Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Tom Ryder

I felt like a South Dakota farmer whenever I was around him!
by Charlie Leck

No offense, mind you, to South Dakota farmers. I know a number of them and I’m honored to be compared to any one of them; however, I use them here to make a point.

Tom Ryder has up and died on us and it leaves a hole in our collective beings– and it hurts – it hurts real bad!

Many of my regular readers knew Tom Ryder and they too will miss him like crazy. We have our electronic arms around each other at this moment, seeking to comfort each other – and more to come to grips with what our world will be like without Tom Ryder in it.

In this extraordinary world of collecting and driving grand antique carriages, Tom Ryder was the King! His thinking and style made the Carriage Association of America what it is and the impression he left on it will forever be an influence upon that organization.

He was such a gentleman – always a gentleman – and it came easily to him to act the way he did – to be the way he was. He was kind and tolerant and generous. He always had time for conversation with me and he was always patient about the questions I tried to formulate and logically express to him, but with which I struggled so awkwardly.

At heart, I’m a country-bumpkin and it was odd to juxtapose my mannerisms and personality against his. Though I’ve traveled the world wide – and around it – I always felt like I had never left the farm when I was around Tom. His grace and splendid way of expressing himself were legendary in our carriage world.

This man was not one of the Lords, mind you. He was a working class man and spent a good deal of his life as a servant. Doesn’t it seem like more than circumstance or coincidence that one of his long time employers, Jack Seabrook, only died in the last few weeks as well? A team – a mighty partnership – has been taken from us and one can only hope that they are together again, laughing together now as they so often did in life. [I wrote about Jack Seabrook very recently.] In 2001, Tom wrote a book about Jack Seabrook that has a special place in our library: HALF CENTURY OF COACHING (The Driving Career and Carriages of John M. Seabrook).

I’m not going to go into great detail about Tom Ryder in this blog. There will be other times and places for that; and when an obituary makes its appearance, I will point you to it. I’ll just give you a little sketch.

Tom’s best known book is probably ON THE BOXT SEAT. I have a first-edition, signed copy of it sitting here at my elbow. It was first published in 1969 – forty years ago – and, though the carriage world is small, it has been read by thousands who consider it one of the most important books ever published in this particular area of scholarship.

Chauncy Stillman, an exceptionally successful American businessman and a devoted carriage collector, wrote about Tom Ryder in the Foreword to the above mentioned book.

“It is fortunate that that generation of horsemen was attentively observed by a few zealots who absorbed their craft, and thus can transmit the tradition in its entirety. Eminent among these is Mr. Tom Ryder. He spent his youth as a devotee of the harness horse in England, where he frequented the shows and learned the history of every star. His first love was the Hackney Horse – the buxom, blithe, and debonair – and it is through that noblest of harness breeds that my path first crossed his, but he is not blind to the virtues of other breeds as the reader will discover.

"Mr. Ryder is graced with a lively pen that can transmute facts and instruction into the spritely narrative. His thorough knowledge of horsemanship, showmanship, and the accompanying skills of ‘the road’ gives this manual its authority. Any beginner desiring to drive properly and happily will want to own this book, and the experienced devotee will want it to consult on fine points or merely read for sheer pleasure.”
Tom was born in England at a time when the automobile had become king of transportation. Nevertheless, because he had an uncle who was a leading breeder of harness horses in England, he fell in love with the harness horse. He devoted himself to learning all he could about driving and about the history of driving throughout the world. Tom spent time in the military and volunteered to serve in the ‘horsed yeomanry regiment.’ Before going into the service, Tom had put together an outstanding and successful stud and he did a significant amount of showing and nearly daily pleasure drives through the countryside. Through the latter part of the 20th century, he spent his life in North America, showing harness horses and teaching others to show both in Canada and the United States. For years, he edited the Carriage Journal, a publication of the Carriage Association of America, which his daughter continues to edit today.

A decade ago, Tom returned to England to live out the rest of his life in his beloved York countryside. Nevertheless, one person or another, or some organization, was forever flying him back to the states to be a speaker or teacher. Until recently, Tom was happy to make the trips.

