The Coach Horn is Preserved by Richard O’Donnell
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The Coach Horn is Preserved by Richard O’Donnell
August 2012 - Marcella Peyre-Ferry

The echoing sound of the coach horn is something that has faded into the past with just a few exceptions. The distinctive road calls can still be heard from a small number of musicians who practice the traditional art as part of four in hand carriage drives.

Chester County’s Rich O’Donnell is a coach horn player, or a tootler, who is helping preserve the art through a new book he has written on the subject that comes complete with a CD that brings the subject to life in sound. Entitled The Coach Horn – History Music & Traditions, the book gives an insight into how the road calls developed, what they sound like, and how the coach horn is played.

The sounds of the coach horn may be rare, but they are not extinct, particularly in Pennsylvania - which is rich in carriage driving enthusiasts. The Devon Horse Show is distinctive in that it is one of the few places where the coach horn can be heard. During the carriage driving classes, horns played from the vehicles proudly announce the presence of the four-in-hands. There is also a coach horn class where the liveried musicians compete before the crowds of spectators.

Wanted a Ride
The Devon Horse Show is actually where O’Donnell began his journey into the carriage driving world. After seeing the carriages in the show ring, he wanted a chance to ride on one. Then show manager and coach horn tootler Clarence “Honey” Craven suggested that one way to earn a place on a carriage was to be the horn player. A series of introductions led O’Donnell to the Salem Farm and the Carriage Association of America office in New Jersey, where he met John Seabrook and had his first coach ride.

“We went for a nice drive around the farm and he said ‘Young man, you did quite well, what are you doing Sunday? We’re going to drive at Winterthur. Would you like to ride with us?’” O’Donnell recalls. At that time he didn’t know where the Winterthur races were, but as time went on, his 27 years tootling for the Seabrooks took him all across the country and abroad.

A trumpet player in high school, O’Donnell knew music, but the coach horn is a different instrument needing different techniques. Learning to be a tootler took time and practice. “Most people try to pick it up and blow their cheeks out. You have to train yourself to keep your cheeks in,” O’Donnell advised.

O'Donnell's skills developed and he became a fixture on Seabrook's famous coach the Nimrod, traveling far and wide with his turnout. One highlight he remembers is being the tootler for Seabrook with President and Mrs. Reagan as passengers. “Never in my life did I ever think I would be that close to the president,” he said.

Few Coach Horn Books
As a coach horn tootler, driver, and supporter of the Carriage Association of America, O’Donnell noted that the few texts that were available on the coach horn were out of print. For anyone interested in the history or use of the coach horn there are limited resources.

O'Donnell was encouraged to put his wealth of knowledge on paper, and it has resulted in an entertaining and informative book that includes a beautiful selection of photographs from some of his personal experiences and others. “I wanted to try to share my experience that I had over the 25 plus years with Seabrook,” he said.

While he is an accomplished driver and tootler, O’Donnell considered writing to be a big challenge. “Think I started 25 or 30 times,” O’Donnell said, noting that his wife Enid helped him greatly with the grammar and language. “I was very concerned not to blow my own horn. My thought was to create a book people could pick up and enjoy, read it and now have a better understanding and respect for how difficult it is to play the coach horn, and if anybody had an interest in playing they’d have a source to do this.”

Sections of the book focus on the road calls that drivers of all size vehicles should still know for safety’s sake; the history of the coach horn and the wide variety of designs; and the music.

Pages of musical notation are included for the ten road calls and other music that might be popular or traditional tunes played to entertain the passengers while traveling.

All of the tunes written out in the book are performed on the CD that accompanies the text. With the CD in hand you do not have to be able to read music to clearly understand what each of the calls and tunes sounds like.

From the book, readers learn that the coach horn was not originally limited to the big four-in-hands, but was also used on smaller sporting vehicles. The horn was a safety and communications device for a time that predated traffic lights and cell phones, and all drivers should know the basic calls for their own safety.

Instructional Tool
The book is also vital as an instructional tool for anyone thinking of taking up tootling. The tricks of the trade that O’Donnell picked up from other tootlers and his own years of practice are conveyed in the chapters on selecting a good horn and sounding it.

Because the coach horn is played while the tootler is standing on the back of the moving vehicle, going over bumps in the blazing sun or pouring rain, it may be hard to concentrate on getting the correct sound. O’Donnell gives the practical suggestion of practicing while on a riding lawn mower or sitting atop a washing machine.

The O’Donnells reside in Chester County at their Tootler’s Echo Farm near Unionville, PA. There they ride and drive- single and pair harness and thoroughly enjoy the sport with reins or horn in hand.

Copies of O’Donnell’s book are available from The Carriage Association of America, through their Web site at www.caaonline.com