2015-08-01 / Columnists


Unique Horse-drawn Brake Used for Training Coach Horses
by Candice C. Dunnigan

Mackinac Island still is a home for some antique and unusual carriages. Some remain in both private and state-owned barns, while others can be seen in two carriage museums. Perhaps to some, the vehicle known as a brake is the most unique. There are two of them viewable by the public on Mackinac Island. They can be seen in the large carriage collection of the Mackinac Island Carriage Tours and Grand Hotel Stable.

A brake was very useful as a training and sporting vehicle. Its name comes from the purpose from which it was used. The carriage was designed for training horses to coaches, or “to break them into harness.” One could hitch one horse, a team of horses, or two horses to it to train the animal to pull. This type of pulling though was not for agricultural use, such as putting a horse in traces to a plow. Nor was this training to pull draft, such as commodities. Rather, this training was for teaching the horse to cover ground over roads, both paved and unpaved, as well as being able to travel even across a rural pasture while hauling people. A smaller version is known as a braking cart, for one horse only, and has only two wheels.

Jared Curic (from left), Dominico LaScala, and Andries LaScala enjoying some of the local carriage collection, especially the roof-top brake. Jared Curic (from left), Dominico LaScala, and Andries LaScala enjoying some of the local carriage collection, especially the roof-top brake. A true brake has four wheels and a high driver’s seat. It really does not have a body, or what we would call a coach (with doors and a top to shield passengers during inclement weather). A basic brake is also known as a skeleton brake, and no pun intended, it is very “bare bones.” In many ways, a brake looks just like a fancier version of a wagon. A wagonette brake is a good example of this, and it is one of the two that reside in the stable. The wagonette brake is often crossreferenced as a shooting brake. This carriage is driven by a driver with a footman or gamekeeper next to him, on a high seat, or box. Behind them, facing across from each other on either side, are wooden slats. It is outfitted for a particular purpose. In these slats is room for guns, game, and dogs. Other passengers on a shooting brake might have included the “beaters,” male staff (often young boys) that would be driven out to the fields to rouse game birds to flight, to be shot for sport. If much of this sounds like something out of an English novel, you are correct. Wealth in America in the late 19th century did its best to emulate English country life.

The yellow wagonette brake that is here on view at the stable is a very good example. It is worth stopping by to see it, but over in the corner is a much bigger version.

One of the most elaborate of brakes that can be seen in public domain is the roof seat brake. If you visit the stable, as I did one day, you can find many people curious and commenting about it. The three boys I met, who were from Shelby Township, could not understand why it was so high. This brake was designed for transport and viewing. It would take parties of people to race meets. Often these races were “point to points” or steeplechases. The high external seats of the carriage gave a good view. The “box,” or the body, had room for tables, chairs, and picnic paraphernalia. There was also room for parasols and umbrellas in the wicker holders on each side designed for these purposes. The carriage party sat so high, as high as the driver, hence the view was such as “sitting on a roof” looking out. The Brewster Company of New York made some of the finest of these vehicles. The French called them “char- a-bancs.” English sporting gentry at the time often referred to them as “sharrybangers.”

While Mackinac Island also had no point-to-points, or steeplechases, it did have much monied wealth that came here in the summer to have a good time. One of Mackinac’s visiting “grand dames” was Mrs. Potter Palmer of Chicago. She summered at Grand Hotel with family, friends, staff, and carriage. Her brake was indeed used for sightseeing parties and driven with four horses, coached “in hand.” The roof top brake can also be driven by a pair of horses. This particular brake (owned by Dr. William Chambers) was driven with four horses. It was a featured carriage in the Lilac Festival Parade several years ago, with Mayor Margaret Doud taking the high seat of honor.

Carriages such as the roof-top brake were also built to be drawn by ponies. These brakes are known as pony brakes. They can accommodate six passengers. Both roof tops were very popular during the summer months in Boston, New Port, Long Island, Philadelphia, Chicago, and St. Louis. When carriages went into a tailspin, people began to dismantle their barns and stables, and often the brakes were the first to go. They were large, and took up space. Carriages and cars, however, have to have a certain evolutionary relationship. Lo and behold, the French dubbed their Citroen auto a “brac de chasse.” This was their country car, and the English took up the idea of an estate car, carry-all-auto, and called it a station wagon.

Candice Dunnigan is a resident, writer, and equestrian on Mackinac Island. She belongs to various national and local equine organizations.

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