Choosing a Driving Horse

Look, observe and take advice before making any decisions

Think carefully about the breed

Remember you make haste slowly - even if your ultimate aim is to drive hackneys in the show ring or a sports horse in CDE, these are not the horses to start with. It would be like driving a ferrari or a formula 1 before you'd mastered the technique of steering.

Your first driving horse might be plain but it's a fact that a flashy, showy one is ALWAYS harder to drive than a plainer, more even-tempered one.

It's the very high-spirited nature that dictates this and you will find the more spirited and able to think for himself that your horse is that the faster, surer and more automatic your reactions need to be. Something that ONLY comes with miles on the clock and testing yourself properly over time and with good help and lessons.

If starting with a family pony, get someone experienced to put it to harness for you.

For anyone not genuinely experienced with putting a horse to harness and bringing on a youngster, I'd say never less than 6.

If buying a new horse or pony, think CAREFULLY what you want to do with it i.e. will it be ridden as well as driven

Be honest and use a liberal dose of self-awareness when it comes to assessing your own ability and competence. Remember experience is just time spent. Competence is entirely different!

As a novice, buy a horse that has been well trained and tested as a carriage horse and that REALLY knows it's job. It should be 110% traffic proof. It should want to stand forever unless it's been told to go forward and it should know how to look after itself at all costs.

The overall turnout of horse, vehicle, driver and passenger should look balanced and in harmony. Be neither under or over-horsed: neither in size, type nor ability.

Ensure you have public liability insurance before driving out on roads

Two novices are NEVER good mix

You and your horse can't "learn the job together". Most frequently that ends in disaster. And yes, you'll hear people telling you it can be done but in my considerable experience, it can't!


Green + Green = Black and Blue



CollarsFull collar or breast collar

In a full collar the advantage is that it covers a greater area of the horse's shoulder and neck and therefore allows him to exert a greater pull than on the breast collar.

But the breast collar is lighter and more suited to the likes of cross country driving where the horse needs greater freedom of movement.

The main thing to appreciate is that a full collar HAS to fit well. If it doesn't then friction will eventually cause the horse to jib. You must of course ensure you don't have a fixed swingletree for a full collar. I've never personally found that one full collar does a horse through it's lifetime and indeed have often found a horse needed two collars just to accommodate the difference in musculature and size between in good hard condition and well muscled and with a little more weight on as per say in winter. Full collars need to be considered as a riding saddle and they HAVE to be a good fit and hence its not unusual for a horse to require 2 or 3 collars in a year - as the horse changes shape and musculature during the season.

A full collar can be attached to either a swingletree or to roller bolts but because a breast collar allows the extra movement, it MUST be attached to a swingletree to avoid rubbing the shoulders

A breast collar on the other hand is much easier to fit and though of course it has to be in the right place it just doesn't touch the areas affected by a full collar. That means you can save a lot of money because you don't have spare collars just sitting on the shelf. These aren't suitable at all though if it's a heavy load because the weight tends to be localized rather than spread over the whole shoulder.
For showing it was rare that I used anything other than a full collar. I always particularly liked a patent leather Kay full collar. Also known as the Prince of Wales collar. Because of it's shape it shows a good horse off to the greatest advantage. You really do need to have a nice light gig for that too.
Full collars can also be difficult when you're driving a pair if britching isn't used and because they're next to the pole and if the vehicle runs forward, so can the pole and which tightens the pole straps and in turn puts pressure on the horses' necks.
I personally never drive my pairs without britching nowadays and it's a heck of a long time since I drove using full collars too. I normally only get them out nowadays to show pupils how to fit them and what they do.


