Mark and Julie Dahlberg met through carriage driving and when they started a family, it became a shared passion. “I’m just thrilled that they fell in love with horses and I didn’t have to run off to the ballet and pretend that I like that,” says Julie with a laugh. “It’s as much fun to watch them compete as it is to do it myself,” adds Mark.
The whole family is in Prairie du Chien for the Villa Louis Carriage Classic. “Villa Louis is the largest pleasure carriage driving show in the country. So the cream of the crop are here.”
Eighteen-year-old Luke Dahlberg has been the cream of the crop in the junior division but is making his debut in the adult division. Kid sister Beth is still a junior and also helps Luke as his “groom” for the events with two horses pulling a carriage. Competitive events fill the three-day weekend. There’s demonstration of driving skills in the arena where appearances also matter. “The brass will be polished and gleaming. The harness will have the best shine. Your horse will be brushed,” notes Julie.
And it’s not just the horse and carriage that require some polish. “What we try and do is reenact what they did years ago and we dress up and we look nice and we go out in our top hats and our fancy clothes,” says Luke. There’s even an event that features recreations of a typical nineteenth-century picnic.
The horse and drivers do more than snack and look good in the arena. Timed obstacle courses make for a lively part of the competition and a true test of horse and driver working together. Luke says, “After the time that we’ve spent together, basically you know each other in and out.”
The historic setting of the nineteenth-century Villa Louis estate makes it ideal for spectators to experience the sight, sounds, and even smells of the past. “They can see the horses. They can hear them. They can smell. They can hear the churning of the wheels which used to be a very everyday occurrence,” says site curator Mary Antoine. “People come to see the horses but also to see a way of life that really doesn’t exist much anymore.”