Motorized vehicles might dominate today's roads, but thousands of drivers choose single horsepower. They put horse--or pony, mule, or donkey--to cart for recreation and recapture the pleasures of earlier centuries. Clip clopping down a country path, marching in the Rose Parade, or galloping through obstacles--driving challenges horses and owners.
Driving can be an alternative career for a riding horse, or a way to introduce a young animal to training and roadwork. However, it can be a dangerous pursuit for horses and humans. Matching the right animal, cart, harness, and driver contributes to safe driving.
The Stripes Of Driving
Apart from the racetrack and farm, owners drive horses for pleasure or for competition. The pleasure driver usually hitches a single animal to a two-wheeled cart for driving on paths or along roads. Athletic demands are minimal, as the driver usually stays on flat paths or roads.
In competition, drivers vie for honors in the show ring or in the sport of combined driving. Basic show classes are for pleasure driving, with breeds ranging from the miniature horse and the elegant show horses such as Saddlebreds, Arabians, Morgans, and Hackneys, up to the draft breeds. Shows might involve classes for singles, pairs, tandems (one horse hitched in front of another), or unicorns (a pair with another horse hitched in front of them). Carriage driving, which often features sport horse breeds such as the Dutch Warmblood and Cleveland Bay, can have two horses as a pair, or four as a four-in-hand. Draft teams can be four-up, six-up, or even eight-up.
Combined driving follows three phases, similar to those of the ridden sport of eventing. The sport of driving began as an enterprise endorsed by royalty, credited to HRH the Duke of Edinburgh.
Horses are judged on a dressage test, a cross-country marathon through various "hazards," and an obstacle test through a route marked with cones. Unlike show driving, here speed and agility count. The expected speed is adjusted to the size of the animal, so a Shetland pony doesn't have to trot at the same rate as a Standardbred or Morgan. Horses pull two-wheeled carts or four-wheeled carriages, and compete as singles, pairs, tandems, or four-in-hands.
Selection For Harness
With such variations in this pursuit, drivers match the horse's conformation and movement with the vehicle. A larger, heavier vehicle requires one or more heavy horses. Heavy types need more size and rugged bone when hitched to a substantial vehicle like a farm wagon (draft horse) or phaeton (carriage horse).
For pleasure driving, either on the road or in show classes, just about any breed can be trained to pull a cart. A few popular choices include the Morgan, American Saddlebred, Welsh pony, Haflinger, or Quarter Horse.
Whatever the breed, the driving horse needs a strong build. Like a riding horse, he benefits from an "uphill" conformation, with withers slightly higher than croup. He should have sound conformation, with a broad chest, strong back, and well-rounded hindquarters.
Evan Moore, DVM, Metamora, Mich., officiates at combined driving competitions. He advised, "You want a good strong hindquarter that is well matched for the vehicle and weight. You need enough muscle to accomplish the task at hand.
"However, some of the big, heavy draft horses may have too much muscle. They may reach their limit before they finish the course. The heavier muscled horse will have a tougher time competing at the highest levels of competition, where temperature and humidity are an unknown, but they can be dangerously high when the competition takes place. They can't cool nearly as well as the lighter-muscled horse."
Conformation defects that limit a horse's ability under saddle also detract from his performance in harness. A narrow chest, steep shoulder, sickle hocks, or a post-legged stance affects his pulling strength.
"The draft horse needs to be structurally sound, with good hocks and shoulders, the same as any other horse," said James Evans, DVM, of Coatesville, Pa., who is involved with the Percheron breed. "One thing that some breeders of draft horses think is important is that they be close at the hocks, or cowhocked. I vehemently disagree with that. In the show ring, you will find that in the classy show horses, their hocks almost touch."
Mike Powers, DVM, of Armada, Mich., has 25 years of experience with draft horses. He described the critical points of the modern draft horse, as seen in today's halter classes and draft horse hitches: "The ideal is a good, sound, straight horse. In the hitch horse, you want a long neck for a 'heads up' horse. His neck should stick out of the collar with a good slope to the shoulder.
"The back is not as critical. There are a lot of long-backed, good horses. If you want that long neck, you have to have a long back, as long as it's not a weakness. The croup shouldn't be steep or angular--you want a good tailset with an apple-looking butt."
On the issue of hock stance, Powers explained that close-set hocks can be efficient, "as long as they aren't boggy or curby. If the horse is too set in the hocks, we do see some spavin or lameness develop. You do need clean hocks, not a horse that's thick in the hocks."
As in any equine athlete, good feet are important. Some driving horses work on hard surfaces such as roads, so large, tough feet help them resist the effects of repeated concussion.
Evans noted that the heavy horse doesn't have to be as serviceably sound as was necessary for working on the farm, but it requires a very hard hoof of good size to carry the mass of weight. "A true draft horse should have the old 'dinner plate' size hoof. With draft horses used in common farm work, it's undesirable to shoe them. For most people who farm with horses, it becomes an important economical problem to have to shoe a horse, and they work on dirt and don't need to be shod."
He added that the show draft horse has been influenced by judges' preferences. "They are shod with wide shoes, and some showmen accentuate the size of the foot by using even bigger shoes that cause the hoof wall to flare out over time. In the show ring, the horse looks like it has a foot about twice as large as it actually is."
