Earlier this month the Metta Baxter Driving Clinic was held at Black Prong Equestrian Village. This clinic has been held for many years after beginning under the expertise of the late Metta Baxter. A great asset to the sport of carriage driving in Florida, Metta Baxter helped start the Florida Whips and established a longstanding introductory driving clinic. Her clinic has lived on past her time as a great legacy to who she was not only as a carriage driver, but as a horsewoman.
The “doyenne of Morgans and driving” in Florida. That is who Metta Baxter was as stated in an article by Helen Tolmach. As the clinic’s event page states, she wanted “to share the knowledge and enthusiasm of the local driving community with newcomers interested in learning about the sport.” According to her obituary on the Gainesville Sun, she was born in Sioux City, Iowa. She moved to the Gainesville area in the 1960s from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Before she was known in the driving community, she was a lieutenant colonel and physical therapist in Korea in the Army under the command of Bob Tolmach. Little did she know that their paths would cross again later on through carriage driving. Baxter drove a single Morgan, who was raised on her farm, Double M Morgan Horse Farm, in the Newberry/Jonesville area of Florida. She started out driving in the mile area around her farm for pleasure. Out of this passion she had for driving, she started teaching others to drive and had a role in the creation of the driving club, the Florida Whips.
The carriage driving club known as the Florida Whips began in 1981 by Phillip Hoffman and Metta Baxter. The term “whip” refers to the driver of a carriage. The club functions as a “statewide, not-for-profit equine driving association dedicated to the fun, sport, and tradition of carriage driving” according to their website. Hoffman, a retired J&J executive and owner of the Wycombe Stud in Ocala, drove high-stepping Warmbloods. The club’s meetings initially were held as potlucks at individual farms, including Baxter’s farm and Bob and Helen Tolmach’s Kanapaha Morgan Horse Farm. The Gainesville Sun mentioned Baxter in January 1987 in their Horse Sense column about how “putting horses to carts” was growing in popularity and that the Florida Whips would meet at her farm. The picnics were later held at various state parks as well. Russ Hardwick also hosted drives in the Ocala National Forest near his Hardwick Hideaway. In 1989, the club volunteered at the first Combined Driving Event in Florida in Tampa. The members embraced the sport. Susan Gilliland eventually organized a CDE at the Ocala Breeders Pavilion and Live Oak Plantation. This event became what is known as Live Oak International CAI CDE that is held today. As time went on, and driving became more popular, more CDEs were held in Florida. Today, the Florida Whips continues thriving under their current president, Bob Giles, offering education, clinics, competitions, social gatherings, and other activities throughout the year.
Concurrent with the growing success of the Florida Whips, Metta Baxter taught people and horses how to carriage drive through her clinic. The clinics began in the 1980s at her farm with the help of volunteers. News of the clinic spread through word of mouth that she was open to teaching people and their horses how to drive. At one point early on, it was called Baxter Beginners’ Driving Class. In the early 1990s, Baxter realized that new drivers needed to be taught “harnessing, training and driving techniques” to expand interest in the sport. This led her and Katherine Gordon, the director of Community Education at Santa Fe Community College and member of Florida Whips, to convince Santa Fe Community College to offer the “Teaching Your Horse to Drive” community education course. It started as a two-day intensive course at Metta’s farm run by Whips volunteers with usually 8-10 students. Later in the 1990s, the clinic was passed on to be held at Bob and Helen Tolmach’s farm. The couple, who also happened to work with Morgans, met with Baxter in the mid-1980s after someone told them that she could teach them carriage driving. They initially learned from her one-on-one, which turned into them helping at her clinic and eventually hosting it themselves. Around 2005, the Tolmachs’ neighbor, Joel McQuagge, invited them to hold the clinic at the UF IFAS Horse Teaching Unit, which had a classroom and arena that allowed for 25-30 students. The Tolmachs eventually passed on the clinic to Karen Woflsheimer, a veterinarian in Gainesville. She ran the clinic for at least 10 years. The clinic was eventually held at the Canterbury Equestrian Center (now the Alachua County Equestrian Center). For the past two years, the Metta Baxter clinic has been put on by the Florida Whips at Black Prong Equestrian Village.
“It’s very close, and it’s beautiful facilities. […] We have everything we need here. This year people were all excited about the menus.”
Beth Rieselman, an organizer for the 2022 clinic described the surrounding area as very welcoming to carriage drivers. “It’s like a little community of drivers, which I loved,” Rieselman said. She first came down to Florida in 2008 after buying property in 2007. Since the founding of Black Prong by the Aulsons in 2002, the Bronson/Morriston area has become a hub for carriage drivers. In explaining why they chose Black Prong for the clinic, Rieselman stated, “It’s very close, and it’s beautiful facilities. […] We have everything we need here. This year people were all excited about the menus.” A venue that provides food as well as the facility takes a large burden off of organizing. She continued to say, “[Black Prong is] basically ten minutes for most of us that live in Steeplechase and around here. And that’s why we’ve settled here, to be by Black Prong and be able to use the facilities.”
The 2022 Metta Baxter Driving Clinic brought 25 eager students to Black Prong for a two-day educational experience that incorporated technical knowledge about harnessing, safety, and carriage selection as well as hands-on driving practice. Lectures and activities were taught by Florida Whips members Lynda Jowers, Beth Rieselman, Allyn Carmen, and Linda Evans. Rieselman and Jowers demonstrated the steps to safely train a horse to drive using Rieselman’s pony, and a live demonstration by Judi Tintera provided students the opportunity to see driving in action. Peter Proost of A-Z Horse Driving brought a variety of carriages for the Vehicle Selection lessons, and Mark Navratil, a vehicle repair professional, taught Vehicle Maintenance. The clinic concluded with hands-on driving practice under the supervision of instructors, using equines owned by members of the Florida Whips.
“She taught almost everybody in our area to drive.”
What started as a woman with the desire to teach others how to carriage drive has become a passion and developing branch of the Florida equestrian community. Metta Baxter truly had a huge impact on the sport of combined driving. “She taught almost everybody in our area to drive,” Helen Tolmach stated in an interview. North-central Florida was not a large driving area before Metta Baxter. She started a clinic, helped start a driving club, and had a role in starting events in the Alachua County area. Her legacy as a horsewoman and a revered driver will forever live on as the driving community continues to grow from what she began.
Special thanks to Helen Tolmach, Beth Rieselman, and the Florida Whips for providing the details in this article.
Written by Black Prong Social Media and Communication Intern, Lily Stidham, and Marketing Manager, Zoë Bowden.