HARNESSING HORSEPOWER? - Don't "put the cart before the horse".

As we all know, the old expression “don’t put the cart before the horse” is a metaphor about making sure that we have our priorities straight. Having said that, what is literal is how tragic it can get when someone arbitrarily assumes that it would be fun to drive their horse in a cart or buggy and that the horse will just agree do his or her job and be okay with pulling the contraption down the road.

Unfortunately, what all too often happens when even the best riding horses are suddenly harnessed and hitched to a horse-drawn vehicle without appropriate training steps being taken… is a runaway horse, bucking and kicking, desperately trying to escape the jaws of the monster that has suddenly come at them from their behind.

When this happens (and it does indeed happen all too often) it almost always ends with a very ugly wreck where horse, people and property are seriously damaged and the horse has had his or her trust and confidence shattered.

Within the confines of this blog I can not possibly do justice to the myriad of safety issues with regards to training horses for work in harness. However, I can list a few points to keep in mind if you’re seriously considering training your horse to drive.

First, and foremost, driving horses should be bold and inquisitive but kind by nature. For instance, a horse that tends to run away from barking dogs in fear, or, just the opposite, aggressively chases, bites and strikes at dogs, is probably not a likely candidate for work in harness. When you are out and about driving your horse in the real world you do not have control over what happens in the environment around you so you had better at least have control of your horse because when a driving horse gets out of control things tend to go from bad to worse to ugly in a big hurry.

So here’s a little test. While your horse is quietly grazing, or half asleep while turned out in the paddock, create a sudden and unexpected disturbance. You can throw a ball, empty bucket, or plastic chair, and aim for the ground just a few feet behind them. If the horse reacts by bolting across the arena or paddock, or turns and strikes at the intruder, then your horse is probably not the best candidate for working in harness.

However, if your horse simply turns, drops his or her head and looks inquisitively at the object, then walks over and sniffs and gently nudges the object, then you’ve got a potential harness horse.

Another good test is to see how reactive your horse is around his or her tail. If you can easily lift what remains as a soft, supple and relaxed tail this is perhaps a harness candidate. However, if you attempt to lift the tail and your horse would rather swing his or her hips away from you, or into you, and the tail is clamping down tight at the mere thought of you lifting it, then, again, this horse is not comfortable enough with the idea of you being “back there” and it’s stress will increase exponentially as you add the harness, the crupper, and the traces along it’s hips and training poles or a cart behind it.

(In this photo we are introducing the feel of a solid shaft against the outside leg of a prospective driving horse. Unlike the leather traces, the wooden shafts of a cart will not bend around the leg of a horse, the horse must yield the leg to the shaft)

“To blind or not to blind”, that is the question that I am often asked about driving horses. In Europe you will often see driving horses working in an open bridle but in North America you would not be allowed anywhere near a driving show without blinders.

Suffice to say that the blinders (or “blinkers”) are not for the purpose of preventing the horse from “spooking” about seeing what is behind them. Horses are smart enough to know that something is “back there” and only very green people who are new to horses are innocent enough to assume that “out of sight means out of mind”.

Blinders on driving horses are for the same purpose as blinders on race horses. It is to add to or enhance “straightforward” focus so that the horse is not distracted by the environment to the left or right. This can come in real handy when driving in traffic!

However, I always start my driving horses in an open bridle when training them for driving because they need to see my body language when I am long lining (ground driving) them so that they can associate and “add up” what I am saying with my body, with how it relates to what they feel from my hands, and then connect it to what they hear from my voice.

I also leave the prospective driving horse in an open bridle as I begin to pull a light object (note that I said “I pull” not the horse) behind them while long lining. I want them to see that it is indeed me, or my assistant, dragging that car tire along in the dirt behind us while I am long lining so that they can see what they are hearing and they can also see that I am calm and okay with it. If I can not keep the prospective driving horse calm and straight while long lining because the noise and visual of an object following them is too stressful for them then I am not going to assume that the blinders will make this stress go away. Just the opposite will happen and the horse will panic if it can not see what is stressing it.

(In this photo the pinto gelding, "Tag", while wearing blinders, is being introduced to the sounds the training cart makes while moving. Also note that while I am pulling the cart, I am also, along with the person on the right side of the horse, pulling on the brake straps and britching when "Tag" is asked to halt. This is to prepare him for the feeling of stopping the cart with his hindquarters)

While long lining, once we have a horse “okay” with the sights and sounds of objects being dragged behind it (without being truly hitched to the object for obvious safety reasons) then and only then would we be ready to add the blinders for increased focused forward on the “straight ahead”.

(In this photo, Rich Kitos, a Gold Certified Trainer of mine and head trainer for the Vancouver mounted police department is now driving "Thunder" for his first time attached to a solid drag called a Stoneboat)

Driving horses need to bend. If a driving horse does not bend its barrel to turn then it gets jammed between the shafts. For instance, when turning left, the too straight driving horse will be poked in the left shoulder by the front tip of the driving shafts and will also feel bound or stuck in its right hip against the back of the right shaft. The smaller the turn, the more jammed or stuck the horse feels. Sadly, this seemingly simple concept is often overlooked and consequently is one of the leading causes of runaways. God forbid that the shafts are a little too long, sticking out past the shoulder, where the horse will suddenly be poked hard on the inside of his neck when turning!