According to Powers, the larger foot helps the draft horse sustain the pounding. He prefers to see the horse shod with a wide open heel.
"All the show horses use a Scotch bottom shoe that's angled off. It's foreign to a lot of shoers, but we want the horse shod short on the inside of the hind feet, to bring the hocks together. In the front feet, the horse wears an open heel shoe, squared off in the front. The ideal is to get that action out of a big foot with a shortened toe--not a long toe, which is hard on the legs."
Moving The Load
The horse sets his burden in motion by propelling himself forward. He pushes his weight against the breastcollar or neck collar. The collar attaches to traces, thick straps which connect to the vehicle so the horse can pull the cart. Every part of the harness must fit the horse comfortably, remaining in place as he moves. When hitched to a cart, the horse also should fit between the vehicle's shafts, without the shafts being too narrow or too wide for his body. Shafts should never impede the horse's movement.
A driving horse should move with impulsion. Carol Becker, a trainer and licensed veterinary technician from Oxford, Mich., explained: "The horse rounds his back, pushes his belly up, and comes from behind." She noted that a horse with a higher set of the neck tends to have a lower back, which causes him to work harder to pull.
"The exception is the Friesian. His whole body says 'Pull,' and he can pull with a high head and a hollow back. They were bred as coaching horses and don't need to stretch their necks down to move weight easily."
At the walk, drivers want a horse which marches along in a regular four-beat stride. With most of driving performed at the trot, they look for a free-moving, two-beat trot with impulsion from the hindquarters.
Every driving horse must have an even gait, to maintain his footing when hitched. If he stumbles or falls, his loss of balance compromises the stability of the vehicle.
Style of movement varies among the types. Powers explained how the driver of a draft horse hitch aims for an eye-catching rig. "Now they want the draft horse to have almost the style of a light horse. The horse comes up almost level with the forelegs, level from knee to elbow, for a lot of animation in the hitch."
In carriage driving and combined driving, the better equine athletes cover ground easily and turn accurately. They have the ability to jockey through obstacles and perform maneuvers in the dressage test.
These horses use back and hindquarters efficiently. They move like lower level dressage horses, with an adjustable frame, lowered croup, and neck stretched to the bit.
Show drivers might prefer a horse which carries his head high, with a natural "hinge" at the throatlatch. This horse appears elegant, moving with a bold, lofty gait. A show horse holds his head proudly and trots with flashy action. When shown in fine harness, these animals should display animation and brilliance. A horse like a Saddlebred would set his head, fold his knees, and flex his hocks in a balanced trot.
Whatever the individual style, the horse should move straight ahead. He leans into the collar and points his attention forward.
Wearing a driving bridle with blinders, the horse focuses his attention on the path ahead. Because his vision is limited, he must trust the driver completely. A carriage horse on a city street pays attention to traffic immediately in front of him, not what's past or beside him.
Pulling His Weight
The driving horse must cooperate with the driver. He has to want to work, displaying a willingness to pull a load while completely ignoring distractions. A pleasurable driving horse agreeably walks and trots--nothing frustrates a driver more than a balky horse.
Moore said, "The temperament of the animal and its willingness to work seem to dictate whether it will be a successful driving horse or not. More than in the riding horse, the temperament becomes more important. Your control is a lot more limited."
Driving is a unique experience for both horse and rider. Becker feels that few animals truly qualify. "The basis is a good mind, and I find that one or two out of 10 horses have the mind to make a good carriage horse. No sensible horse should ever let anyone tie anything behind him and let it run and clank. I look for a 'superhuman' brain, an animal that won't respond in normal ways."
This horse must be more level-headed than a ridden horse. A disobedient horse can cause a wreck. If he spooks, the entire cart could tip over, dumping driver and passengers.
"The most dangerous thing I have ever done is drive a horse," said Becker, who has had experience with all types of riding and racing. "Your horse is tied on the front, back, and both sides to two long pieces of wood, and you're not touching him. You sit 10 feet behind his head with no legs and no seat--your only communication is two, 12-foot-long lines and the whip."
Such positioning challenges the driver with controlling the horse's motion. He expects the horse to obey commands instantly, "Whoa" without question, and stand as long as required.
The driver has to trust the horse. Texas driver and judge Francine Dismukes said, "Your horse looks straight ahead, through the bridle, and you have a light, even contact with both sides of his mouth." She called this contact a datum, or a benchmark amount of contact. The driver never drops rein contact, as the reins form lines of communication with the horse.
The horse must learn to tolerate the feel of harness, shafts, and traces. A "cold-shouldered" horse, or one that resents the harness, won't pull as readily. He has to push into the pressure of the collar--in other aspects of horse training, he has learned to yield to pressure of rein or leg. Many horses also resent the crupper's being fitted under the tail.
Comparing the difficulty of driving with riding, Moore explained how a ridden horse carries only a finite weight, the total of human and tack. "Driving can be more difficult because the conditions make the vehicle the horse pulls vary greatly in its difficulty of pulling it. You can have only so heavy a rider, where the steepness of a hill and the depth of mud can increase to infinity if the conditions are bad enough. It can make a horse that can pull a light vehicle down the road with no trouble at all unable to pull the vehicle at all if the mud is deep enough and the hill steep enough."
