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The Carriage Commentator



Having her opinions under the spotlight at the AIAT AGM & Conference in Utrecht, Holland showed Sarah to be either a harsh critic or having high standards - or both - March 2023

One of the best things about the driving life is the interesting corners of the world that it takes us to, the sights we see and the people, horses and carriages we meet along the way.  It’s one of the many reasons why AIAT (Attelage) has such a loyal following, which has steadily grown since it was founded nearly 25 years ago in France by Baron Christian de Langlade, who remains President of the organisation.

Those who initiated the AIAT movement did so not just to promote the use of traditional vehicles and give those who participate a wonderful experience, which it does, but there was a political edge to it too.  Noyon, in Northern France, where the de Langlades are based and the legendary Cuts CIAT was held, was an area of Europe that was pulverised by both the 20th-century world wars: as was much of Belgium, Holland and parts of Germany – the founder nations of the movement.  Areas that are also strongholds such as Poland, the Czech Republic and Italy, also suffered similar fates.  To bring people, horses, carriages and traditions together, in harmony, from once opposing nations and societies is key to the success of AIAT and these are the unspoken bonds of fellowship that hold it together.

The last time an international conference was held was during a rather blustery and, at times, comedic weekend in Somerset three years ago, just before the pandemic.  Richard James, then the GB AIAT Chairman, did his best to helm a long weekend of activities which was beset by storms, breakdowns and missing Italians.  But it was great fun, as these gatherings usually are, and an AIAT weekend is one of those occasions when you don’t mind who you end up sitting next to as there will always be plenty to chat about.

With the world largely over its hiatus and travel much resumed, Antoinette de Langlade set about organising a weekend attended by over 80 delegates (many of them British) in Utrecht, Holland which was managed by local intelligence Ad van der Pluijm and Nickolas Conijn.  Both these knowledgeable gentlemen are AIAT stalwarts and experienced judges.

The AIAT conferences and AGMS, apart from a chance to catch up with likeminded friends or meet new ones, is as much about learning and assessing as socialising.  After the relaxed Friday night meal in the hotel, we breakfasted early on the Saturday then got into a double decker bus to go to De Haar Castle for our morning of judging a range of turnouts.  After an introduction to the venue, time was spent looking at a delightful French Break which was in ‘conservation’ condition and an interesting Barouche with a bowed pole.  Needless to say, debate ensued as to what marks the Break would receive if judged as it was in quite ‘original’ condition with a patina, as opposed to being glossy and newly painted like a show vehicle.

Then, just as we assumed our positions in the grounds of the castle, the rain started, the wind got up and the temperature dropped which seems to be rather typical for an AIAT weekend.  We were divided into four colour coded groups – three for certified judges and one for the trainees.  Finding myself elevated to listed judge status, I joined the yellows and we examined ten various turnouts, from Friesians and Chaises, to Breaks with pairs, to single ponies, and we had to mark each one in quick succession.

The AIAT judging sheet has five different categories which are each marked out of 20.  However, all is not equal as there’s system whereby a coefficient is applied, which means that the mark is multiplied by this amount to give it a greater or lesser bearing on the overall total.  Then it is distilled so that the higher the marks awarded, the lower the penalties carried forward to the Routier and Cones and ideally, a competitor is aiming for the lowest possible score over the three phase.

For the Presentation section, which was what most of the weekend was about, we referred to the standard score sheets.  The first mark is for overall impression, which has a coefficient of 1, as do the drivers, grooms and passengers, and importantly, the carriage IF it dates after 1945.  If the carriage was built before 1945, then the mark is multiplied by 3, giving it the greatest weighting on the score sheet, thus keeping to the core mandate of AIAT, which is to promote tradition.  The remaining two categories of horses / ponies and harness each are multiped by 2, so they are fairly important.

Accompanying this is an explanation of where the marks are in terms of assessment, so 2 is very bad, 10 is sufficient and 20 is excellent.  Judges are also expected to know if the carriage is pre or post 1945.  This in itself is problematic because unless there are some howling clues such as disc brakes (which can be added later), square bolt heads (again, they can be added) and a modern name on the hubs, it is very hard to accurately date carriages.  Even the ‘old’ ones are often ‘new brooms’ as the majority of them will have been repaired and added to, and if presented in shiny condition, they will have no doubt been restored and repainted.  There are many which stand out at authentic antiques, but having handled more old carriages than most, even I confess to finding it problematic sometimes, especially when you only have a minute or two to look and are not supposed to quiz the driver or grooms.  For an AIAT event, the driver should state on the entry form how old the carriage is, but this can be an objective exercise too and might well depend on hearsay or at best, dates on axles, which isn’t a reliable source (axles can predate carriages).

Now, as a professed fan of AIAT and all that it has done for traditional driving, so far, so good.  But as a judge, the system doesn’t quite stack up for me.  Trying to standardise judging and what is expected from across the nations isn’t so straightforward.  Each time we gather, Christian reminds us that judges must not be too hard on those who come before them and that they should be encouraging, and not off-putting, especially if a competitor is new to the format or event.  This is, of course, something that all judges should do in any class, but not at the expense standards by airbrushing faults and nor should anything be judged through rose tinted spectacles.