Choosing a carriage


Time was that a single horse was nearly always driven to a 2 wheel vehicle.
Now however it's almost as common to use 4 wheeled vehicles. National driving trials competitors in the UK will always use 4 wheelers on the marathon phase as it's a requirement in the rules.
Just as I always teach a new driver to drive traditional coachman style of holding reins in the left hand with the right hand used only as an assister, so I would advocate always learning to drive in a 2 wheeler.
So if you're a novice I'd say that it's a "no brainer" and no decision.... get a 2 wheeled vehicle.
If you can drive very well in a 2 wheeler, you have a better chance of then learning to drive well in a 4 wheeler.
What a 2 wheeler tends to teach you is positioning and balanced seat (see earlier faq on page 1). If you turn abruptly in a 2 wheeler at a gate for example, you are likely to catch the inside of the wheel on the gatepost. You soon learn to drive further on before you ask for the turn. Even if you hit the wheel on the gate, you'd be really unlucky to tip the vehicle and you can get out of the situation.
In a 4 wheeler the turntable on the vehicle is right under your feet so when you turn the horse the vehicle turns in the same arc.
With 4 wheels the horse can turn almost at 45 degrees to you without moving the vehicle. In a 2 wheeler where the shafts are fixed to the body, he has to move the shafts in order to turn so the turning circle is very different. But not bigger. A competent driver and well schooled horse can turn a 2 wheeler by spinning the wheels on the spot, with the animal crossing his legs over one another as he turns on the haunches.
A 2 wheeler has to be balanced because the shafts are attached to the body of the vehicle and so move up and down with it. It must balance so it floats behind the horse.
A 4 wheeler does not have to have to be balanced but you need to understand it's mechanics. The whip usually sits in between the 2 axles or towards the front axle depending on the length and height of the vehicle. That means therefore that there is more weight over the front of the vehicle. If your groom gets off the back, say to open a gate, then suddenly there's no weight at all on the back and if the carriage is say moving forward to a dip in the gate it's going to be REALLY easy to tip up and roll over. You MUST be aware of your positioning on the vehicle at all times, making sure there is sufficient weight on the back and that you don't do such as turn the front wheels as weight is lifting off the back. You'll go over. What your groom does on the back is important because with a 4 wheeler they assist you to keep the wheels on the ground.
4 Wheelers normally have brakes. They always have them on the back and sometimes 2 sets, front and back. Personally speaking I don't like driving 4 wheelers with 2 sets of brakes that can be used when driving. (sometimes you get a parking brake which is different)
When there's 2 sets (front and back wheels) they sometimes operate off one pedal. Bear in mind that if you have 2 brakes and 2 pedals and stamp on the pedal operating only the front brakes you will put all the weight on the front of the vehicle and VERY possibly tip it so the carriage turns upside down. Even for the most competent driver, that's high risk and I'd never advise anyone other than very experienced to even have a passing thought at getting a 4 wheeler with 2 sets of brakes and 2 foot pedals.
Now I always say that no one should drive unaccompanied. I personally never do it and it's intrinsically unsafe. You can if you're lucky and everything is going well, get away with it in a 2 wheeler. Much higher risk with a 4 wheeler. Personally I like my horses too much and I like living too much to even chance it .... even in my own field. With a modern light construction 4 wheeled road, pleasure or marathon vehicle you need someone who knows what they're doing on the back to keep the wheels on the ground and the vehicle from tipping over.


Carriages - Why size matters

Size is about weight, height, width and stability.  If it's wrong then it's likely that an accident will occur and causing harm to both your horse and you and perhaps to others

A carriage built by a reputable manufacturer will be engineered and proportioned correctly to give suitable weight, strength, centre of gravity and seat height and to suit you and your horse.

In many cases the outcome of bad choices and 'enthusiastic buying' results in the ruin of a good horse and all the effort made in  getting your horse driving not to mention hefty bills that far out way the original savings.   Or else as you gain knowledge and experience you come to appreciate that what you first bought is not suitable for what you want to do.

The simple rule is therefore to ALWAYS get advice and help from a knowledgeable person when you make a purchase.

I custom build carriages and am always happy to offer advice but for all my driving customers I offer an advisory service; even if they want to buy a carriage elsewhere or second hand.

Measuring a carriage for fit

With the vehicle standing level and the ground and floor of the vehicle parallel to the ground:

The carriage:
1 The height from the ground to the tug stop on the shaft
2 Length from the tug stop on the shaft to the trace box
The Horse:
1 The height from the middle of the girth to the ground
2 The length from the middle of the horse's girth line to the back of the thigh adding a further 12 inches for a pony or 18 inches for a horse
If "1" and "2" measurement on both horse and carriage are similar, the horse should fit after some slight harness adjustment.
It may also be possible to alter the tug stops on the vehicle, provided that the horse's chest is appropxiately level with the tip of the shift when the horse is put to.
To balance the vehicle, when the horse has been put to and the driver and passengers are seated in their normal position the shafts should rest lightly (approx 4 lbs weight) on the harness tugs with the carriage's floor parallel to the ground. The balance can be adjusted by ideally moving the seat position or by carrying an extra weight (a 4lb weight is ideal) fixed to the vehicle floor positioned in front of the line of the axle or behind the line - dependent on what you're seeking to do.
For safety reasons the weight should be fixed so it doesn't move about all over or drop out of the vehicle.