The horse has to work harder when his feet--or the vehicle he pulls--sink into dirt, sand, or mud. He has to pull himself and the weight of his load.
The horse pulls according to his determination to work. An individual might keep digging in to pull, or decide to quit pulling, if he "hits the wall" and can't move the load. Hitched with other horses, some horses might figure out how to avoid "pulling their weight."
"A good horse that really wants to work, he tries to grip," said Evans. Some drivers do increase traction by using borium on the toes and heels of the horse's shoes.
Moore cautioned, "If it's too severe a grab or too much traction, it can increase the chance of tendon or bony injuries, or road founder." Those who compete in combined driving might add studs for traction on slippery footing.
Downhill, the driving horse must cope with the weight of the vehicle pushing him. "He has to push back on the breeching," explained Becker. "The pressure comes from behind, and he has to hold a load that might be equal to his own weight. A horse is basically a claustrophobic creature. Why should he hold that thousand pounds of pressure pushing into his rear end?" Some carriages and wagons do have brakes, so the driver can help the horses to handle vehicle and cargo.
Hazards Of Harness
The driver must think for the horse, anticipating any potential problem posed by the terrain. Becker mentioned how the horse's perceptions limit his ability to maneuver. "A horse thinks, 'If my nose will slip through, I can get my shoulders through.' He has no concept of the width of the vehicle, and your wheel can go into a ditch, so you tip over.
"The horse doesn't understand that his head--from eye to eye--is wider than his muzzle. Blinkers on the bridle help keep his head straight. A little mistake made by the horse can cause you a horrendous carriage accident. Six inches can put your wheel into a tree, but your horse doesn't know that will happen."
Dismukes recalled a show ring incident, during which a driver endangered all entries. Waiting to enter the in-gate, the last driver in the line became impatient with his horse. "He hollered to make the horse whoa and whipped it to make it stand. His header grabbed the bridle and pulled it off--the horse went full steam ahead over all the horses to demolish every horse and cart in the class. It was a huge disaster, due to a foolish error."
Careful drivers prevent injuries by matching horse to vehicle, and preparing the horse to handle stresses of the environment. Drivers guard against harness galls by conscientiously fitting collar and harness to the horse. Other safeguards include covering the breastcollar with fleece padding and sliding rubber tips over the ends of a cart's shafts.
Accidents can occur to horses in harness. Bystanders might suspect the dangers of the marathon phase of combined driving, but Moore recalled, "None (horses) have been hurt seriously in all the years I've been officiating. It's amazing, when you look at how little room they have going through those hazards, with the width of the vehicle."
In any driving situation, the horse might catch his bridle on an object and pull it off, so the driver loses all control. The horse also could get a leg over a shaft and panic before a helper can release him from the predicament. Working in winter, the horse can get snow balled up in his feet and lose his footing.
Drivers try to avoid such crises, but adding multiple horses increases problems. At a recent fair, the leaders (front pair) of a four-up team managed to get turned around to almost face the wheelers (rear pair). To untangle the animals, officials stopped the show while handlers unhitched all four horses.
Lameness in driving horses varies according to their work. Becker observes fewer navicular problems, but more road founder.
Moore noted he sees fewer hock problems in driving horses. "The pounding is worse in dressage and hunter-jumper horses. But I see more tying-up problems in driving horses. They put out a lot more than the driver might think, because of the variation in conditions."
Powers advised, "The most common cause of draft horse lameness is a foot abscess. When one of these big-footed draft horses goes lame, I look first for the foot abscess rather than something unusual."
He has noted incidence of ringbone, in his experience. "In a lot of horses, I consider it a speed lesion, but I can see where the draft horse can be prone to it. I see it as a potential problem, even though traditionally the horse has done all his work at the walk or slow trot."
Evans added, "The draft horse is more prevalent to sweeny because of wearing an improperly fitted collar. It can damage the suprascapular nerve and cause the horse to acquire sweeny a little easier than some other breeds."
Powers mentioned sidebone as an issue in draft horses. "These big horses of 2,000 to 2,400 pounds need a big foot. But the big hitch geldings tend, over the years of pounding, to develop sidebone."
He also named other common problems as stringhalt and roaring. He sees a number of "stringy" horses, and has noted a trend in more horses which roar. He relates this condition to the horse's head position.
"It's because of the heads up and head checked in the harness, which exacerbates the roaring. Along with the horse's excitement, the horse's head is set, so there's not enough room there to breathe."
With the limited population of draft horses in this country, researchers haven't studied their specific lamenesses. Evans explained, "There's basically been no work done on draft horses in the last 50 years. The work done earlier was by college professors who did everything by inference and personal knowledge, by not always but a scientific approach. Probably less than 10% of equine practitioners see a significant number of draft horses."
About the Author
Award-winning writer Charlene Strickland lives in Bosque Farms, N.M. She has published 8 books and over 600 magazine articles, and is a member of the International Alliance of Equestrian Journalists.
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