We in the UK have a long tradition of showing, be it private driving, in hand, trade, under saddle, horses, cattle, goats and even ferrets.  We, as a nation, seem to be willing to show anything and be judged (even if we grumble about it).  We expect our judges to be experienced, wise, authoritative and command respect, while also being kind, efficient, fair and totally unbiased.  Not all nations have a showing culture like we do, and as a result, not all standards are the same.  When the format allows marks to use as opposed to the subjective process for one person in a ring, most judges, especially in driving trials or ridden dressage, are encouraged to use the full range available to them.  Only recently while judging indoor Precision & Paces, I used the full 0-10 (one poor chap failed to perform a movement while another deviated perfectly).  It’s a joy to give out the big marks, but they must be earned and not dished out like sweets.

Although the turnouts that came before us in Utrecht were interesting, we had a short time to fill out the marks and little to no time to discuss it with our colleagues as we were in groups, yet the Presentation phase of AIAT has three judges, but they are set apart and do not consult at all during the process.  Some of the turnouts that presented themselves to us for the assessment were superb, particularly the chestnut pair of Dutch warmbloods put to a Wagonette Break and driven by Reiner Brummelkamp.  There were two Dutch Chaise single turnouts, in which the driver sat on the ‘other’ side and we scratched our heads as to whether this was a deliberate mistake to test our eyesight or was standard.  When the second one came in front of us, it was decided that this was fine and not something to be penalised.  And while there were some decent turnouts, there were others where there was plenty of room for improvement.  Many of the horses were in their winter coats which was accounted for, but poorly maintained feet and stable stains couldn’t be ignored.  Our scores, which had to be entered into an app on our phones were then taken off to be masticated over and we thought little more of it.  At the time, I thought I was being generous awarding a 10/20 which was as low as I dared go and I did visit 19 on several occasions.

Judging finished, we went into the warm for lunch and then back onto the bus for a drive to the other side of Amsterdam and what was the highlight of the weekend, a couple of hours in the private collection of Mr Kuivenhoven, who is an avid collector of not just spectacular carriages of all sorts (coaches, curricles, breaks and sleighs, with a penchant for anything by Binder of Paris) but lamps, harness and all the accoutrements.  It was like Willy Wonka’s for carriage buffs.  I was delighted to learn that quite a lot of his collection, which he had restored himself, had come from the Reading Carriage Sales so I thanked him for the commission over the years and set about looking for a T & S sticky sale label, and found one still on a picture.

That evening we had the customary gala dinner which was in the Paushuize (Pope’s House) in the centre of Utrecht, a city that revealed itself to be a delightfully historic with some beautiful buildings.  We learned that Holland has only produced one Pope, and he didn’t last for very long in the chair, and the posh house that he commissioned in his home country was never visited by him as he died before he could get to it.  But it was a lovely venue for a meal.

The next morning we stayed in the modern Mitland hotel to have a debriefing about the judging from the previous day.  There was a frisson in the air as it became apparent that our marks were going to displayed on the big screen for all to see and it showed that a few of us adhered to a different scale than others.  I was asked to justify my ‘harder’ marks to the room, which I did, and felt in reasonably good company as the other two who were marking in the same vein were the seasoned drivers across the disciplines, David Saunders and Claudia Bunn.  While I might have jibbed at the red blocks against my name, I stand by the marks and was thanked afterwards by one of the organisers for being bold enough not to fall into line.


A few days later, the team at Thimbleby & Shorland hosted what turned out to be a successful Reading carriage sale.  They openly admit that they were not sure if they had the appetite to continue with public auctions after the challenges of the sale in October, but this time it was less stressful to run and there were some fantastic prices, especially for dealer’s whips.  As long as vendors are realistic about their reserves, their items will sell – a perennial situation.

That same night, I had to dash up to London to give a presentation to the Worshipful Company of Farriers at the Royal Veterinary College, near St Pancras – the station, incidentally, commissioned by Sir James Allport, who was Sylvia Brocklebank’s grandfather and my great (x4) grandfather.  Not knowing until the last minute what I was going to talk about I decided, between leaving the carriage sale and getting on the train to London, to put together a PowerPoint for each month of the past year, bookending with the Reading auctions.  Thankfully, with the Pratoni World Championships, various commentating and competing commitments, parades, film work, the FEI events and even AIAT, there was plenty of variety which showed just how interesting our driving world can be.  My fellow speakers were John Peacock, who shared images and stories about his career driving heavy horses for the London breweries, and David Matthews who with his talented daughters, Amy and Phoebe, talked about their competitive driving and going to events abroad as members of the British team.  In all, it was a great evening and a privilege to be inside the RVC where one is surrounded by a lot of animal skeletons, including a polar bear and Harry Llewellyn’s Foxhunter, who appeared to have been quite dinky.

Talking of Sylvia Brocklebank, the news that Allen and Rene Tucci have become the latest owners / custodians of her Wonder coach, which became the Nimrod and once belonged to Jack Seabrook, has got me thinking about the great lady again.  Allen and I have been in touch and he’s found some pictures and notes which mention my great, great Aunt Sybil, Sylvia’s cousin, friend and coaching companion, which piques the emotions.  How I regret not knowing these powerful and fascinating ladies, who, despite the times they lived in, seemed to have had few barriers to doing what they loved and travelling the nation with a coach and four.  Aunt Syb, who my father was very close to after his father (her nephew) was killed in WWII, once said to him over breakfast as she read The Times, ‘Teddy, one doesn’t discuss money until at least midday.’