Proper foot placement when driving your horse in a carriage.

I’m sure you have all seen the movie with Ben Stiller, “Night at the Museum”.  Do you remember that scene where the bad guy was driving the runaway horse and carriage and Ben tells him to stop and the driver replies that he can’t without the special word.  At which point Ben hollers out “Dakota” and the horses immediately come to a screeching halt.

Anyone who has experienced a runaway horse and carriage, I am sure wishes that they could have just hollered out “Dakota” and their horse would have stopped.

Anyone who has ridden a horse for any length of time has most likely experienced a runaway horse and carriage to some degree. There are several ways of stopping a horse when you are astride that work fairly well if done correctly.  But for the most part these aids do not relate to the driven horse.  One good example is the one rein circle that works well astride, but if you try that with a carriage horse you will most likely flip your carriage. With the one rein circle, you basically shorten one rein to the point that the horse is turning tightly one direction, thereby, slowing and halting forward motion, this cannot been done within shafts.

First, one must understand the thought process of the horse to be able to stop him when he runs away.  The horse is a flight animal, so when he perceives danger, his thought process tells him to run until he feels that he is out of danger.

A scared runaway horse cannot be stopped by you pulling as hard as you can in a backwards direction on the reins while in a carriage.  This only makes the horse think he has to runner faster and harder, and if he throws his head, he can pull you out over the dash of your carriage.

The most common reactions of a driver when their horse runs away is to:

1) pull on reins

2) scream and yell

3) tense up their muscles throughout their body

4) jump out of carriage

5) jump onto the back of the horse

6) become panicked

7) stand up in carriage in an attempt to get more leverage

And then, there are the want to be helpers that may or may not know anything about carriage horses (DO NOT LISTEN TO THEM):

1) they chase after the horse and carriage

2) they scream and yell

3) they grab at the reins close to the horses head

4) they grab onto the back of the carriage in an attempt to become a brake

5) they run in front of your horse and carriage

6) they stand in front of you and wave their arms

7) then there are the other stupid drivers

The very first thing one should do when they find themselves with a runaway horse and carriage while driving is to continue to drive their horse.  So many drivers are too concerned about stopping their horse, and they forget to drive them.  Even if your horse is frightened, you are still able to guide him if you stay focused and just drive. You as the driver, need to stay calm and not allow panic thoughts to interfere with the job at hand.

Next you need to be sure that you are in the proper position on your carriage seat.  Your back should be against the seat back and your legs should be out in front of you pressed against the slant of the floorboard or the foot rail so that if your horse jerks his head, he will not pull you out over the dash. Keep your shoulders back and stay relaxed so you can keep your balance on the seat.

Now, start squeezing the reins ever so lightly and then release and repeat.  This starts a conversation between you and your horse.  You are telling him that you will not let the big boogie man get him and that everything will be all right. While you are squeezing the reins you need to take deep breaths and let them out as this will help keep you relaxed.

While you are driving your horse through this situation, you need to be aware of where you are going with your horse.  Guide him into any large open area, preferably where there are no other horses or people, do not make any sharp turns or tight circles, for this will tip your carriage.  Stay off of pavement and cement if  possible,  as the horse could slip and fall.

I know this sounds like a lot to process in the moment of a runaway, but if you run all the possible scenarios in your head before you even have a runaway, it will just come automatic.  It is the same as going over what you would do when you are driving your car and another car cuts you off.  It becomes a learned response!

The other major way to both prevent and stop a runaway is proper training of the horse from the ground up.  I train all of my carriage horses to immediately stop when I say whoa.  The whoa that one uses on an everyday basis is just a whoa.  But the whoa that is taught for an emergency is a mandatory, immediate and absolute whoa.  If taught properly, your horse will know the difference between the two.  One must practice the emergency whoa so that your horse knows the difference.  There is no better way to help your horse in a runaway than with proper training from the beginning.

Most runaway horse and carriage situations last only seconds, but I know that in your mind at the time it seems like hours.  I have had several runaways in my career, so I know how it feels.  Staying calm and quiet and talking to your horse through the reins and your voice are the two most important things to remember, and Drive Your Horse!

5 replies
  1. Linda Shewchuk
    Linda Shewchuk says:

    What a timely post ! A good friend just had a runaway with what she thought was a bomb proof mini ! Which he had been up to that moment !!She had no idea what to do so panicked ! Thankfully this happened on the beach , she needs to learn this & as do we all ! Certainly time to practice this ‘. Thank you so much !

  2. Flore
    Flore says:

    Hi! I just had a panick reaction from my horse because of a truck making noises next to him while we were almost back at the stable! His reaction was to walk back, turn and runaway but I wouldn’t let him. He almost tipped the carriage over while trying to do this! In the end he went back forward. What is the best response to this?

    • Eileen Davis
      Eileen Davis says:

      You did the right thing to not let him walk backwards as you will always jack knife when it is uncontrolled. You need to also at the same time that he is trying to walk back is to push him forward with clucking, the lash of your whip in an alternating left, right, left with the lash. If you only tap one side he will want to turn instead of going straight. You might want to practice with your whip at home so that your horse learns to respond properly to the ques. It is generally easier to push a horse to go forward as this is their natural direction. Also you need to remain calm and relaxed while this is all going on. I am so glad that all turned out okay for you.

  3. David
    David says:

    A rather late request, but do you or does anyone else happen to have sources on the usage of the word “Dakota” for stopping a horse carriage? I’ve been looking all over for some historical evidence on this to determine whether or not the word “Dakota” was actually used back then. Thanks in advance.

    • Eileen Davis
      Eileen Davis says:

      I have no proof that the word Dakota used in the movie came from actual fact. I do believe it is possible to teach your horse to stop, to any word you might use. People teach their horses to stop when they say whoa. When you have pulled on the reins and have said whoa enough times eventually the horse relates the word whoa to the action of stopping. We could probably use any word we want for whoa as long as we always use that word with the rein movement all of the time. Eventually, you will be able to just say the word “whoa” or “Dakota” or whatever word you want and the horse will stop. I teach my horses “Gee and Haw” for right and left. I also know a driver that taught her horse “left and right” and her horse responds to those words the same as my horses respond to “Gee and Haw”.


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