The hands and contact. As a driver, there is a lot to think about. It’s not just hitching up an equine and going down the road behind the horse, holding the lines. It’s your responsibility to understand if your horse is harnessed and hitched correctly to avoid any mishaps along the way. I HOPE one of the first things you will learn is proper control of your horse through your hands and posture.
How you sit – that is, your posture or equitation — on the seat of your carriage will have a profound influence on your contact with the equine. This is your “box seat.” Your hands and their contact on the lines influence not only your horse’s speed and direction of travel, but also their ability to pull the vehicle comfortably and willingly. Drivers must have the knowledge and ability to be confident and sympathetic through their hands. Heavy hands and too firm a contact may upset a horse. Too passive or no contact can confuse a horse and make them uneasy. A guiding contact, though, should produce a willing, well-framed, happy and comfortable equine. A driver’s insecurities and fears will be transmitted down the lines to the horse’s bit, making the horse react in the same manner. Contact with your equine’s bit should be a soft, flowing “handshake” contact — neither wishy-washy or arm wrestling. You might think of holding a bird just firm enough so it doesn’t escape and fly away. Just as in riding, you can’t balance or hang on your horse’s mouth and expect light responses!
All carts and carriages have flat seats (more about this later). The seat is raised up above the floor to provide leg room. In some carriages, the seat to leg length ratio isn’t proportioned well. It’s either too low, too high, too far back, or too close to the footrest or dash. Think of how difficult it would be to drive your car if you couldn’t adjust the driver’s seat or steering wheel angle to your comfort and safety!
The best position to “equitate” in is one in which your shoulders are back, your back is straight, and you can have a more open hip angle. There should be enough leg room to allow you to have your legs straight with only a slight bend, and your feet firmly but relaxed on an angled foot rest, preferably at a 45-degree angle. Wow, that’s a lot. It’s actually very much like the perfect riding seat: balanced, erect, heels down, with your arms and hands in a natural angle allowing light contact without fatigue!
Now, back to the flat seat. When a driver sits on a flat seat, the hip angle naturally closes up, and the shoulders become hunched over as the back rounds. The muscles of your shoulders and back become fatigued and strained from forcing your hands upward to hold the lines – or really bad, actually resting them on your knees as you drive. You then brace or “hang” your hands on the lines, and the bit becomes “heavy in the hands.”
It’s also very common to have your knees and thighs almost straight out from your hips, as many carriages are made with shorter “risers, ” which are part of the framework that determines the seat height from the floor. This position, though common, is easily corrected by adjusting the height and angle of the seat.
Wedge seats. A wedge seat is simply an additional cushion of a certain depth that has been cut at an angle. By adding the angle and some additional height, this changes how we sit. It reduces fatigue by opening up the hip angle, allowing the back to straighten and the arms to hang in a more natural angle, and it straightens the legs. The straighter our bodies are on the box seat, the more comfortable it is for driver and equine.
The wedge is easily made, but should be customized to the individual driver and the vehicle. An easy trick that helps determine the correct angle is to get a stack of books and a piece of board. Start stacking until the comfortable height and angle are found. Measure, then have one made. Don’t forget to have some sort of strapping made to attach it to your carriage seat.
Another way to adjust your carriage seat is to put an angled wedge of wood or metal under the actual seat frame, thereby angling the whole bench seat forward. You usually only need to angle the seat a few inches to achieve comfort.
Once you have a good angle, don’t forget your feet. Naturally, our feet are comfortable at a 90-degree angle to our legs. The use of a foot-board or “cricket” attached to the floor of your carriage allows a more comfortable and natural posture. A four-by-four cut across at a 45-degree angle seems to be a very comfortable and inexpensive fix. This 45- degree angle (give a degree or two), is seen in many antique vehicle designs in the foot-board. The Phaeton-type design is famous for this angulation. The ergonomics work for comfort.
Whether you drive a mini or a draft horse, a single or a multiple, the basics are the same. Take advantage of instruction with a knowledgeable teacher and of lesson driving horses or ponies. It’s the safe way to learn about driving a horse-drawn vehicle. When you are learning to drive, hopefully you will have a chance to drive a variety of different vehicles — two-wheeled carts and four-wheeled wagons and carriages. Each will handle and drive differently. A good driver will learn the advantages and disadvantages of each vehicle.