Post by Cynthia Kurtz, Marketing Manager
I own an exceptionally patient horse. I bought him as a 6-year-old with a mere 60 days of saddle training and had him teaching toddlers to ride by the following weekend. He is unflappable, smart, and willing to try new things.
So when I saw a used harness for sale locally, I did what any reasonable equestrian would do, and decided to learn to drive with my horse who also didn’t know how to drive. I am normally an advocate of at least one party knowing what they are doing—green riders and green horses do not go well together—but this is the horse that enjoys joining us at the bonfire while the rest of the herd runs away from the flames. I was sure he’d be fine.
The first step was putting the harness on, which entailed me learning what the parts were and Saint learning to accept leather straps in various places on his body. I expected him to react to the breeching, straps that wrap below the rump and function as brakes, and the crupper, which goes below the tail to keep the surcingle from sliding too far forward, but my steady steed hardly flinched.
At this stage in training, the breeching is strapped on tightly, so the horse becomes accustomed to the pressure and doesn’t panic. Eventually, it’ll hang more loosely, and the horse will be taught to stand against the pressure as the cart slows to a stop behind him. I also let other straps hang loosely from the harness to allow Saint to become accustomed to things swinging around and dragging behind him. The traces, not being attached to a cart, are tied up into the surcingle and then hang loosely at his sides so he feels them but cannot step on them.
This was the point at which I stepped behind him and taught him to “ground-drive,” essentially the same as driving but with me walking behind him instead of riding in a cart. For obvious reasons, this is the safest way to introduce the concept of driving. I attached the lines to a halter so I could steer him without worrying about him struggling against a bit while he figured it out. Using a driving whip I encouraged him to move forward, and within one session he had walk, trot, and halt down pat with me controlling him from behind. I even took him for a walk around the property to show off!
After a few months, in which time Saint mastered commands such as “gee” to turn right and “haw” to turn left as well as cues from my whip to move sideways or backwards, it was time to introduce the bridle with blinders. The blinders serve to focus the horse’s attention forward, especially preventing them from panicking at the sight of a carriage following them. Saint is a very attentive horse and hasn’t taken to the blinders particularly well. He prefers an “open” bridle, which is a driving bridle without blinders, but they are harder to find because most horses are not as relaxed as Saint is without them. It was at this point that he got used to steering with the bit instead of the halter, and we got to start going on adventures down the road.
Finally, he was ready to start pulling some weight! One of the benefits of living in Maine in the winter is we get to take our horses sledding. While at first Saint was rather displeased about the thing following him, within an hour or so we were driving around with me on the sled.
At long last, it was time to introduce the last piece of the harness: the overcheck rein. Formerly known as the “bearing” rein, many readers will be familiar with it from Black Beauty. It prevents the horse from putting his head down below the shafts of the cart, which would be very dangerous. Many horses don’t need it, and it is not used to hold the horse’s head artificially high as it was in Victorian England. Saint, however, is a fan of stopping to smell the roses, so he absolutely needs to wear the overcheck to keep us both safe. This was the first point in his training where he actively resented something I presented him with. As a western riding horse, he is not accustomed to having a lot of contact with the hit, so the pressure of the overcheck is foreign to him. At the time of writing, it has only been a week since the overcheck was introduced, so I am sure with more time and patience he will come around.
We still have a long way to go before he is ready to pull a cart. We’ll keep pulling tires and sleds around the arena for a while, and then start getting him used to shafts, and finally a vehicle following him without being attached. Once he has passed all these tests with flying colors, he’ll be ready to drive around the countryside!