Tom Ryder driving a Tandem turnout of Hackney Horses
at the Devon Horse Show in 1965. Tandem driving is
considered the most difficult of all turnouts. These are the
famous Hackney Horses, ‘Dufferin Temptress’ and
‘Dufferin Majorette’ owned by John F. Cuneo of Chicago.
Look at how perfectly and in-time they are moving.

There are voluminous amounts of Tom’s writing available (manuals, periodical articles and texts of speeches) and I can imagine that the Carriage Association will be planning to publish them so they can be made available in book-form for the reading public.

I flew Tom Ryder out here once, to look at one of my carriages and to give me some advice and guidance about restoring it. It was a wonderful moment in our lives to have him at our farm, looking at our horses and chatting with us about our collection of carriages. I’m not dealing in hyperbole here. It is true. It was such an honor to host him, to have him in our home, and to have him meet our friends. We were on our best behavior in order to make this gentleman as comfortable as possible.

I could tell many stories about him, but I’ll keep it to one. Anne and I were spectators at the Devon Horse Show (outside Philadelphia) one year when Tom was judging the Coaching Classes. We had decided not to bring a coach and team that year (for some reason or other) and it was enjoyable just to sit back and watch. One splendid team of Hackney Horses was struggling mightily every time it entered the ring. We were sitting in the stands next to their owner, who had a professional trainer showing his team. Each time the team messed up, the owner became angry and angrier. I leaned over to try to console him and told him what magnificent creatures they were. He took no solace.

So, I played a trump card. The following night the coaching class was going to be for amateur drivers only. His professional would not be allowed to show. I leaned over to the distraught fellow and whispered an offer to him.

“Let my wife drive your horses in that amateur class, and you’ll go home with a blue ribbon.”

He looked at me gruffly. I nodded vigorously and smiled. He leaned forward and spoke boldly to my wife.

“Anne, will you drive my horses in the amateur class tomorrow night. I’ll make sure they are turned-out perfectly for you.”

Of course, Anne was thrilled at the challenge and she turned out early the next evening and drove the four out into the practice ring to get to know them, work them and rehearse them. It was a large class and the ring was crowded. She was cut-off by another competitor as she attempted to enter at a full and glorious trot. In my hands, or those of their professional trainer, the horses would have exploded and been lost for the evening. Anne settled them quickly and brought them again up to a trot.

The judge entered the ring to an introduction by the announcer and applause from the spectators. The first thing he saw as he began to look about were those magnificent Hackney Horses in a thrilling, high-stepping and pounding, full trot. And then he saw my wife on the box with the ribbons and whip in hand. He graciously tipped his hat, smiled widely and bowed ever so slightly to her.

I turned to the owner and smiled at him and winked.

“The class is won,” I promised.

And it was. Anne was thrilled to bring the blue ribbon up into the grandstands to present it to the proud owner.

Tom always had a hard time resisting a team of splendid Hackney Horses or the face of a pretty woman.

Now, too many of the dear, kind friends we’ve made over the years are taking leave of us all and making their way out among the twinkling, laughing stars. I know, though, that they are at peace and resting out there from all their earthly labors.
Tom Ryder's obituary is published on-line at the web site of
The Carriage Association of America.

In addition to numerous instructional manuals and magazine articles, Mr. Ryder’s books include:

THE HIGH STEPPER (first published in 1961 and reprinted many times)

ON THE BOX SEAT (first published in 1960 and reprinted many times)


A HALF CENTURY OF COACHING: John M. Seabrook (2001)


  1. Dear Charles,

    Thank you very much for this very fitting tribute to Tom.
    I feel very privileged that I knew him (also) as a WW2 veteran, who with heart and soul commemorated his fallen comrades here in Arnhem 1944 from 2004 and onwards.

    I miss him and will miss our regular talks very much.

    Bart Veltkamp

  2. Hi Charles,

    I am trying to put together an obituary for Tom for Chronicle of the Horse magazine.

    Could you please e-mail me? I have a few questions and hoping you can answer them.

    Thanks, Coree