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One of the most fascinating aspects of carriage driving is the vast range that it encompasses. Carriage driving offers something for everyone – the backyard driver to the international competitor. Miniature horses to Percherons. Wire-wheeled carts to Road Coaches. Unlike some sporting activities, carriage driving is not gender specific. Women can participate equally with men. And in the opinion of some, surpass them in skill. Driving clubs have been formed throughout the world that target specific interests. Some of the most exclusive of these clubs are the Coaching clubs. However, many of these clubs limit membership to the males of the species, in spite of the fact that many women have proven to be much better ‘whips.’ And so, in 1983, the World Coaching Club was formed.

1983 – Stow on the Wold, England

Anne Wakefield-Leck, a lifelong horsewoman, and her husband Charlie Leck were in England so Anne could take lessons from Cynthia Haydon. Mrs. Haydon was known throughout Great Britain, Europe and the U.S. for her outstanding ability to handle and drive Hackney horses. Charlie remembers inviting Cynthia and Frank Haydon to their hotel for dinner, and afterward sitting in a room in front of a huge fireplace with a roaring fire. The conversation took a turn that prompted the question of why Frank was not a member of The Coaching Club. Modestly, Frank answered that he didn’t feel he deserved to be a member, but believed that Cynthia certainly did, saying something like “She drives better than any of those fellows who are members!” Of course, women were not invited to be members.

The Lecks were charmed by Mrs. Haydon, her skill, and remarkable sense of humor. Charlie says, “Both Anne and I had enormous respect for her and we were very well aware of the legendary stories that were told about her as both a trainer and whip.” So impressed actually, that they named their daughter, born in 1984, after Cynthia. Charlie then says he said “something stupid like ‘Is it true? Are you really better than all of them?” He goes on to say that Cynthia, not a particularly modest person, explained that only a few of the men, including HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, were really accomplished whips. “We laughed a lot,” said Charlie “when she finally got around to the well-recognized fact that she was better than any of them.”

The next logical question was – why didn’t Mrs. Haydon and the other lady whips form their own coaching club? An uncharacteristic silence from Mrs. Haydon was followed by an enormous laugh, then “Gay [Robinson] could do this! She could make it all happen. Crackers! Gay and me! And you, Anne! We could do this.” She began to rattle off names of women drivers. “Any of them could drive the pants off most of those so-called gentlemen of the Coaching Club.”

During the rest of their stay, Anne and Mrs. Haydon continued to discuss the idea, and Anne and Charlie came back to the United States ready to make the concept a reality.

Back in the USA

Gay Robinson became the first president of what came to be called the World Coaching Club. Shortly after returning to the states, Charlie was asked to go to Philadelphia to meet with Gay. Gay was one of just a handful of women who actively drove coaches in this country. Anne Leck was fairly new on the scene. Deirdre Pirie had taken up the new sport of combined driving in a serious way so it was believed that Gay was the person to give the club standing and respect right from the start.

A small group gathered at the Devon Horse Show to formally establish the club. The name World Coaching Club was agreed upon, and a logo was developed and adopted. The yellow rose would be the official club flower, and the colors a soft blue and soft yellow. Something all agreed upon was their desire to not become too formal or ‘stuffy.’ Gay Robinson, Anne Leck and Cynthia Haydon became the first executive committee. Charlie Leck was asked to be the secretary and has kept the records of the club until just recently.

The early members included: Jean Lisiter Dupont, Margaret Ferguson Savilonis (Meg), Cynthia Haydon, Deirdre Pirie, Cordelia “Gay” Robinson, Sidney Lenier Smith (Syd), and Anne Wakefield-Leck.

Rules

By design, the rules of the World Coaching Club were kept simple – fitting on one page. One of the first reads: “In order to be nominated and accepted for membership the lady, or her immediate family, must own or have owned for a considerable period of time a Park Coach or Road Coach and must have driven the same using a four-in-hand of horses or ponies in such a manner as to be considered an accomplished ‘whip.’”

The number of members in the club would be limited to 25. At club activities, members may invite up to three guests. No dues were assessed. Each member would be responsible for all the expenses associated with the meetings.

