One-Horse Open Sleigh: Reflections on a Potomac Childhood of 50 Years Ago

One-Horse Open Sleigh: Reflections on a Potomac Childhood of 50 Years Ago

“Jingle bells! Jingle bells!

Jingle all the way

Oh, what fun it is to ride

In a one-horse open sleigh!”

So goes one of the most beloved winter tunes, conjuring images of old-fashioned jollity and outdoor fun sometime in the snows of yesteryear, before automobiles, television and the internet became ubiquitous. But can you imagine riding in a one-horse open sleigh down River Road in Potomac for real?

I can, because I did it, on a January day about 50 years ago. The Potomac of my childhood had far fewer residents than today. Space between houses was wide open, due to the 2-acre zoning still enforced in some parts of our town today. The village had no chain stores, no Giant, no Safeway, no Starbucks, no pizza parlor. Mitch & Bill’s Esso (now Exxon) was owned by two talented men actually named Mitch and Bill. Two tiny grocery stores, a beauty parlor (still there), a small drug store located in the same building where the current Walgreen on the east of River Road is (with a lunch counter and its stools that spun me around until I got dizzy), a bank, a hardware store, an antique store, and a car repair shop that also fixed tractors filled out most of the rest of the Village at Falls and River Roads.

From our perspective as children, the coin of the realm was horses. Many Potomac neighbors had barns. As a horse-crazy girl, like all my girlfriends, my favorite store in Potomac was The Surrey. Potomac was about horses, and The Surrey was horse-central. An antique surrey, black, with a fringe, high spoked wheels and leather seat stood in the grass in front of the store’s large bay window. I tried to imagine what it would have been like to ride in it, drawn by an elegant horse. The bulletin board outside The Surrey’s door was always bedecked with index cards advertising horses and ponies for sale, stalls to rent, hay for delivery. When you pulled open the door, the sleigh bells on the inside jangled merrily and the scent of leather saddles and boots, potpourri and the faint musty scent of horses enveloped you like a warm blanket. The Surrey sold gifts like tiny Christmas tree ornaments of foxes in top hats and checkered waistcoats, or brass paperweights shaped like a stirrup or a horseshoe, cards with old-fashioned families riding in open sleighs along snowy country roads. There were deep recesses where tack, saddle soap and horse blankets were sold. A toy section featured books on all types of horses, instructions on horse care and riding, miniature stables and a wide variety of miniature horses, plastic Palominos, suede Morgans with fur manes and tails, elegant Arabians with one forefoot forever pawing the air. My girlfriends and I collected and played with them in mismatched herds the way other girls played with Barbie dolls. Sometimes they came with tack and saddle, sometimes we fashioned them ourselves and “rode” them through “trail rides” amid the “trees” of someone’s mother’s dining room table and chairs. When we were older, we rode on the Potomac bridle trails and through the large fields and acres of woods, whether on our own pony or a friend’s, or at Mrs. Foley’s at the intersection of Persimmon Tree Road and Bronson Drive. Afternoons after school and weekends, we rode, or curried, brushed and cleaned tack.

It snowed a good deal in the Januaries and Februaries of my early Potomac childhood. Well over a foot of the full fluffy stuff, multiple times a winter was not unusual. We all often lost power for days, which meant wood-burning fireplaces to heat our houses, candles and kerosene lanterns to see by. Roads didn’t get plowed unless Potomac residents plowed them with tractors. There were no SUV’s. Cars had to use snow tires and chains at times, if they could go anywhere at all in the deep snow. I even remember my mom cooking dinner over a fire in the fireplace when we had no power. I loved being snowed in — it was so beautiful on Potomac’s dark evergreens, great for sledding, snowmen and snow fort building. Watching my mom cook over the fireplace allowed me to time travel to “olden days,” as if I could live the life of a child in 1920, 1820, or earlier.

So, you can imagine my delight, loving horses, deep snow and the fantasy of travelling backwards through time to bygone eras, when one of my neighborhood girlfriends, on a cold January day announced that her father proposed hitching up one of their horses to their antique sleigh and taking us for a ride around Potomac.

Her family lived across the street, and their front pasture, surrounded by the traditional three-board white fence on the front and framed by apple trees on the back, always contained several equines contentedly grazing amid a riot of buttercups in the spring. But in the winter, they were all snug and blanketed in the barn. When my Dad and I had waddled through the drifts to their barn, we found her dad, red plaid earmuffs adorning his head, had pulled the ancient wood sleigh out of their barn. The sleigh gleamed quietly as if proud of itself, black glossy runners bowing up like a boat’s prow in the front. Cracked red leather seats held heavy wool sleigh blankets. My dad knew horses, having grown up working with them on farms, even riding one, alone, to school every day at the age of six. He and my friend’s dad backed their paint into the traces and fastened her into the maze of buckles and straps of her harness with ease. They lifted the two of us into the sleigh, tucking those huge weighty blankets over, under and around us.

“When you get moving, it is going to be very cold,” my dad said. “There is no windshield in a sleigh.”

My friend’s dad hopped up onto the seat, put on a leather cowboy hat over the ear muffs, picked up the reins and slapped them on the paint’s rump. The sleigh jolted forward and slid down the drive and onto our street. Riding in a horse-drawn sleigh, you are aware of two things at once: the smoothness of the ride and the silence. With no motor, you feel more grounded in a sleigh, for amid the beautiful silence, you hear only light scudding from the runners on the snow, creaking from the sleigh and occasional slapping of the reins against the horse.

Dad had been right; it was blisteringly cold and the wind coaxed tears from my eyes, so I pulled myself down further in the horsey-scented sleigh blankets and looked around. The scenery of our street, its tall trees laden with snow bending their branches down, fence posts capped with their top-hats of snow, the pond with its layer of ice streamed by at a pace neither too fast to blur them, nor so slowly that it bored me to look at them, for the scenery always changed at the right speed.

At the end of our street, my friend’s dad asked if we wanted to go back to the barn or up River Road to the Village.

“Up River Road!” we shouted together.

“Okay, I need to let people know we are coming. Sleighs can’t stop quickly like a car. They glide to a stop,” he said, opening the box under the seat. And what do you think he took out of that box?

Two long leather straps and a horse collar, each twinkling with big sleigh bells. He attached the straps to the harness and put the collar over the paint’s head. Back on the seat, he picked up the reins and slowly we made the turn onto River Road. Another jolt and we moved forward at speed. The sound as we glided along was magical, as if a thousand tiny fairies released their laughter from those bells into the arctic air, into the snow-swaddled landscape, across the drifts amid the fields penned in by whiteboard fences, all the way up River Road to the Village to The Surrey, with two tiny girls singing “Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells; Jingle all the way” at the top of their lungs from the one-horse open sleigh.