Sleigh driving still lives on in Minnesota

When the winter temperatures are biting, most Minnesotans just want to stay indoors.

But there was a time in Minnesota history when winter was the most social time of the year. Farm families did not have to worry about tending the fields as they did in the other three seasons, so they hitched their horses to sleighs to get out of the house.

Gliding across the ice and snow, families and friends would bundle in heavy raccoon furs and wool, and cover themselves with blankets. Tucked in the folds of the blankets and beneath the seats were rocks heated in the stoves to keep them warm.

With the soft patter of the horses in the snow and friendly jingle of sleigh bells, people huddled closely and socialized, sharing secrets in the frigid air.

"We called it visiting. That was a pretty big deal," said local sleigh-driving enthusiast Kenn Kopitzke of Afton. "The socializing was kind of like going to church. Throw the kids in the straw and go."

This antiquated form of transportation seems like a blur from the past, but Kopitzke finds sleigh driving today to be relaxing, almost therapeutic. As a retired civil engineer who spent his career building roads for modern transportation, he now avoids them with his team of horses.

He spends his leisure time driving through the hills and woods of the St. Croix Valley with his horses and sleigh, trying to find "any place that you are away from civilization and traffic because the horses love it."

Since the late 1960s when Kopitzke began sleigh driving, he has become an expert on the activity and restoring sleighs, and has written articles for leading driving magazines.

As a history buff and son of a carpenter, his passion for building things has made this a particularly appealing hobby.

"I always enjoy restoring them. I built some from scratch just because I enjoy doing it," he said.

The history of sleigh driving

Sleigh driving started in Minnesota more out of necessity for transportation that leisure, Kopitzke noted.

The sport gained popularity in Europe in 1968 when Prince Phillip created rules for the new sport, according to the British Horse Driving Trials Association. Events included dressage, marathon and cone driving.

Jeff Pomije, who owns Big Black Horse, LLC, a horse-driving supplier in New Prague, said these obstacle courses are like "NASCAR with a horse."

His wife, Ginny, said based on their business, she believes the "whole driving is an up-and-coming sport in the Midwest, even though it is pretty established out East."

For people who want to get involved in sleigh driving, without the cost of horses, the Pomijes estimate it is about $600-$1,000 to get a harness and small sleigh.

"You can do simple trails to start, and farm work with your horses," Jeff Pomije said. Any size of horse can work as well, whether it is a miniature horse or large draft horse.

Kopitzke said the sport has not grown as much as he would like to see it. He believes it has more older participants than younger people.

But groups of sleigh enthusiasts around the state have kept the sport alive and true to its social roots.

The Manes and Tails Harness Club is a local group that meets to talk about the sport and go on a group sleigh ride through a state park or a member's farm. About 45 to 50 couples participate, including Kopitzke and the Pomijes.

Members Katie and George Dege of Lake Elmo have driven sleighs for about 14 years now, and Katie Dege said she enjoys the social part of the club.

"There's a camaraderie and sharing of our knowledge in the ancient sport," she said. "[Driving] is very, very pleasurable. It's easygoing. You have to be on your toes. You have to be aware of your surroundings, but you can still enjoy a leisurely drive."

Training a horse

Unlike riding a horse, driving a horse or team means less control.

"The thing with horseback riding is that you are sitting on the horse, and you've got all sorts of ways to move your arms, hands and legs to shift and control the horse," Kopitzke explained. "When you're driving (a carriage or sleigh), you've got these two pieces of leather, so you need a horse that is trained."

Pam Carlson, a member of the Manes and Tails Harness Club, has trained her own horses to drive and explains that it can take months.

The horse must learn to obey commands, get used to a harness, and then try ground driving before even getting hooked up to a sleigh or carriage.

"We have to go behind them with bells, then get used to cues and verbal cues to get used to walking around and looking in the cart," she said.

Horses have to get used to the noise of not just the cart but also traffic and other sounds.

"Horses are funny, you never know what is going to startle a horse," Carlson said. "Sometimes a semi-truck driving by on the road does not scare them, but a plastic bag spooks them real bad."

This could mean putting a bunch of balloons or plastic bags near the pasture to make the noise seem less scary for the horses.

Sleigh driving event comes to Washington County

Club members really enjoy showing off their horses and sleighs to people who have not seen the sport before.

The Manes and Tails Harness Club will host its fourth annual sleigh rally from noon to 2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 2, at the Washington County Fairgrounds. The rally, "Winter Spirit of Yesteryear," is free, open to the public and features local sleigh drivers in period dress.

"This year we have two new additions -- a junior driving class in the competition for ribbons and an exhibit of small push sleighs used to transport children and goods through the snow manually," Carlson said.

Dege describes the event as "beautiful to see and participate in." While she and her husband will not drive their team this year as they have in past years, she is volunteering.

Amateur photographers are also invited to the event. Kopitzke said photographers are give special armbands for closer access.

Spectators will also have the chance to ride on a member's sleigh. Goodwill offerings are asked for Washington County 4-H clubs in exchange for the ride.

"They will see a real variety of vehicles, horses and harnesses, and even learn a lot if they want to," Kopitzke said. "And they might just plain enjoy it."

Theresa Malloy can be reached at tmalloy@lillienews.com.