People who participate in carriage driving have always been a bit of a mystery to me. Because I love riding so much, I’ve always wondered how they could possibly prefer to be behind a horse instead of astride one.
I have a friend who rides and drives and she offered to give me a quick introduction to the sport earlier this summer.
Jane Southgate has a farm near Glen Morris, Ontario, and competes her ponies in carriage classes like combined driving (the three-day eventing of driving – there’s driving dressage in a 40m x 80m ring, marathon – where the team must navigate through natural obstacles, and obstacle cone driving – where the team drives between and around cones). Southgate also participates in breed classes, turnout classes, pleasure classes and ride & drive classes.
We took out her Section A Welsh pony Napoleon (aka Stonecroft Disco), who her husband Bob competes in pleasure driving classes. Napoleon is a reliable little guy who Jane has used in driving clinics to teach children to drive, so I knew I was in good hands.
However, when I was in the two-seater cart beside Jane, who was navigating, I felt strangely unsettled, like I had no control. Well, duh, of course I didn’t have control you might say, I wasn’t driving. But even a bit later when I took the reins I felt like I had minimal control.
This was through no fault of Napoleon’s, who was kind and gentle and put up with my rookie mistakes. It was the strange sensation of not being able to use my seat or legs to control the horse. When I asked him to walk, I instinctively flicked my heels like I was riding.
With driving, all control is through the reins, whip, and your voice, so you hold a heavier contact than you would while riding. The outside rein becomes even more important as your balancing and steering rein and I realized now why Jane was so successful at driving – previously she’d been a competitive dressage rider and the use of the reins in driving was quite similar to dressage.
Holding reins and the whip was a real handful and I fumbled with the whip, which Jane kept reminding me I had to hold in my right hand at a steady 10 o’clock angle.
The other thing that left me a little discombobulated was that I was ‘driving’ from the ‘wrong’ side. Like driving a car in England, the ‘driver’ sits on the right-hand side and the passenger sits on the left.
After a few passes around Jane’s outdoor space at a walk, she encouraged me to try a trot. I said ‘Napoleon, trot,’ as Jane said she always prefaces her commands with the pony’s name.
“I use their name because when you’re in a class, everyone will be saying ‘walk’ or ‘trot’ so I don’t want them to be confused and listen to other commands,” Jane said.
I found it difficult at first to keep a steady trot with Napoleon – much like newbie riders have difficulty keeping a rhythm at a trot. It took getting used to the feel and balance of the contact in the reins. Within about five minutes, though, I had a better hang of it and Jane thought I was ready to navigate around some cones.
While still trotting, we passed through cones, trying not to knock them over with the cart’s wheels. Jane said a common mistake is to focus on the cones and not look straight ahead (sort of like when riders look at jump instead of what’s ahead of them).
Not to brag, but I didn’t knock down a single cone.
Afterwards, Jane noted that driving attracts a lot of riders who are looking for an activity with horses that’s slightly easier on the body than riding.
For now, I think I’ll stick to sitting on a horse, but it was cool to try yet another horse-related discipline and see how the basic rules of good horsemanship translate over.
If you are interested in driving, check out some of these sites:
Carriage Association of America (many Canadians are members)
Tri-County Carriage Association
Ontario Carriage Driving Association