There’s a book I desperately wanted to write that I couldn’t!
by Charlie Leck
I first met Cynthia Haydon in Toronto in the autumn of 1981. Prior to the encounter, my wife had explained to me that the woman was “a legend.” She may have been, but I found her a hoot (as we say up here in the northland) and I have adored her ever since. She’s very famous in England, her homeland. She was among the first citizens of that nation to be named to the British Horse Society’s Equestrian Hall of Fame (housed at the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment’s headquarters in Knightsbridge). Cynthia was a close friend of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the Queen Mother, right up to the time of the royal lady’s death in 2002 at the age of 101.
Cynthia is well known in North America as well. As a matter of fact, at shows where there are driving classes, she’s an absolute celebrity. Sports Illustrated wrote glowingly about her in June of 1961, a week following the remarkable annual horse show, and her appearance in it, in Devon, Pennsylvania.
“It was more like a scene from a Dickens novel than a Philadelphia Main Line horse show. Blue lightning streaked and thunder crackled as a cold wind lashed curtains of rain across the ring. In the distance a coach approached, its lights blinking through the storm, four dripping bays snorting and throwing mud in all directions. Ringmaster Sergeant Joseph Mulranen, his red coat slicker-covered, lifted his bugle and sounded a nonhorse-show tune: the Navy Swimming Call. Thus went the seventh day of the 65th Devon Horse Show, the first big eastern show, under conditions that would have brought the World Series, the Masters – or most horse shows – to a sudden stop.
“But most American horse shows do not have Mrs. Frank Haydon on the scene. The day Devon started, Cynthia Haydon was collecting ribbons at the Richmond Royal Horse Show in England. A jet flight later she was in Devon for her first class, driving the hackney horses of Mr. Chauncey Stillman.
“When the storm broke later in the week, she was atop Mr. Stillman’s park drag (a private coach-and-four) handling the fractious hackneys with the no-nonsense look of the headmistress of St. Trinian’s. ‘It rains in England, too,’ Mrs. Haydon announced. ‘Let’s get on with it!’ So on they went into the flooding ring, the top-hatted footmen slitting behind with arms stoically crossed as Mrs. Haydon put the four-in-hand through the driving test marked by painted barrels. On her heels came the coach of Mr. and Mrs. James K. Robinson Jr., last year’s winner, its top jammed with soaked guests, among them the show’s president, Lawrence Kelley. His gray flannels drooping, Kelley stood at the rear of the coach sounding calls on an English mail-horn and the storm continued. When the competition was over, Mrs. Haydon received the trophy from Miss Adele Statzel, who, deciding to abandon dignity and save shoes, made the wet presentation in her stocking feet. Meanwhile, huddled atop the rival coach, watching his own winning four-in-hand, was Chancey Stillman. Mrs. Haydon does not allow passengers when she drives.”
[Sports Illustrated, June 19, 1961, by Alice Higgins]
Anne, my wife, would have been 16 years old when that show took place at Devon. She and her sister often showed hunters and jumpers at Devon (at that 1961 show, 950 horses and ponies were entered in the hunter/jumper classes). She probably stood along the rail watching the coaches perform on that rainy night. She said it was at those shows that she began to fantasize about owning a coach like that and a four of hackney horses. After we married, I helped her realize her dream. I traveled the country for her, looking for the coach. She traveled, looking for the horses. In 1980, in possession of the coach and the four, she began to teach herself to drive. She was at the big show in Toronto in 1980, only a few months after we purchased the coach and the four horses. Then we showed there again in 1981, when Cynthia Haydon was judging and I got to meet the great lady for the first time. Cynthia didn’t think highly of my wife’s driving.
“She needs help,” she told me.
Four months after that gathering in Toronto, Anne and I flew to England, to spend two weeks in the beautiful Cotswold countryside, near the home that Cynthia Haydon shared with her husband, Frank, in Moreton-on-Marsh. I don’t think I ever enjoyed a vacation any more than that one.
The real purpose behind the trip was a schooling opportunity for Anne. She was going to take lessons in handling a four-in-hand of horses from Cynthia, considered the finest driver of four in the world. We were both excited and nervous about the trip for weeks before we left. Anne had only been driving for a bit more than 18 months when she went off to hone her skills with the queen of such horsemanship.
All our arrangements were made through Frank Haydon, Cynthia’s husband. He handled all of Cynthia’s business matters and arranged all her travel, as well as supervising the management and sale of horses and Cynthia’s appearances at horse shows. It had been through Frank that we paid for the tutoring lessons and he was firm and adamant about the amounts and the payments. According to Frank, his wife was royalty in the horse world and she was to be treated and paid that way.
