Lowndes Co. Woman Determined to Lead the Way
It’s called "Carriage Driving" and a Lowndes County woman is convinced it can become popular in Alabama if folks would just give it a try.
There are requirements, of course, the most important being the need to have a carriage, a horse or a pony, not to mention all the accouterments needed to make it work properly.
"We can do it, I know we can," said Bettye Benjamen, during an interview at her house in rural Lowndes County where "rural" is the optimum word. "I’m going to do my part to introduce it to Alabama."
According to the determined 73-year-old former teacher, Alabama could be the only state in the nation without an organized carriage driving program.
Her first effort to create a carriage driving club flopped when few attended what was to have been an organizational meeting last October.
The national designation for the equine hobby is the American Driving Society (ADS) and Benjamen’s dream is that, one day, a club in Alabama will become part of that group.
According to the ADS, carriage driving continues to make inroads across the country.
"Even though it utilizes horses, ‘driving’ provides a totally different sensation of interaction with the horse than does riding," said an ADS statement.
Many Alabamians who live in rural areas have horses and some have buggies to boot. Putting them together into a cohesive club may take time, but Benjamen is willing to devote as much time as it takes.
Her next major effort will take place in early March when she plans to host a carriage driving clinic at the Kirkpatrick Arena in Autaugaville.
The tentative dates for the Autauga County event are March 5-6 with Joanne Wilburn of Olive Branch, MS, scheduled to be on-hand to explain to prospective members what carriage driving is all about.
At clinics held around the U.S., "students" are given a chance to drive instead of ride a horse or pony and feel the difference.
Wilburn is an accomplished driver and teacher who has devoted herself to helping others organize a club.
Claire Root of Fayetteville, TN, is another friend who has been helping Benjamen get over the rough spots in trying to organize a club.
"Hopefully, everyone who attends will get a chance to hold the reins and experience the amazing difference between riding and driving," Root told Benjamen in an e-mail.
Root said carriage driving is something people of all ages can appreciate and enjoy, pointing to an 83-year-old friend known for his horsemanship who became a carriage driver last year.
"My granddaughter began at age 11 and showed in the junior division of pleasure shows with a competent adult for two years," said Root, who added those under the age of 14 must have an adult with them.
Root raises and trains Morgan horses to ride and drive in Lincoln County, TN. She has been driving for about 12 years and takes part in all phases of the sport, including riding as a single and in pairs.
Benjamen doesn’t need an adult with her as she drives "Mockingbird" around her sprawling front yard where she cut a circular track to provide exercise for her Welsh pony, enjoyment for her and room for her dogs to accompany them.
"We love coming out here as much as possible," said Benjamen. "Other people around Alabama can do the same thing. They just need to put their mind to it."
Dedication is something the transplanted Yankee knows a lot about. When she decided to leave Michigan and head for the state of her ancestors, she knew it might not be an easy transition.
It didn’t take long for her to fit in. Some might describe Benjamen as somewhat eccentric, but she won’t take offense. She knows she occasionally follows the beat of a different drummer.
When she arrived in the state, she enrolled at what then was known as Alabama Polytechnic Institute. Today, it’s Auburn University (AU) and she is a full-fledged, devoted AU fan.
She even named one of her Golden Retrievers "Lady Tiger."
The others are "Polar Bear," "Lady Lamb," "Rocky Top" and "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah."
Bettye, who doesn’t have a television set in her home, learned to play the piano at an early age. With enough practice, she can come up with her own versions of Mozart classics. Sheet music from one of history’s greatest composers is always just above the keys on her Steinway piano.
Her first and only marriage ended in divorce, but she doesn’t dwell on that. As far as she’s concerned, her "family" includes her five dogs, "Mockingbird" and other horses that have the run of her property on the outskirts of Lowndesboro.
She used her degree from Auburn to teach school for several years and also picked up a real estate license, but the current economy hasn’t helped her sell a lot of properties.
Focusing her attention now on carriage driving is her latest passion and she knows there aren’t many in Alabama who share her enthusiasm for that hobby.
For one thing, she admitted it can be an expensive pursuit because it can run into thousands of dollars when horses, buggies and all that’s needed to make it work are taken into consideration.
"People think I’m crazy to talk about this, but I think they’d really enjoy getting into carriage driving if they’d just get started," she said.
Her carriage can’t compare with the surrey with the fringe on top just like it was in "Oklahoma," but it gets her where she wants to go. At times she’ll drive it in parades or allow children to accompany her for short stretches.
According to those who have been in touch with Bettye about forming a driving club, there are no ADS member organizations in Alabama. There is one in Georgia and Florida, and two in Tennessee.
Alabama is home for five ADS members and Benjamen hopes that number will grow rapidly once people begin to take part in the equestrian hobby.
Those interested in helping Bettye form a carriage driving club or would just like to chat with her can call (334) 315-6510.
Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.