The shafts:

The proper way to measure cart shafts is to measure the horse from the point of the shoulder to the point of the buttock. Then as a rule of thumb add about 8" for a small pony, and for a horse, 12".   Now, that being said, it also depends on where the foot well of the carriage is. That 8" may be too short if it's  very vertical and deep. The last thing that you want is for your horse to hit his heels on the carriage when you ask for a decent trot.
That might scare him enough to put him into a bolt that you may not recover from before a wreck.

Generally Correct Sizing: Is achieved by matching a variation of frame and wheel size to the height and build of your horse.  Sit too low and you'll not see over your horse's backside.  Sit too high and you will alter the balance of your carriage and in both those cases you will not be able to get the best out of your pony or horse because you won't be sitting in the optimum, correct position.

Buying Second Hand

Always get advice from a knowledgeable person.

Ensure you know what type of vehicle you want.

Know the measurements of your horse.

Buy the best you can afford.

NEVER FORGET THAT A LOT OF CARRIAGES ARE ON THE MARKET BECAUSE THEY'RE NO GOOD FOR THE PREVIOUS OWNER!   That might just mean they've changed horse so they're the wrong size now or the owner has decided to give up driving.   But in my experience and in many cases, it's because they're uncomfortable, been in an accident, are really heavy for the horse, aren't well balanced, are really of the type that are only ever bought by novices and once they've got knowledge they quickly appreciate they bought badly and need to sell it - or to be more accurate - dump it on another novice!

I always say that dodgey second hand car salesmen learn their trade from dodgey horse and carriage dealers!



The reason why driving horses wear bridles with blinkers is that it cuts down the field of vision and they concentrate on what is in front of them not all around.   Blinkers shut down the big screen of visibility, reduce the reaction from the horse to uncontrollable features in the environment and to unconscious body signals you may give him. The horse is designed to notice these detail things, his survival depends on it, so blinkers close down the vision area allowed.
I would never ever drive a horse in an open bridle.
It's another one of those things that in my opinion is darnright foolhardy.
The preference of light harness horse instructors and professional drivers is for their driving horse to focus on what is happening in front and if a horse hasn't been acclimatised, trained and long reined in blinkers, then when you commence driving it can be problematic not having blinkers. And I'd never drive one without.

Also dependent on what you intend to do, you may find you have to wear get him in blinkers because of rules. The rules exist BECAUSE it's safer.

Then consider that a well-trained driving horse understands and responds appropriately to whip cues. The blinkers prevent the horse from seeing the driving whip and anticipating the whip cue. This is important for any driving horse but especially so for multiples. You don't want to be aiming a whip cue at one horse and having the other(s) see it coming and react when they're not the intended target of the cue.
Riding and driving are very different disciplines. Hooking a wheeled contraption to a horse or horses is a far riskier endeavor than climbing on a horse's back, both for the driver and passengers and for all the innocent bystanders and their property who stand in harm's way when there's a runaway horse and carriage. Blinkers (blinders) have been used for hundreds of years and are used by the most experience and skilled drivers. You need to think there must be valid reasons.

Personally I would not show or drive a horse in an open bridle, even if it were allowed.
I've heard of the occasional (rare) horse who for one reason or another goes better in an open bridle. But IME its more a case that sometimes people just get warm and fuzzy about letting the horse see everything and the results can be disastrous.   I’ve had to recover and retrain too many horses over the years that have had serious accidents because of that sort of sentiment.
I've known folks who went "open" bridle to drive. All claimed to be experienced drivers and with solid driving horses. It worked for a while. In every instance, horse later saw something, reacted, ended up causing a wreck. Some were modest wrecks, others quite horrific.  I don't know any of the horses in horrific wrecks who were able to be SAFELY driven again, even in blinkers.

eXTReMe Tracker