When a horse is shown how to bend its barrel while turning, stretching from “the inside out” throughout the entire length of it’s spine, then the horse is not only better balanced and calmer while at work, it is also free to move throughout the turn without ever feeling
“stuck” and/or “poked” between the shafts.

(In this photo, I'm coaching whilst both Rich and "Thunder" are enjoying their first drive in a cart)

In closing, again, it’s actually a bit frustrating writing this blog because there are just far too many safety issues that require significant detail when it comes to “training tips” for driving horses. Suffice to say that riding is like surfing while driving is like sailing a boat. You can jump on a surfboard and try to learn as you go but what kind of a fool assumes that they “just know” how to sail? If you get into a sailboat or attempt to hitch and drive a horse then you need to know how all the rigging works because the more there is “attached” to the horse the more room there is for critical mistakes. It would require far more room then this blog allows me to be able to outline the proper form, fit and function of how the harness works and should be fitted properly to the horse and, then, how the horse should be fitted correctly into the cart, sleigh, carriage or wagon.

(In this photo, Jessi Chrapko, the youngest gold trainer in my certification program, is a seasoned rider & driver enjoying seeing her saddle horse "Tag" in the cart for his first time)

There are numerous safety steps in ground training the driving horse from long lining through dragging objects, to hooking into a travois (or training poles), to what to look for during the first hitching to a wheeled vehicle. I will be producing a video on training driving horses this October but, in the meantime, if you want to train your horse to pull a cart then please remember not to “put the cart before the horse”. Seek out competent help from a trainer who has truly proven that he or she knows what they are doing with driving horses. Meanwhile, all the best to you and yours for healthy and happy trails!

(Coaching Jessi on the refinement of straightness and collection while driving)

(And last but not least...... Are we having fun yet?!)

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Comment by Marti Langley on September 16, 2009 at 3:26pm
Just caught up with this. What a timely article, with so many new people getting into driving. I hope people will realize it may look easy, but it is not. It takes lots of training and time to get a good driving horse going correctly. Thanks for this article.
Comment by Fiona Hill on September 2, 2009 at 10:24am
Wise words as usual Chris.
It saddens me greatly to hear about such terrible accidents as the ones reported by Susan. What worries me more is the fact that as part of the 'training' of horses to pull carts, etc, through long reining etc, it seems to be considered the norm that they will run away and lose their minds at least once or twice in the process before they see the error of their ways and somehow just 'get over it' and stop trying to run away from the 'predator' that is chasing them.

Since deciding to retire my horse from being ridden, due to his high stress levels and dangerous behaviour when saddles, rugs, ropes, etc are brought anywhere near him, it has been suggested to me on more than one occasion that I might break him to drive! Hhmmm... fortunately I value my life (and his) too much to even give it a moment's thought, but it is worrying that such ideas are floating around in the horse world. A horse that can't be ridden (for whatever reason) is not automatically going to be a horse that will be suitable for driving and Chris's advice about testing out the suitability of the horse is to be ignored at great peril!
Comment by Susan on August 30, 2009 at 5:59pm
what perfect timing for this post. The following article just appeared in Horsetalk NZ:

Two carriage rides end in trouble, man loses lower leg

August 31, 2009

Two carriage rides ended in mishaps in North America on Saturday, the worst resulting in a man severing his lower leg.
In the most serious incident, a man was providing pony cart rides at a small festival north of Quebec City.

The ponies were spooked. The driver fell from the cart while trying to pull up the animals but accidentally fell from the vehicle.

Police believe the cart ran over his leg, severing it just below the knee.

The limb was placed on ice and the man taken to hospital. It is not known whether surgeons made an attempt to reattach the limb.

A dozen or so children were on the cart at the time. A small number suffered minor injuries when they decided to jump from the cart.

The ponies were not injured.

In the other incident, a family visiting Salt Lake City from Idaho got more than they bargained for in their horse-drawn carriage ride.

The horse pulling the carriage spooked and broke into a full gallop.

The driver managed to pull the 12-year-old horse up. He got off the carriage to calm the animal but it was spooked again, taking off and dragging the driver along the road by the reins.

He had to let go, leaving the family of seven on the runaway carriage.

A police officer on a bike was knocked down trying to stop the carriage and reports suggest his bike became tangled in the carriage.

The ride came to an end after two blocks when the carriage collided with a parked car. Family members were shaken but otherwise unhurt.
Comment by Chris Irwin on August 30, 2009 at 12:02pm
Yeah, Jackie, many people have the misconception that driving is "easy" and it's for senior citizens that are too old to ride. Nothing can be farther from the truth! The harness horse is exponentially more potentially dangerous then the riding horse. No comparison. But with the right horse in harness WOW is it a lot of fun!
Comment by Jackie Cochran on August 30, 2009 at 9:24am
You just convinced me that if I wanted to drive a horse, to get one already professionally trained! Riding sure sounds a LOT easier to do safely.

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