Whether you’re going to drive a mini that you already own or purchase a driving prospect, there are things to consider when choosing a mini to drive.
First, temperament. All minis will require training to get used to having a cart behind them, but an overly spooky horse will be difficult to desensitize. Because the trainer isn’t in direct contact with the horse when working, fear can be more dangerous in a driving horse than a riding horse. One big spook can tip a cart, potentially resulting in injury to the horse, rider or both. Download a PDF of this article.
Keep in mind your own abilities as well – an experienced horseman used to working with difficult horses will have an easier time than an inexperienced horseman who is trying to learn the ropes, too.
Second, conformation. A mini with good structure will hold up longer than one with poor structure. Look for balanced angles and straight legs. A horse with a steep shoulder will have a shorter stride, while a more laid back shoulder will result in a longer stride. Check the horse’s muscle tone – unbalanced musculature can indicate a structural defect that the horse has to compensate for by changing his movement. A mini with well-muscled hind quarters will have more power, making it easier for him to pull a cart. And a longer neck will be able to flex more easily than one with a short neck.
The ideal driving horse has a smooth trot that he can maintain for extended periods of time. His movement should be balanced. An easy way to check balance is to look at his hoof prints – the rear hoof should land in the mark left by the front hoof, or even a little ahead.
The horse’s topline should remain level while in motion and not bounce up and down. A bouncing gait will be transferred down the shafts to the cart, causing a bumpy and uncomfortable ride.
If you’re considering showing, be even more particular when evaluating the trot. Different styles of motion are better suited to different arenas. Training and conditioning can do a lot, but the best show horses naturally have movement that is appropriate for their division.
The third thing to consider is gender. Just as is the case with their full-size counterparts, geldings tend to have a consistent, stable personality and may be the best pick for beginners. Mares can be moody when in season. Stallions often make the best show horses because their attitude gives them a lot of presence in the ring, but that flair can make them difficult to manage, even in a mini size. If working with a stallion, extra training will be necessary to assert that the driver is “in charge” and to ensure that he can behave around other horses.
Most harnesses include a bridle, breast collar and traces, saddle (or pad), and breaching. A driving bridle should always have blinders to keep your mini from seeing the cart behind him and getting scared. The breast collar goes across the front of the horse’s chest to enable him to pull the cart, with the traces extending along his body to the cart. The saddle goes over the horse’s withers much like a riding saddle and acts as an anchor for other parts of the harness. These include the girth, crupper, and tugs (the crupper goes under the mini’s tail to help keep the saddle straight, and the tugs stabilize the shafts of the cart).
The breaching attaches to the crupper and wraps around behind the mini’s rump, with straps attaching it to the shafts. The job of the breaching is to prevent the cart from coming too far forward and hitting your horse in the rear. In some show settings, the breaching will be removed.
When purchasing a harness, quality is your first concern, as breakage can result in physical injury to the horse and/or any passengers. The staff at Ozark Mountain Miniature Tack & Supplies (www.minitack.com, 888-775-6446) recommend harnesses made in the USA, which will “cost you more, but the consequences of a cheap harness will cost you a lot more in doctor and vet bills,” they warn. Even with a well-made harness, breaks do happen. Check that the company you order your harness from also carries replacement parts.
The harness should be a proper fit for your mini to ensure that he will be comfortable working in it. Measure your horse before placing an order, and contact the company if you have any questions. Another option is to take your mini with you to buy a harness at a show where the manufacturer can take measurements in person.
Expect to pay several hundred dollars for a harness, with prices going to $1,000 or more for fancy show harnesses. For beginners, Ozark Mountain recommends their leather Pleasure Harness ($279 to $299), which is durable and suitable for both recreational driving and competitions.
Most harnesses do not include a bit, which run from $16 to $80. The choice depends upon your mini’s needs for comfort and control. If you’re unsure what type or size bit to get for your horse, you need to consult a driving expert in your area.
Your cart should be sturdy and balanced to provide the most comfort and safety for both horse and rider. To test balance, hold the shafts level and have someone sit in the cart. There should be little-to-no weight on your hands in either direction. An unbalanced cart that feels heavy will press down on your mini’s back, and one that you have to hold onto to keep from flipping over backward will put upward pressure on your mini’s girth. Both faults will make your horse uncomfortable and will hinder his pulling and moving abilities. When you hitch your mini to the cart, make sure the shafts are level by adjusting the tug straps on his saddle.
