Gator, no, it is not an Alligator? When it comes to driving a horse and carriage gator is short for navigator. Now, I’m sure that really cleared the whole thing up for you. No, that is not the person that helps the pilot fly an airplane but you are getting closer. The navigator is the person that helps the driver of the horse and carriage navigate through the marathon portion of a combined driving event.
Okay, lets start at the beginning. As you know, if you have been following my articles that the first day of a combined driving event is Dressage, if it is a three day event or it can be Dressage and Cones, if it is a two day event. Now, if you are driving at advanced you are required by the rules to have a second person or (Gator) on your carriage with you during your drive.
I always drive with a gator with my horses from training all the way through advanced, and here is why:
1) Your horse might as well get used to the extra weight from the very beginning.
2) It never hurts to have an extra pair of hands around in an emergency.
3) It is better that your gator knows from the beginning how you work and deal with your horse, so that way you are both on the same page.
4) This gives you and your gator time to discuss what to do, and not to do in emergencies, if they do arise, and they will arise.
5) Your gator will get to know your horse and your horse will get to know your gator, and this can be invaluable in an emergency.
If you are driving training, preliminary or intermediate you will only need your gator for the marathon day of the event. Now, a lot of drivers will arrive at the competition and put a notice up on the office bulletin board with a note that they are looking for a gator for the marathon. You can probably find a gator this way, but I would not suggest this for the following reasons:
1) What does this person know about the sport of Combined Driving?
2) Are they qualified to do the job at hand?
2) Have they ever been a gator before?
3) Do they know the front of a horse from the back?
4) Are they going to be able to be of help to you on the course?
5) Do they understand that once they get on the carriage they cannot get off until the end no matter what?
These are just a few of the things to consider when picking up a gator at an event.
Finding someone to just sit and look pretty and occupy the seat during Dressage and Cones is one thing, but finding someone to do what is needed during marathon is another.
During marathon your gator is responsible for helping the driver stay on the right track on the course. The gator will have a stop watch to help keep the driver on the proper pace while driving the course. The gator needs to be strong enough to be able to jump the carriage if it becomes wedged on a post. The gator needs to be able to hang over the side of the carriage to weigh it down, so the carriage does not tip over while turning corners on hills. The gator has to be agile and quick enough to be able to jump off the back of the carriage and run to the horses head in under 10 seconds in case of an emergency. The gator is the one who yells out the competitors number as the driver speeds into each obstacle. You never want them to yell the wrong number! Your gator is the person who will be cooling down your horse at the vet box at the end of the walk section and the end of the marathon when the veterinarian gives his final OK. Believe me, you want your gator to know what he is doing!
I will give you one example of a driver who picked up a gator at an event. Driver puts notice on board for a gator, and a person volunteers and they set out on the marathon. Said chosen gator gets scared going through one of the obstacles and jumps off of the carriage and in doing so, it changes the weight and angle the carriage is going and the driver is impaled on a tree limb and died. Yes, this is a true story.
So, how do you find a good gator to take to a competition with you? In my case, my husband has served as my main gator for many years and it has worked out quite well. He is around most of the time so he is able to practice with me and with my horses over the years, and he knows them almost as well as I do. When I drive my pony, I have two friends that are horse lovers that come and work with me and the pony and that has worked out well over the years and has been lots of fun for both them and me. Of course, you have to treat them well and appreciate them for all of the help that they do for you, both in practice ahead of time and during a competition. You pick up all of the expenses to get them to and from the competition and while they are at the competition, and it is well worth it for your peace of mind, that they know what they are doing and that they know your horse.
One example, one of my friends came as a groom with me when I was competing with my Morgan for the US Singles Driving Team on the east coast, and we had a tip over in an obstacle and my horse continued through the out gate while I and my husband were on the ground. My friend who came as my groom was watching and when she saw what had happened, she immediately called out my horses name, he stopped, turned, and ran to her because he knew her, which saved a monumental amount of time and injury in to the horse.
So don’t be shy, ask your other half, even if they are not a big horsey person, because in the beginning my husband was not, if they will gator for you. Ask a friend who loves horses but can’t afford to have one who might just love to help you out and be your gator. Ask that young mother down the street that used to have a horse as a kid, but does not have one now because she has a young child, she just might jump at the chance to lend a hand.
Once you find someone supply them with a helmet to protect their head and a vest to protect their chest that way they know that you are concern about them and keeping them safe. When you start out with them on the back of your carriage don’t go galloping and scare the scrap out of them, because you can almost bet this is the first time they have ever been on the back of a carriage. Start slow and easy and you will find that they will probably fall in love with the sport as much as you are.