According to Misdee Wrigley Miller, current president, most important is “to always turn out in the finest coaching tradition, and second – to always be a lady.” Unlike the rules of the New York Coaching Club, with their leather bound rulebook, the World Coaching Club takes a much more relaxed approach. And unlike the ‘other’ coaching clubs, the World Coaching Club welcomes men to join them on their drives.

While the founders wanted a departure from the pompousness of the other coaching clubs, they were still very serious about the qualifications for membership. Gay Robinson believed that not only should candidates be able to drive a four-in-hand to a Road Coach or Park Drag, if an entire set of coaching harness was disassembled and put in a heap, the proposed member should be able to reassemble it perfectly.

Activities

The World Coaching Club plans drives both in the U.S. and in Europe on a regular basis. One of the first gatherings was held at Shelburne Farms in Vermont. Often meetings are held in conjunction with a competition such as Walnut Hill, or during a conference of the Carriage Association of America. In 2015, the club will meet in Windsor, England and in Lexington, Kentucky during the CAA Carriage Festival. One of the highlights of the club was a gathering in Windsor, England, when they presented Queen Elizabeth with a coaching horn and then drove through the Great Park.

Misdee Wrigley Miller is the third and current president, taking over from Anne Leck in 2003. Toddy Hunter is Vice President and Jill Ryder is Secretary. Gloria Austin is one member of the World Coaching Club who embraces a feminist reason for the club’s existence. Gloria is a serious student of the horse and its effect on our history and culture.

“As many know the World Coaching Club was started as a response to the men’s-only coaching clubs which did not accept women as members. These male bonding groups are engrained in many cultures for reasons too complex to discuss here. As women gained rights to vote, own property, and operate businesses, they gained the status and freedom to organize clubs that may have been exclusive to men. The World Coaching Club is such a club. Clubs like this are important in today’s culture in that it lets women know that they can pursue wealth, activities and occupations that were once reserved for men. These clubs and the activity of driving four horses to a large coach give women a sense of power and pride normally reserved for men. Horse activities in American have attracted women because of the nurturing and bonding chemistry found in the female. This type of club not only gives women status and a sense of power but satisfies their basic nurturing and bonding needs.

“This club and others like the Four-in-hand Club (founded by both men and women), Coaching Club of Philadelphia, and the European Private Driving Club, all accept women members. There are certain stipulations: some require owning a team of horses, some additionally require owning a coach; and some require driving with the proper British Hand with the reins in the left hand and use of the right hand for manipulating the reins and the whip.

“Membership in the World Coaching Club has allowed me to be accepted around the world as a proficient driver of four horses to a coach. It has opened doors for me to drive in events like the Windsor Horse Show in Great Britain and belong to driving organizations in Europe. It is a form of credentialing.”

It does not take much imagination to realize that owning a coach and four horses and all the accompanying equipment takes a great deal of resources. But it takes much more: driving a fully loaded coach – thousands of pounds of fairly top-heavy weight – pulled by four strong horses or ponies – takes a great deal of skill and horsemanship.

As the World Coaching Club was now firmly established, Charlie Leck recalls another visit, many years later, to see Jimmy and Gay Robinson at their Crebilly Farm in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. “Gay took me driving and showed me some of her favorite spots. On the drive, she told me she would not live very much longer. She had one request of me and she was mighty serious about it this time. She was serving as president and up to then I had always done her secretarial work for her and tried to keep things organized. She pulled the car off the road at a particularly lovely spot near Andrew Wyeth’s home and she asked me in great seriousness not to let the World Coaching Club die. I told her I’d do my best.”

These remarkable women who founded the World Coaching Club, but are no longer here to participate, would be proud to see how the club has grown, in numbers and strength.

For the first time, the World Coaching Club will have its own permanent office, in the Carriage Association of America’s building at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Kentucky. They will celebrate with a Grand Opening on June 25, 2015 in conjunction with the Grand Opening of the CAA’s new office. A drive is planned with a stop at Spindletop Farm.

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