Most people that drive with minis use an “easy entry” cart, which is easy for the trainer to step into. Style and prices vary. A metal easy entry cart will cost from $400 to $700, while wooden carts generally run between $1,000 and $2,000. Metal carts are great for everyday use, but wooden carts are more appropriate for the show ring.
Four-wheeled vehicles are more expensive, and with minis are usually used with hitches of two or more horses. Two-wheeled styles other than the easy entry tend to be more expensive as well.
The whip is necessary for driving, not for discipline, but as a tool to enable the trainer to communicate with and direct the horse. The function of the whip is similar to the trainer’s heels when riding. Light, well-placed taps act as signals for your horse to turn or speed up. The whip’s role is so important that the human handler of a driving horse is often called a “whip.”
There are many steps to teaching your horse to drive, and it will require lots of practice and patience.
First, your mini needs to be familiarized with the harness. Start off by draping a rope across his back to get him accustomed to the sensation, working up to having the actual harness buckled on. He should be able to be touched lightly all over his body without spooking. This will make him comfortable with the harness and cart rubbing against him when driving. He will also need to be taught to accept and respond to the bit, just like when training a riding horse.
Once your mini is comfortable with the harness, groundwork begins. This stage of training sets the foundation for everything that your horse will need to know – steering, pulling, and making turns. Initially the trainer walks behind the horse while handling the reins to practice changing gaits and steering. This is called ground driving. Some trainers also like to work their horses in a round pen at this stage. The rings on the saddle allow for you to still steer the horse normally while standing to the side. Then it is time to introduce weight, such as slowly dragging a small log as he works.
To start introducing the idea of the shafts, trainers use a travois, generally made with PVC pipes. One end of each pipe is attached to the saddle while the other end drags behind. When he is comfortable dragging the travois, you can introduce turns. To make a turn in either a cart or travois, he has to push into one shaft rather than bending his body as he would walking normally.
Familiarize your mini with the sight and sound of the cart. Park it nearby when training, and let him look at it. Also let him watch the cart moving. If you have other driving minis, he can watch you work another horse. Otherwise just pull it around yourself, moving up to pulling the cart with one hand while leading your horse with the other.
When bringing the cart up close, go slowly. Start off by just raising the shafts over your horse’s back. Work up to “cheat hitching,” or sliding the shafts through the tug straps without attaching the traces to the cart. This will allow you to get you mini free of the cart quickly if he gets scared. At this point, you can modify your groundwork by walking behind the cart with the reins extending over it. Be sure that you and your horse are totally confident with this stage before moving to a formal hitch.
When hitching for the first time, have a helper hold your mini’s head for extra control. Whether you have a helper or not, always hold onto the reins. Should your mini get loose and start to run, he could get scared and possibly injured. Always keep him under control.
Review how to hitch the harness to the cart ahead of time, and keep a reference (or experienced driver) on hand in case you forget what to do. Once your mini is hitched, ground drive like you did while he was cheat hitched. Start by going straight, and then ask for some slight turns. You want this to be a positive experience for your horse, so only ask him to do things that you know he can do.
If he ever does get scared and you’re concerned about his safety, unhitch him and do something easier, like dragging the log or ground driving with the travois. Never end a training session on a bad note – always end by asking your horse to do something that he can be successful at.
The next step is to add a person to the cart. A helper is ideal for this step. Have your helper put one foot on the cart and lean on it. If your mini accepts the weight calmly, the helper can step fully into the cart. Continue to ground drive with the passenger. If all is calm, you can then have your helper exit the cart and slowly step in yourself. As always, if your mini starts to get nervous, go back a step to make him more comfortable. Before long, you and your mini will be a great driving team.
While arenas are a great place to start and practice new skills, driving out in the world is fun and rewarding. You can drive on trails nearby or trailer your cart and mini to horse-friendly parks.
Whenever you and your mini are out driving, be aware of your surroundings. Try to introduce things that you might encounter (such as dogs, cars, bicyclists, etc) while working at home in a familiar place.
Article by Contributing Writer Kate Eldredge.