Joni Kuhn

Joni Kuhn of Dallas, Texas, drives her pair of Friesians during a sunny day at the Villa Louis Carriage Classic.

PRAIRIE DU CHIEN, Wis. – The Villa Louis Carriage Classic showcases competitive carriage driving, highly trained horses and ponies, and dedicated drivers – all to create high-class elegance both inside the show ring and out.

The show, held annually in Prairie du Chien, is divided into two judging classes; competitors from several states compete primarily for ribbons.

“The sportsmanship of the sport is what really attracts me to the competition,” said Mike Rider, show manager and chairman of the Villa Louis Carriage Classic Inc. and the Villa Louis Carriage Classic Foundation Inc. “While it’s great to win blue ribbons, people congratulate each other for wonderful performances whether they win ribbons or not. It’s a very friendly competition; almost no cash prizes are given. The camaraderie amongst the competitors and volunteers is why I love the sport.”

For the 2016 show participants arrived from 16 states, including a team from North Carolina, the furthest distance a competitor-and-horse team traveled this year. The teams put in hundreds of hours of practice for the event, Rider said. They travel several hours – and some travel days – to arrive in Wisconsin in time for the show.

“This is kind of like the old MasterCard commercials,” Rider said. “Horse: $2,000; truck and trailer: $35,000; carriage: $2,000; entry fees: $300; winning a $3 ribbon: priceless.”

The show is divided into two judging styles. The first are the subjectively judged classes in the arena, where judges from the American Driving Society judge performance of drivers, also called reinsmanship; equine or working class; and overall impression of the carriages, harness, driver and other aspects, also called turnout, Rider said.

The others are the objectively judged obstacle classes.

This year there were several offered, including:

  • timed obstacles in which drivers and horses must drive through pairs of traffic cones as fast as possible,
  • cross country obstacles, which simulate a country drive,
  • gambler’s choice obstacles, which is a class that accumulates points for obstacles in a specified period of time.
  • scurry, where no assigned route is given and drivers must choose the route they believe to be the fastest, and
  • fault-and-out obstacles, in which drivers and horses complete the course without dislodging balls from cones – until they knock one down or their time runs out.

“As an organization, we try to make the show fun by offering a variety of classes,” Rider said. “We also value our social events.”

Two parties are held each year for the public and the competitors. Both Friday and Saturday nights of the show catered meals for 400 to 500 people are brought to the lawn of the Villa Louis. There are other receptions and social gatherings that allow people to meet and greet participants.

This year, in addition to the stable tours offered showcasing behind-the-scenes work involved with the show, the organization offered educational sessions that drew both the public and the competitors. Gloria Austin of Weirsdale, Florida, gave lectures on the sport of carriage driving and conducted stable tours. Karen Hankee of Viroqua, Wisconsin, shared details of her career as a carriage painter and striper.

“The carriages themselves are functional artwork,” Rider said. “The painting and detail work on them is sometimes overlooked but often very intricate. One of our missions is to provide education about carriage driving and I think we really worked on that goal this year. The stable tours were also very popular and will likely be offered in the future.”

Rider has been involved in the show since he was 10 years old, when his stepmother asked him to volunteer at the event. She was a young professional and had just moved to the Prairie du Chien area. She hoped to become involved in community projects and began to serve as the treasurer of the Carriage Classic. She asked Rider to run a stopwatch on the cones course. After a few years, he took on more responsibilities – until 1999 when he took over as show manager.

“I had never been around horses or any agriculture expositions before this, so it was fascinating and lots of fun,” he said.

The 2017 show will be held Sept. 8, 9 and 10. Visit www.carriageclassic.com for more information.