Put the Horse Before the Horse Cart

Training a driving horse starts from the ground with the help of an experienced professional who will help you and your horse master the skills that will keep you both safe.
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Training a driving horse starts from the ground with the help of an experienced professional who will help you and your horse master the skills that will keep you both safe.

Driving Forward

  • Teaching a horse to drive is fun, but it also carries risks. Seek the help of a driving professional throughout training.
  • For now, forget the cart or buggy. Driving training starts with ground work.
  • Use a D-ring, egg-butt, or loose-cheek snaffle bit, not a full-cheek snaffle, which could catch in the lines.
  • Practice handling two lines and avoid getting tangled up. When in doubt, let the lines drag behind you.
  • To protect your horse's mouth when first learning, attach the driving lines to the halter cheek rings instead of the bit.
  • Give your horse time and encouragement so he develops confidence through all stages of driving training.

Imagine your perfect horse hitched to a cart, trotting down a country road. The lines are in your hands, the wind is in your hair. Your horse moves forward-steady and confident between the shafts.

You might be thinking. "My horse? Yeah right!"

The fact is, yes, your horse can learn to drive. It's a process and it doesn't happen overnight, says driving trainer Kate Beardsley of Alfalfa, Oregon. But the end result is just about as much fun as you'll ever have with your horse.

Even if your horse isn't destined for driving, the ground training involved in teaching a horse to drive will strengthen your relationship and help build confidence-yours as well as your horse's.

So here's the deal. If you read past this point-and we hope you do-we want you to get the help of a professional driving trainer.

"There are more opportunities for things to go wrong in the training process for driving than riding," Kate cautions.

Driving accidents, when they do happen, are ugly and scary. Getting help from someone who knows what they're doing can prevent accidents and help make driving enjoyable and safe. An experienced driving instructor can make sure there aren't any holes in your horse's training, check the harness for safety, and make sure the cart is properly balanced and fits your horse.

With that disclosure out of the way, let's get to the fun part!

The following is Kate's process for training a horse to pull and drive. Depending on the horse, it could take days or months to move through each stage, she says. Take your time, and let your horse build his confidence. Driving training is about the journey, not just the destination.

Set the Stage
To get started, you'll need a safe place with good footing to work your horse. A round pen will work, but a fenced arena is ideal and will give you a little more room to move around. Make sure the area is free of obstacles that your horse could get stuck on, and that gates are closed and secure.

You'll also need a staging spot inside your training area. This is a place where you'll pile up all your training equipment and stop to make any tack changes. Your horse will soon realize that he's expected to stand still when you park him in this spot. Standing still, says Kate, is an invaluable lesson for any driving horse to learn. Your staging place will also help you get organized with all the tools you need to teach your horse to drive on the ground.

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Stage 1: Longeing
What you need:
• Halter
• Bridle with snaffle bit
• Soft cotton longe-line
• Longeing or driving whip

Longeing isn't a big part of John Lyons' training methods, and Kate doesn't longe her riding horses on a regular basis. However, a good understanding of longeing is essential for a driving horse. Not only does it teach the horse to drive forward and away from the handler, longeing also confirms the all-important verbal cues a driving horse must learn and obey. Longeing will also help you learn to handle a long line, which admittedly takes practice.

The basic idea of longeing is to send the horse in a circle around you. You become the center point as the horse moves around you on a long rope. By staying behind the horse's withers, you push the horse forward, using the horse's driving instinct-the same instinct that will eventually have him pulling a cart. (For our complete guide to teaching your horse to longe, see our November and December 2006 issues.)

An important note about longeing a future driving horse: "Don't let the horse turn and face you when he stops," Kate says. "A lot of horses turn and face you, especially if they've been worked in a round pen."

If the horse turns and faces you when you start long-lining and ground driving, the two lines can get twisted up, and you've lost control of the horse. The end result is a possible tangled mess, especially for someone new to handling two lines.

Stage 2: Long lining
What you'll need:
• Bridle with snaffle bit
• Saddle with stirrups
• Twine or leather strap
• Two longe-lines, each a different color

To start long-lining, Kate chooses two longe-lines that are different colors. In our photos, she's using one blue line and one white line. The visual color difference helps you remember which hand is connected to which side of the horse's bit, she says.

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If you don't have a training or driving surcingle, you can use your saddle to begin ground driving. Just use a piece of twine or leather strap to tie the stirrups together under your horse's belly. This will help keep them secure. Just make sure there's no way for the horse to get caught in the strap or stirrups.

Next, decide which way you want the horse to travel. For this example, we'll go clockwise. In this scenario, you'll attach both lines to the halter or bit ring and feed the left line through the left stirrup and hold the line (and the whip) in your left hand. You'll hold the right line just like you would if you were longeing the horse. This is called an open line, because it's not connected to anything but the horse's head. The off-side line is a closed line, because it's threaded through the stirrup.

Once you're situated, send your horse out on the circle. Keep the lines tight enough that the horse can't step on them, but loose enough that there's some slack. If your horse is going to drive, he'll have to get used to things that flop around, Kate says.

Better yet, you'll want your horse to be thoroughly acclimated to the feel of the lines prior to beginning your driving lessons, so the contact comes as no surprise. That way he'll be less inclined to kick out or buck when he feels the lines snug up around his rear, drape down and touch his legs, or, worse yet, happen to catch beneath his tail. See the article "Get Your Horse Rope Broke," page 36.

You want to keep yourself safe and instill confidence in the horse. Ask him to walk and trot until he settles in. When you cue him to transition down or whoa, start applying pressure to both lines, just as you would with the reins if you were riding.

