn’t the only one in the family who enjoys carriage driving competitions. Certainly, her grandparents and brother have dabbled in it. Now, she’s gotten her husband into it as well, and maybe someday, her 1-year-old daughter will too.

“If you drive more than one horse, you have to have a groom,” she said. Her husband, Josh, has served in that role for a number of years.

Gracie said the Villa Louis Carriage Classic has the very best audience around, as there aren’t many spectators at other venues. 

She invites the public to add to the number of spectators by attending the 40th Carriage Classic this weekend. It’s one of the most beautiful and nostalgic events held in the area. Each ticket includes the chance to view all kinds of different horses—from miniature to draft—and a tour of the Villa Louis. Breakfast and lunch are available on the grounds.

There are multiple classes within the two adult and junior divisions of competition: Pair Horse Division and Single Horse Division. These classes include three ring classes: turnout (overall impression), reinsmanship (mostly judged on the driver) and working pleasure (mostly judged on horse performance); and three obstacle classes: cones (fastest time wins), cross country (cleanest run wins) and gambler’s choice (obstacles equal points and most points wins).

Gracie said kids often find the obstacle classes most entertaining.

She also recommends visitors respectfully walk through the stables, where the horses and their owners/riders can be found getting ready.

“It’s important to appreciate the time it takes to prepare, literally hundreds of hours of cleaning and polishing,” she said. “I started training my horses in March for this.”

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