Frank was a big man – six and a half feet tall, with massive hands and long, dangling arms. He had a deep, roaring laugh and a wide, wide smile. He dressed well, always in a tie and jacket if not a carefully tailored suit. He had arranged our hotel for us and suggested we would be pleased. We were.
Frank was particularly interested in the topic of ghosts – ethereal beings – who might have visited the hotel and any of its guests. He kept bringing the subject up. When he learned we’d experienced none, he nearly sulked like a boy who’d been refused a bit of candy.
Frank liked big, delicious and free dinners, so we spent a couple of other nights at the hotel and the conversations always turned to their extraordinary adventures in the horse world – and most especially in the coaching world. It was on one of these evenings at the Mill House Inn that Anne and Cynthia connived to create the World Coaching Club in order to compete with the two great (gentlemen only) clubs that already existed in London and New York City. Now the World Coaching Club is well known and thriving and Anne and Cynthia are always remembered as its founders.
On Monday through Friday, during both weeks, it was all work for Anne. There was plenty of ground work – learning to properly lunge a horse and learning to handle and furl a long four-in-hand driving whip and also getting familiar with the English style of handling all the ribbons (reins) in one hand and the whip in the other. I often just hung around and took photographs and jotted down notes as I listened to Frank and Cynthia.
It was an extraordinary opportunity to get to know Cynthia and I came home aching to write a book about her. She was such a character and she had an enormous sense of humor as well as an unusual and spectacular talent. In a letter, I suggested to Cynthia that I wanted to write such a book about her life. She was known and admired in many parts of the world and, though it wouldn’t be a big seller, it would sell a copy or two.
It was Frank who replied to my letter with a long list of requirements that included a large, advance payment and complete control over the content of the book. He was assassinating the project.
Nevertheless, a couple of years later, we invited them to come to Minnesota to judge a driving show we were sponsoring. Frank informed me that they only flew first class and that their hotel had to be of a certain high level of elegance.
“What the heck,” we said to one another, and we decided to foot the bill. It would give me another chance to sell the idea of the book and an opportunity for many of our friends to meet the great lady.
They were a big hit up here in the northland. Cynthia tutored many, many struggling drivers of horses and the two of them judged two long days of classes in our horseshow for carriages and coaches.
However, I got a no-deal on the book unless the fat fee was paid way up front. Even that tempted me, but giving Frank editing control over the content just didn’t sit well with me at all. Alas, the project never happened.
I had other opportunities to spend time with Cynthia in both England and here in North America. I adored her spiritedness and I was so impressed with her ability to move a four of horses around an arena show ring with such silky smoothness. In fact, I was so taken by her that when our youngest child (a girl) was born in 1984, I lobbied to name her Cynthia Louise – after two of the finest horsewomen I’ve ever known: the great Cynthia Haydon and Anne’s sister, Louise.
They were both born into the hackney horse world. Frank’s dad produced the breed as a hobby and Frank became agile at driving them. When his father died in 1934, Frank sent a number of the horses over to a fellow named Robert Black, one of the best known trainers among Hackney people. He lived near Reading, in Berkshire, and he had a daughter named Cynthia, who began driving the horses when she was but a child. She learned to drive a four-in-hand when she was in her teens. Because of her father, she got very used to going to the biggest shows in Great Britain.
Frank had studied at Wimbledon College but left school to take over a small, family chain of butcher shops after his father died. He asked Cynthia to marry him when they were both 21. Following the Second World War, in which he served at a lieutenant-colonel, with some decent capital provided by the butcher business, they restored her father’s stud and their business took off. They began breeding horses for people all over the world – in both North and South America and all parts of Europe. He sold off the butcher shops in the late 60s and he and Cynthia moved to the Cotswolds – first to Lower Slaughter and then to Adlestrop. They officially retired from the breeding business in 1995.
The two of them were together for over 65 years. Frank was 88 when he died. Cynthia, now 93, manages to get along quite well alone. Frank would likely be disappointed. As for me, I should probably fly over there and have a Martini or two with the great woman and see if she’s still in good enough shape to tell me again the wonderful stories that would make up an extraordinary book about a fantastic and great woman. If you had ever seen her drive four big horses while sitting so properly up on a high, English style coach, you too would have been as transfixed by her as I always was when I was in her presence.
Oh, my! How I admire her!
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