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Driver’s training: Teaching the carriage, buggy or wagon driver

By PATRICIA DEMERS - Horsetrader columnist - July 17th, 2014 - Special Section

Third in a series

When you learned to drive your parents’ car, you weren’t simply given the keys with the expectation that you knew how to drive, even if you had spent 15 years observing from the back seat. You were taught in a systematic and safe manner to avoid accidents and injury to others.

Drivers of “horse-drawn” vehicles must go through their driver’s training education, too. Grandpa may have been a teamster, but you don’t learn it by osmosis or inherit the skills! You MUST be taught safety, not only for yourself, but for those around you. Your responsibility as a driver – either of a car or horse-drawn vehicle – is not only for your benefit, but also for the benefit of your horse and those around you. They’d appreciate it if you were capable of at least minimum ability when driving your horse and buggy!

To start, you can pick up a book about driving and read ‘how to’ theory of driving, but the best way to learn it is hands-on with an instructor. Whether you drive a mini or a draft horse, a single or a multiple, the basics are the same — and best learned from an experienced teacher.

As a driver, there is a lot to think about. It’s not just hitching up an equine, going down the road behind the horse, holding the lines and knowing left (“haa”), right (“gee”), “whoa”, and “giddy up”. It’s your responsibility to understand if your horse is harnessed and hitched correctly to avoid any mishaps along the way. One of the first things you will learn is proper control of your horse through your hands and posture. (Yes — your posture, or “equitation” on the box seat, DOES influence the horse, even from inside the carriage!) Your hands and contact on the lines influence not only your horses’ speed and direction of travel, but their ability to pull the vehicle comfortably and willingly. A driver 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, while a guiding contact, should produce a willing, well framed, happy and comfortable equine. A driver’s insecurity and fear 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 contact, or you could 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!

A good instructor will teach you the proper way to use your whip when driving. Think of your whip as your riding leg. You will use it in the same manner, gently applied, to move your horse forward or laterally. A good whip should be balanced, and the lash should be long enough to reach the horse’s shoulder. Good whip skills are essential if you are going to drive multiples or driven dressage.

Horses have exceptional hearing. You don’t need to yell at them and upset them. A soft conversational tone is enough to remind your horse that you are there. As a driver’s anxiety goes up, so does the volume of the voice. Don’t forget to breathe and relax. Your voice is used as a cue, just as your whip and hands are cues.

Instruction by a knowledgeable teacher with lesson driving horses or ponies is the safest way to learn to drive a horse-drawn vehicle. Your learning should include a chance to drive a variety of different vehicles, such as two-wheeled carts and four-wheeled wagons and carriages. Each will handle and drive differently, and a good driver will learn the advantages and disadvantages of each vehicle.

You’ll learn the different methods of holding the lines, too — two-handed English riding style, two handed ‘plow rein’ style, one handed Achenbach or ‘coachman’ style, and Hungarian style. All have their specific uses, and all are correct — some have more subtle contact than other methods. As you learn, you’ll find a style that suits you. (See photos.)

When you first start, you’ll find that your point of focus is between the horse’s ears, and your focus will be narrow, as if both you and the horse are wearing blinders because you are concentrating so much. As your confidence level increases, you’ll find that you can learn to look beyond the horse and observe your surroundings. Your vision will open up, and your body will relax. Your horse will get lighter in your hands, as you are concentrating on where you are going more than how you are controlling the horse to get there.

After your have learned to handle the lines on a single horse, you might want to try driving multiples. You might have an interest in trying pleasure drives and shows, or even wagon trains.

Remember, safe drivers are happy drivers!

Patricia Demers is a trainer based in Lancaster, CA, who specializes in carriage driving. You can submit questions or reach Trish at driving@horsetrader.com

One comment has been made on “Driver’s training: Teaching the carriage, buggy or wagon driver”

  1. Sunny Vandenburgh Says:

    I am interested in driving a single horse training I have 3 1/2 yr Morgan that I think is ready for the cart I need to learn how to drive him safely and am willing to come to Lancaster. I read your article in Horsetrader 2014 and wondering if you are still training. If not please let me know either way.

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