When Alan Neely gets near an auction that has a buggy come up for bid, it’s likely he’ll raise his number. The black buggy dubbed the “Charles Dickens” sitting on the side of his hotel, the MacArthur Inn in Narrows, was picked up at an auction in Tennessee. The green and gold-stenciled metal hay wagon next to it he bought at a South Carolina auction.
Along with a couple other odd buggies is his most prized one, the “Queen Elizabeth II”. It was acquired at an auction in Quebec and is kept under wraps in a shed outside of town. “I call her that because the real Queen Elizabeth II has one just like it,” quips the uniquely mustached Narrows native who has won many a mustache contest.
The terms carriage and buggy are interchangeable, for both can refer to a horse-drawn vehicle. Originally, it seems that a two-wheel model was referred to as a cart and with four wheels, it was a wagon. Wikipedia.org does a good job of describing balance for such vehicles:
Two-wheeled vehicles are balanced by the distribution of weight of the load (driver, passengers and goods) over the axle, and then held level by the animal – this means that the shafts (or sometimes a pole for two animals) must be fixed rigidly to the vehicle’s body. Four-wheeled vehicles remain level on their own, and so the shafts or pole are hinged vertically, allowing them to rise and fall with the movement of the animals. A four-wheeled vehicle is also steered by the shafts or pole, which are attached to the front axle; this swivels on a turntable or “fifth wheel” beneath the vehicle.
Neely’s white carriage is a “Classic Vis-à-vis” model, which translates “face-to-face” for the passenger benches facing one another. The burgundy velvet with nailhead embellishments lends a regal quality, along with those front wheels 36 x 1 1/2 inches and larger rear wheels measuring 42 x 1 1/2 inches. Empty weight is 1,000 pounds, and Neely has some 3,000 pounds or more of raw horsepower pulling it.
The credit for the concept of horsepower goes to inventor James Watt, most well-known for steam engines. In working with mine ponies, he discovered that one mine pony accomplished 22,000 foot-pounds of work in one minute. He added 50 percent to that and created the measurement of horsepower at 33,000 foot-pounds of work in a minute. It’s an arbitrary unit of measure seen in every vehicle, plus chains saws, lawn mowers, vacuum cleaners and more.
Neely’s favorite buggy horses are related Percherons, 13 and 14, which weigh on average about 2,000 pounds or one ton each. The draft breed originated in western France and is valued for intelligence, strength and willingness to work. “Getting the horses ready is no small task,” Neely relates. “They need to be caught, bathed, dried, have their feet trimmed and/or cleaned, and have their manes and tails combed and sometimes braided or meticulously arranged.”
The carriage measures 135 inches long, or 11.25 feet, 66 inches wide and 82 inches high. It’s comfortable for four people in the back and one driver and another person on the bench facing forward. The folding top makes this a convertible, or riders can be shaded from the sun or raindrops. Hydraulic brakes lend a modern touch, along with decorative pin striping.
Horses walk about four miles per hour, so it’s a good seven to eight-hour journey from Narrows to Blacksburg, contrasted with 30 minutes at 60 mph. The walk is a four-beat gait where the horse’s legs step in sequence: left hind leg, left front leg, right hind leg, right front leg. The head and neck move up and down to assist with balance.
The trot doubles the speed, and a horse moves its legs in unison in diagonal pairs. It’s a very comfortable gait which a horse can maintain for hours, unlike the faster gaits (canter or lope and gallop) which can only be sustained for short periods of time. A trot is very balanced as well, and the horse will not nod his head. The canter increases speed to 10 to 16 mph depending on length of stride, and it is a 3-beat gait.
According to the Amish Heartland website, amish-heartland.com: The most popular choices for Amish transportation are black, bay and chestnut Standardbred horses that failed to make the cut at tracks in Indiana, Ohio and Michigan. Although their speed is not enough to win purses in competitive racing, these good-natured and versatile animals are ideally trained to pull a buggy or farm cart over long distances in heavy traffic. With their calm disposition, they seldom startle at a passing truck, while their long legs and powerful build eat up the miles effortlessly. The descendants of a Thoroughbred crossed with a Morgan, Standardbreds combine speed with stamina to make them the ideal mode of transportation for errands and family trips. Even the Standardbred’s solid color — dark brown or reddish-brown with a black mane and tail — suits the plain style of the Amish.
So, while buggy rides are booked for weddings and romantic or special events, the reality of traveling in a buggy is no longer practical or necessary, except perhaps for the Amish. They may not need the oil changed, but consider the trade-off of having to own, care for and maintain a couple real horses instead of your horsepower under the hood, and the horseless carriage has advanced over a century into a very nice, comfortable transportation machine.
Text by Joanne M. Anderson
Photos by Always and Forever Photography