Stage 3: ground driving
What you need:
• Everything you used for long-lining

Ground driving is more than plowing a horse around by pulling on the reins, says Kate. Instead, think of it as holding the horse straight and releasing him into a turn.

Long-lining becomes ground driving when you've moved off the circle and started working the horse from behind. Instead of standing in a stationary place, you'll move, too, following and steering the horse. It's a subtle change while you're in the middle of training-one moment you're in the middle, then next you're driving the horse. It's a huge stride forward in his driving training.

To make the switch, you'll start to fall behind the horse, while still off to his side, and add pressure to your outside line to straighten the horse and send him off the circle. If you're not in shape yet, this part is better than a treadmill! Give your horse lots of praise as he moves out to build his confidence.

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For your own position, make sure you're not in kicking range. Take special care to make sure your horse's hind hoofs can't reach your face, chest, or abdomen. Kate falls back at least a horse length when she's behind the horse. If you're standing to the side of the horse, stand close to his body at his hip.

With your driving lines, you should have light contact with your horse's mouth. You don't want a slack line that grabs your horse's mouth as you pull. Instead, keep even pressure on both lines. Then, instead of plowing into a turn, release the pressure on one rein to turn the horse. The light tension you maintain on the other rein will guide your horse. For example, if you want to turn right, you'll release your contact with the left line. "The horse then makes a light turn to the right, bending his body," Kate explains.

Work on turning, stopping, transitions, and going over poles. Change sides from left to right, and let the lines flop around a little bit on your horse's back. If at any time your horse seems to lose confidence or feels hesitant, go back to long-lining in a circle, which will drive him forward and help create momentum..

Practice, practice, practice, says Kate. And this isn't just for your horse's benefit. The more you handle the lines, the better you'll get at ground driving, too.

Stage 4: Getting dressed for driving
What you need:
• Bridle with snaffle bit
• Driving bridle with blinders
• Two longe-lines, each a different color
• A good-quality training harness

Once you feel confident long-lining and ground driving, you can start getting your horse used to the harness. Up until this point, you haven't needed anything special other than two longe lines. Now it's time to invest in a training harness to continue your horse's education.

"Buy the best quality harness you can afford," advises Kate. "When it comes time to hook a cart up, you want to trust that your harness is going to work and that nothing is going to break."

In general, Kate advises against nylon harnesses, although she concedes that there are some very nice, and expensive, synthetic harnesses on the market. And it doesn't matter if you're driving a draft horse or a mini, you still want the best, safest harness you can afford. Craftsmanship can vary, so seek out resources, such as a local driving club or experienced driving trainer, to help you out. If you're buying used, make sure the harness is in good repair. And always, always inspect your harness for signs of wear before using it.

As you get your horse used to his new harness, you'll go back to longeing him. Start one piece at a time, letting things flop around a little as you longe your horse in both directions. For this stage, Kate recommends introducing the horse to a driving bridle with blinders (known as a "closed bridle"), just as you would with any other piece of the harness.

"The horse should be able to do every step up to this point in both the open and closed bridles," she says.

Once your horse is longeing well with the breast collar and surcingle in place, you can move onto long-lining and ground driving him in his new outfit. Use this time to confirm the training you've already done, and look for anything that seems to make your horse unsteady or unsure.

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Stage 5: Dragging stuff
What you need:
• Training harness
• Driving whip
• Two PVC pipes, about 6- to 8-feet long
• Two thick cotton ropes, fitted with clips on one end
• A car tire outfitted with a rope and a quick-release snap

By this point, your horse should have his steering down. He should also know how to stop, stand quietly, and back during ground driving. Now it's time for him to learn to pull.

"You have to teach a horse to pull against the breast collar, even if what he's pulling feels as though it's stuck," says Kate. "Just think about a horse pulling a cart through deep sand-he has to keep going."

Kate teaches her horses to pull by attaching heavy-cotton ropes to the harness. The ropes serve a dual purpose, adding weight to the harness and creating drag. As the horse gets comfortable, Kate will start stepping on the ends of the ropes to create tension. At the same time, she urges the horse forward with her voice and, if necessary, a tap of the whip. When the horse pulls forward, she then releases the rope and allows it to spring forward, which just adds to the horse's overall desensitization.

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When the horse is comfortable with the ropes, Kate adds PVC pipes, which act as shafts of the cart. As long as the horse is confident, she allows the pipes to bounce, drag, and fall out of the harness as she ground drives the horse.

Last, the horse learns to drag a tire, which is attached to the harness via the cotton ropes. The consistent weight of the tire is similar to what a cart feels like and helps reinforce pulling. The dragging tire will also help the horse get used to having something following him around as he walks and trots.

When you start dragging the tire with your horse, you'll want to position yourself behind the tire or to the side of the horse to make sure you don't get tangled up.

Off to School
Congratulations! If you've made it this far in your driving training, ask your professional if you and your horse are ready to take that next big step: hooking your horse to a cart.

But don't be surprised or discouraged if your pro wants to repeat the steps you've just completed with your horse. A knowledgeable and trustworthy trainer will want to make absolutely sure that the horse is ready to drive.

In fact, Kate asserts that she'll never drive any horse-no matter how much driving experience the owner tells her he has-without taking him through every step of the training process. For Kate, going step-by-step gives her a full understanding of the horse's foundation and shows her any training holes. It also gives her a chance to get to know the horse better. When it comes to driving, trust between horse and driver is paramount.