The Speed of a Sleigh Ride
Although audiences seem to love it, many performers question why I like to conduct Leroy Anderson’s holiday piece “Sleigh Ride” so darn quickly.
Audiences love it.
Well, actually, there’s more to it than that.
Usually, when I get to select my own holiday music programs, I often use Sleigh Ride as an encore piece. After all, we all want our audiences to leave a concert full of upbeat energy, wanting more, talking to each other about the wonderful time they just had, and telling others to attend next time.
But I’ve also done my research.
I have yet to meet a performer in an ensemble I work with who has actually been on a horse-drawn sleigh ride. I haven’t, either. Horses, yes. Horse-drawn carriages in both cities and the countryside, yes. But not in a sleigh. On snow.
Turns out Leroy Anderson never rode on a horse-drawn sleigh, either.
So, basically, very few performers actually know what it’s like and at what speed these sleighs travel.
The closest musical tribute to a horse-drawn sleigh is actually the song One Horse Open Sleigh by James Pierpont for his brother’s Thanksgiving church service. The song never really became popular until 1890, when the teenagers of the time were looking for more sleigh songs (the equivalent of the 20th century’s fast car/ pretty girl sort of pop song) for their Christmas parties. By that time Pierpont’s publishers had changed the name to Jingle Bells.
Now, most of us know the first couple of verses of the song, but we don’t know the remaining three verses. The last verse includes the lines:
Just get a bobtailed bayDaven Hiskey, Today I Found Out, 2010, accessed November 2020
Two-forty as his speed
Hitch him to an open sleigh
And crack! you’ll take the lead.
That line “Two-forty as his speed” indicates that the horse is covering one mile in two minutes and forty seconds. Converting that into miles per hour, we get 22.5mph, a “horse speed” of 0.595.
(By the way, Anderson wrote Sleigh Ride as an instrumental in 1948. Mitchell Parish added his own lyrics to the tune a couple of years later, by which time horse-drawn sleighs were no longer in common use.)
According to Goose Wing Ranch, horses have four “gaits” or types of speed – I’m sure they are all familiar terms: walk, trot, canter, and gallop.
- A horse’s walk averages 4mph*
- Trots average about 8mph
- Canters about 14mph, and
- Gallops average 28mph
- (Race horses go much faster)
(*a human’s average walking speed is 3.27 mph.)
Clearly, then, Pierpont refers to his horse-drawn sleigh at a canter.
Next, I found various ways to convert a horse’s speed into beats per minute, but eventually settled on Dr. Lesley Young’s “Ask the Experts” Q&A on Equinity Intelligent Training for guidance.
Now, as we all know, music – being the language of emotions – is very much dependent on “tempo”, the Italian term for speed. As a general universal rule, musicians use “beats per minute” as a standard measure for speed (Yes, this stems from heartbeats per minute. It’s why the speed of music can affect us physically as well, when we let it). So, how many “beats per minute” does Dr. Young expect to see at a canter?
- Gallop: 185 – 240 bpm
- Canter: 120 – 185 bpm
- Trot: 70 – 120 bpm
- Walk: 50 – 70 bpm
So… if we are to gain the fullest benefits of Anderson’s Sleigh Ride, shouldn’t we try to match the real-life experience of a horse-drawn sleigh with the effect that music has on us?
The publisher’s (not the composer’s) recommended tempo of 108 beats per minute is way too leisurely a pace for any poor horse to cope with while pulling a sleigh. Indeed, they are likely to puff-out and come to a grinding halt if we limit them to trotting!
Therefore, I am quite happy squeezing as much juice out of live music by connecting it to real life through its true pace. That means, for Sleigh Ride, at least, ignoring performers’ comfort zones and traditional expectations, and taking it at a more realistic pace of 120-185 bpm.
At least it’s not a gallop: