I know that right now you are wondering why I am talking about how to fall.  We all think that you can only fall off a horse while we are riding it.  But take my word for it, you should also learn to fall out of a carriage or cart when you are driving.

No one ever wants to fall off a horse or out of their carriage.  We all know, that whenever you are playing with horses in any manner, there is always a chance that you can fall.

Have you ever been walking with your horse beside you on the way back to the barn and something startles him, and he jumps your way?  The next thing you know you are sitting on the ground!

We all know that falling off your horse can and will happen at least once in your lifetime, if you are an avid rider!

Have you been driving your horse down a peaceful dirt road and suddenly that scary deer jumps out and your horse jumps sideways and turns back the other way, and your carriage cannot go under itself to do that U-turn, and the next thing you know you come rolling out of your carriage!

These are all real possibilities, that can and will happen!  So why not learn how to fall properly, so when that time comes, you are prepared to receive the least amount of trauma as possible!

You are probably thinking that falling out of a cart or carriage is different than falling off a horse, but it isn’t.  No matter how or when you fall you still need to know how to fall properly.

Quite a few years ago, I was able to do a clinic with Gawani Pony Boy, where I was able to learn how to fall.  Since that clinic I have had one time when I had to bail off a horse I was riding.  I have used his technique and I came away with no injuries at all.

I have also used his technique for falling when my carriage tipped in an obstacle while competing in New Jersey.

So, what is the best way to fall!

To start with, you need to realize that jumping from a moving cart should not be your first choice of what to do.  Horses can run from 14 mph to 43 mph.  Most horses can only do this for a short period of time, but even at a trot they can go 8 mph to 12 mph.  If your think about deliberately jumping out of a carriage, leave it to the stuntmen!

There are times however, as when my carriage tipped, that one has no choice but to fall out so knowing how, is a good thing.

When you realize that you are going to come out of your carriage you need to try and stay as relaxed as possible.  Do not try to use your arms to stop yourself from hitting the ground.  Arms straight out will not stop the weight of the rest of your body without breaking.  You want to become like a rolling ball.

First thing you do, is to hug yourself with your arms as you feel yourself starting to roll out of the carriage.  Start to bend your left knee if your coming out the left side of your carriage and push away from the carriage, as you do, you will feel your left hip following your left knee, and then your left buttock to the ground. When your left buttock is on the ground you want to roll over onto your right butt cheek.  This will keep you further away from the rolling carriage. You will then continue your roll with your right shoulder.  By this time, your momentum will have slowed down, and you will be sitting there wondering what just happened.

Remember to let go of the reins or you will be dragged! 

Practice falling and rolling at home on a nice soft carpet. You can also place pillows on the left side to even give you a safer place to land while practicing.  Seat yourself on a dinner chair in the middle of the carpet.  Now hug yourself and proceed to lean to the left as if you are rolling out of your carriage. As you start to go down, bend your left knee and push with your foot and knee away from the chair.  Your hip follows and your left buttock gets to the floor, transfer your weight to your right buttock and roll onto your right shoulder.

As with any new skill you are trying to learn, start slow, have someone with you if that makes you more comfortable.  Remember, this is a learning process and once your muscles and your brain learn the routine it will still come naturally when you need it.  Once you have learned how to fall to your left, then practice the same routine to the right.

Just like driving your car, you run through your mind all the scenarios needed if a deer runs out in front of you, or you’re hit from behind by another car. If you do the same with falling from your carriage, it will come to you naturally.  You always need a plan just in case the unexpected happens.

Remember, that in 99% of all falls, you do not land on your feet, so be prepared to hug and roll.

Your all packed up and ready to head out on your trip to your next driving event.  You packed your trailer as usual, your horse loaded into the trailer nicely and off you go.  Your a hundred miles into your trip and there’s a sudden clunk and thud and your trailer does a bit of a dance and you realize that you have blown a tire on your trailer, this is the dreaded break down.

You manage to pull off the freeway, which of course is where all problem accrue. You look and see that the tire is completely flat and needs to be replaced. If you are like most people you can’t remember where the jack is or where the tire wrench has gone to.  If this sounds all to familiar you are not alone.

Dealing with a breakdown no matter what the problem is always stressful.  Now when you get older you realize that having a service like USRider comes in real handy.  I have been with them for over twelve year now and I would not leave home without their service.  When you call in an emergency they always ask about your horses first before getting into the type of breakdown you have had.

There are so many thing, that one needs to make a priority, at the first of the year before you go out on your first trip.  Trailers that sit over the winter have a tendency to have thing just come loose for no reason at all.  Make sure you go over your trailer and check all tires, bring up the pressure on them as they will deflate some just from sitting, grease all hinges, check floorboards and mats and if it is a bumper pull check the nut on the hitch ball to make sure it is tight.  Check your wiring to make sure all lights and the brakes are working well, we all know that those pesky mice and rats just love electric wires. Nothing worse than your trailer brakes not coming on in an emergency.

Now go over your truck and make sure it is in proper running order to be able to pull your trailer.  You should always have good tires and brakes.

When you break down you need to have supplies in your truck or trailer that will help you stay safe while waiting for help to arrive.  Some of the thing I always carry with me are:

Spare tire for truck and trailer

Reflective triangles (you can never have to many)

First Aid kit for both humans and horses (sudden stop can cause your horses to get banged around or you jam your finger while trying to change the tire)

Fire Extinguisher (one in auto and one in trailer)

Spare halters and leads rope

Tire Trailer Aid for changing tires

Lug wrench that fits both truck and trailer

Flashlights and plenty of batteries (breakdowns will happen at night)

Good sharp knife

Duct Tape (good for lots of things)

Cell Phone (charged up)

While your rolling along down the road always be aware of what is going on around you.  If you hear a strange noise it is better to pull over and find out it is nothing, it might have just been a rock popping up off the road.

When you do have a breakdown and you are able to get to a roadside rest do not take your horses out.  I know it can be tempting but it is also dangerous. I know of a driver that did stop at a rest area and decided to take her horses out but in doing so they were scared by all of the flying traffic that they got away. It turned into a really bad situation very fast. Your horses are able to rest just fine inside the trailer.  It really is not worth the risk!

This is what actually happened when my husband and I were coming back from The Duck Club CDE in Venture California in 2011.

We were going through Sepulveda pass and just as we reached the crest we lost power in our Dodge and we had no compression so we were just coasting.  We managed to move to the right one lane and get about a foot off the shoulder before we just stopped.  Now this was a Sunday and the freeway was packed with people coming back from the beach, this is the dreaded break down!

We immediately call USRider for help.  While waiting for the tow truck a highway patrol car pulled up and asked what the problem was and at the time we just knew we were dead in the water, later we learned that the clutch went out in the truck.  The officer was concerned for our safety because we were so close to the edge of the right lane.  Now to make this even worse there was an accident on the opposite side of the highway so the tow truck was stuck in that while trying to get to us. The officer hailed down a smaller tow truck that was just coming up the highway and with chains he was able to pull us about 100 feet into a large open area off the road.

While we were waiting for all this to go on, I was able to get our triangles set out so traffic would not run into the back corner of the trailer which is where my horse was. I was also able to go into the trailer through the door between the living area and the carriage area and feed and water him.

After several hours the tow truck showed up and picked up the front end of the truck and pulled the truck with trailer attached (it was a very big tow truck) to the Dodge dealership in Thousand Oaks.

It took three days for the new clutch to arrive in Thousand Oaks and be put in the truck.  Our trailer was towed to a nearby stable where we boarded our horse and we were able to stay in our trailer.  I always pack more food, feed and cloths than I expect to need so we had plenty for the extra days. The stable got a kick out of me driving my horse around their grounds.  It was great entertainment for their other boarders.

In my years of hauling I have had my fair share of flat tires and engine problems.  On our trip last year we lost one of the diesel injectors which started a fire in the engine compartment, now that was scary.  Bottom line is that when you are traveling with your horse, no matter if it is a close or far event you need to be prepared for anything to happen, and then be very happy when nothing does.

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.

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!

Driving drill teams have been around for quite some time. I know you have all seen teams of horses being ridden by young women flying across the arena, as half time entertainment during a rodeo.  You have probably also watched an occasional drill team in a parade doing precise movements while going down the parade route.  Many of them have been with miniature horses, but they are even more amazing when full size horses and carts are used.

I was a member and choreographer of the Mini Sensations Driving Drill Teams for about seven years.  At any one time, the group consisted of anywhere from six to ten miniature horses and drivers.

One of the hardest things to accomplish is pairing the horses up so that the pairs have matching paces.  If one of a pair trots faster then the other horse, than that horse will have to canter to keep up which ruins the look of the whole design.  If possible, it is also good to match up horses of matching colors in a pair as long as their pace is also equal. All horses in a drill team need to be well socialized with other horses and not mind being occasionally bumped by another horse.  Drivers need to be well accomplished drivers of their horse for maximum control when needed.

A team of miniature horse and carriages can fit into a smaller arena than large horses.  Minimum size is approximately 100 x 300 feet.  Now for practice, one can use any flat open area that is at least the 100 x 300.  One can mark off the corners with cones and measure the area with a Single Measuring Wheel,  with at least a ten inch wheel.

It is important that the members of the group,  work their horse during the week so that they stay fit for when you practice with the team.  A one hour practice will pretty much exhaust both the horse and the driver.  All drivers need to watch and listen to the chosen drill team leader so that everyone is always on the same page when practicing.  Inattention can result to accidents which is not why we do this, it is all about having fun with our horses and team members.

Being that you will be driving with people you may or not know, it is important to be considerate to them all.  Do not critique other members if they have done something that you think is wrong.  The leader of the team should be the one to comment.  You need to keep your ears and minds open while going through a maneuver.  You should never let horses go nose to nose, this not only can pass illness but also be hazardous, if the two horses decide they do not like each other.  Remember, your horse has a cart on it’s butt.  You will need to accustom your horse to music, flags, and large groups of people, and spectators.

Some of the basic moves that you will often see a drill team do are:

Single File (one horse following another in a straight line)

Pairs (groups of two horses and carts aligned side by side)

Quads (group of  four horses and carts aligned side by side)

Company Front or Column ( all horses and carts aligned side by side)

Outside horse and cart (the horse and cart closest to the outside of  arena)

Inside horse and cart (the horse and cart nearest the center of the arena)

Oblique (when your horses head is at your neighbors cart wheel forming a diagonal line)

Left circle

Right circle

Wedding rings (two circle being made at the same time one going  through the other)

Figure eight (you actually drive a figure eight and at the center you will criss-cross each other)

Do-Si-Do ( two horse and carts approach each other then both turn to left (or right) around each other and back to where they started)

Serpentine (a winding motion)

These are just a few of the movements that are put together to form a complete drill pattern.

Once you have a routine figured out with all the movements put together and you know how long it takes to run the whole routine, then you need to find music that will go with it and enhance the whole thing. This will all depend on the speed that your particular team moves at.  Miniature driving drill teams can go good with a bit faster paced song, while large horses do better with a slower but more commanding piece of music.  The best thing to do is find four of five pieces of music that you like and try each one to the routine and pick out the one that best suits what you are doing.

When putting your driving drill teams together, remember it is all about having fun with other horse lovers and your horses.  Any mistakes that you make or your horse makes is always the drivers fault, so never take it out on the horse.

Once you have your routine down pat, then invite family and friend over and do it for them.  Once you have done that several times, it will get around that your team is good and fun to watch and people will begin asking for you to do it at a party they are having or a fund raiser or!  When you get to this point, then you can think about uniforms, and that can be as simple as, everyone in black pants and white shirts with a bandana around your neck.

The Mini Sensation Driving Drill Team was together for about seven years.  We had members come and go but there were about six of us that were always around.  It was lots of fun and it gave us something different to do with our driving horses.  So get you there and have fun and stay safe.

Carriage safety is a lot like auto safety, most rules are self explanatory and a lot of common sense.  When you are driving your carriage it is always a good idea to wear a helmet to protect your head.  Sure it’s like riding your horse and I know that many riders refuse to wear a helmet.  That’s all fine and good, but you only have one head and a traumatic brain injury is not what any of us horse people want to deal with or have our families deal with. So please “wear a helmet“.

Some of the other carriage safety rules are:

Never jump from a moving carriage, it changes the balance and can cause severe injury to you the horse, and  your navigator.  It also leaves the horse pulling the carriage by himself and he surely does not know where he should be going.

The driver of the carriage is always the first in and the last out.  This way the horse is under control at all times while passengers are getting on and off.

Drivers should always maintain a safe distance between them and other vehicles whether you are in the show ring, a combined driving event or just going down the road with other driving friends and their carriage.

All carriages that are driven on public roads fall under all of the same rules just as if you were driving an automobile.

Protective head gear is mandatory for all junior drivers ( anyone under 18 years of age) and are highly recommended for everyone else.

No horse that is hitched to a carriage should be led by any person.

The maintenance of carriages fall into two classification, wooden carriages and cart, and then metal carriages and carts.

I will cover the wooden vehicles first.  There are many wooden vehicles out there, basically because they are the ones that have been made from the very beginning.  Americans, were the ones that developed and improved wooden carriages that have been used in the United States.  They were the first to develop machinery that could shape tough hickory and native woods, such as whitewood from the tulip tree into the lightest of durable wagons.  The most practical of the carriages were buckboards, buggies and surreys of which many are still made today.  The Amish are a good example of a culture that still makes their vehicles out of wood.  I have one that is made out of Birds-Eye-Maple that is just lovely.

The major problem with wood carriages is that the wood is constantly shrinking.  Because of this, one of the major maintenance items that has to be done at least once a year, is to tighten all nuts and bolts that are used to keep the carriage together.   Even if the wood is attached to a metal frame, you still need to tighten the bolts, the wood shrinks but the metal does not.

The other major maintenance item has to do with the carriages that have wooden wheels.  This wood is also shrinking so you will find that the spokes will become loose that go from the hub to the outer steel hoop. About every two to five years depending on how you store your carriage, you will have to take your wheels to a wheelwright who will make the outer hoop smaller so that the spokes will be forced back into the wood hub and wooden hoop.  This will tighten up the spokes so they not rattle and your ride will be extremely improved.  If you have ever ridden in a carriage with loose spokes you will find it to be a very rocky ride to say the least, and it is also very dangerous.  If the carriage hits a rock or curb just right you can actually loose the wheel.

The second item to pay attention two on a wooden carriage is the general condition of the wood.  If it is an unpainted carriage, then it is good to use an oil on the wood, I use Orange Wood Oil and I find that it helps put the oil back into the wood.  If your carriage is painted, then you do not oil the wood but instead you will need to touch up the paint where it has been scratched or is peeling off.  Remember to check the underside of the carriage as it gets more wear and tear then the top side.  When driving your carriage on a road, either paved or not, you will always have road debris that bounces up and will hit the underside of the carriage.

Now, you need to look at the shafts and the connectors ( also called shaft coupling, or shaft box with eyes) to the carriage.  Wooden carriages generally will have wooden shafts.  So, you will need to do all of the above to the shafts also.  Be sure that the connectors to the carriage are in good repair and are tight, both for the part that is connected to the carriage front and the part that is connected to the shafts.

Now for the dirty part, pull out your axle grease and grease all of the axles.  Grease the hubs and if there are bearings you need to grease them also.  And while you have the grease out, also grease the turntable (fifth wheel plate) so that it turns with ease and does not scrape or grind.

Now for the more modern vehicles that are made for speed and competition.  For the most part these are made of metal (steel, titanium etc.).  With a metal carriage you don’t have to worry about shrinkage as you do with wood, but it is a good idea to check all bolts as they can be rattled loose just from the carriage being used.  Make sure to paint all scratched area where paint is no longer visible, because as you know, metal rusts and then deteriorates, then falls apart.  Most modern day competition vehicles have grease zerks on them where ever grease is needed.  This is like Greasing for Dummies.

But for those that don’t, the following areas need grease,  the turntable, wheel bearings, and the shaft and pole supports.  The hardest item to get is the wheel bearings, for they require you to remove the wheels to be able to get to them, if not equipped with zerks.

The brakes will be the next item to check out.  At least once a year, you need to change the brake fluid and bleed the brake system, while doing this you need to check for any leaks in the system.  You also need to check the brake pads and discs for wear and tear.  Last but not least, you need to check out the condition of the tires, looking for any bad cuts and removing stones or anything else that is stuck in the rubber.

Now if this is sounding to difficult for you, then you can do what I do.

I take my carriage to a mechanic that I trust here in Prescott, Advanced Auto, and asked them to do an inspection of the brakes and the wheels for me.  It really is pretty much like an automobile.  They removed all of the wheels and pulled out the bearings, cleaned and repacked them with grease.  Then while the wheels were off they checked the disc brakes for wear and smoothed out any scratches on the disc from sand and rocks getting onto them during driving.  They cleaned the pads and re-calibrated them to the proper setting, per manufacturer, and of course then they put it all back together.  It really was the best $238 dollars that I could have spent.

If you remember to wipe down or wash your carriage after every use, then the yearly maintenance will not be so bad.  The metal carriages can be cleaned up with a pressure washer real easily.  And like an automobile,

an occasional waxing feels real good.  The wood carriages do well with wiping down with Murphy’s Oil from a spray bottle and wiping with a soft cloth.

Well it’s finally that time of the year where you start thinking of what you want to do with your driving horse in the months to follow.  As for me, I live in Prescott so until the last couple of weeks the ground was not dry enough to be able to drive my horses.  I did manage to get enough days in to feel good about going to a Combined Pace Drive in Litchfield Park, Arizona.  Sailor and I had a great time and the weather and facility conditions could not have been better.  For the three weeks before I spent time checking over my harness as I do at the beginning of the normal driving season here in Arizona.

This article is going to go over what you should look for to be sure that your harness is safe to hitch your horse up with.  Next month I will go over carriage safety and maintenance.

First of all you need to know what all the parts of the harness is:

Breeching Straps (2)

Hip Strap

Turnback or Back Strap

Neck Strap

Breast Collar


Traces (2)


Harness Pad

Reins (2)




Shaft Tugs (2)

False Martingale

Trace Carriers (2)


Throat Latch



Winkerbrace & Blinds

Tear Drop

Other parts that are often used:

Nose/Throat Lash Strap (keeps bridle from slipping off)

Quick Release Tugs (2)

Trace Buckle with Snap Shackle (2)

Flash Convertor & Strap (Drop Nose Band)

Side Check

Overcheck Front

Overcheck Back

So you see there are thirty six pieces possible for a single harness and if you drive a pair you can double this.

Now that we have the basic harness figured out it is time to get started on your inspection of the harness.  First thing you need to do is to take the complete harness apart.  At first this seems scary, you are asking yourself, will I be able to get it back together, so before you take it apart take a few picture so you have a guide to follow to put it back together.

Get yourself a piece of paper and a pencil and as you take it apart write down the name of the piece and the hole of the buckle that it is buckled into. So if the tugs are on the third hole from the end you would but a 3 after tugs.  Do this for all pieces so that when you put it back together you will know exactly what hole to buckle it in, so when you put it on your horse it will fit him perfectly.

Now that your harness is all in pieces you need to look over all the leather pieces to be sure there are no cracked or broken areas that need fixing or replacement.  Next you need to check all the posts to be sure they are not worn and that they are straight or curved the right direction.  Because of the tension on the buckles many times the posts will gradually bend whereby making it difficult to get the post into the given hole.

Once you have checked all pieces and have repaired or replaced needed pieces then it is time to get out the harness cleaner and start cleaning.  This of course is not the fun part of driving your horse but it is a needed project.  When done properly your harness will last much longer than if you just ignore cleaning all together.  Allow the harness to sit for a day or so after cleaning and oiling it so that the leather can absorb the oil.

Make sure that you also check all metal parts including the terrets, as they can become unscrewed over time.  The part that screws into the saddle can also become stripped and you will need to do a bit of repair so that they will tighten when screwed back in.

You are now ready to put your harness back together so if you follow your list of parts and the holes that each piece should go into this will be an easy task.

The last things that you should check are any quick releases that you use to connect the traces to your cart and the wrap straps.  Sometimes theses can become stiff due to build up of dirt and sweat getting into the moving parts.  A good brushing with a toothbrush with a bit of dawn works well for cleaning up these parts.

Your harness is what connects your horse to your carriage or cart so it is very important to take good care of it and it will last a long time.  I have several Smackers harnesses that I have had for over twenty years and they are still going strong.

Conditioning your horse for the upcoming show season does not have to be a long drawn out process. But you need to remember that after four months of winter your horse is going to have a little more flab to loose then he did at the end of fall and some of his un-worked muscles are going to get sore when you start working him again.

If you have ever been to a gym or suddenly, had this great idea for fun, and decided you should take a hike up a mountain then you know how your horse will feel when you start his conditioning program. So you need to remember that your horse will also be feeling like he has been to the gym at the end of a long winter, so starting your conditioning program gradually is the best way for both you and your horse to get back in shape.

If your horse has been out in a large pasture for the winter then it will take you probably about a month to get your horse ready for the show season. When your horse is out in pasture he has a tendency to move around more than one being stalled all winter so his overall condition will be better than the horse who has been in a stall for the winter. The horse who has been in a stall will probably need two to three months of conditioning to be ready for the show season.

For the stalled horse you can begin your conditioning before the end of winter actually gets here. I know many places across the country will still have snow but normally there will be roads and areas that are traveled frequently that you will be able to use. You can use these areas to start exercising your horse by just hand leading him up and down the road.

This is also a good time to remind your horse of the word whoa and how to backup in a straight line. Just remember that while leading your horse up and down the roads you will also be gaining some good exercise. The other way you can help condition your stalled horse is to use a round or bullpen for your horses exercise routine. Just be sure that there is no slippery ice or snow inside the pen before you start. You will probably need up to three weeks of this type of exercise to be equal to the pastured horse.

One of my favorite ways to condition my horses is by using the Pessoa Lunging System.  This system was invented by Nelson Passoa who was an international show jumper.  The idea behind the system is to encourage balance in your horse while getting a gradual build-up of the horses top-line.

It is based on the principle of pressure and release. It places the horse in a better position to assist muscle build-up, and increases use of the horse’s back muscles.

By using this system you are able to work your horses without you even touching his mouth.  You start your horse at a low top-line and gradually bring him up over a course of several months. So by lunging your horse you can not only strengthen his top-line, but also build muscle tone and stamina.  I like to do this in my large arena so that the horse is able to go on a straight line as versed to a constant round circle.  It is also easier for your horse to learn to balance himself at the canter on a straight line.

Before you start any exercise program with your horse whether he is pastured or stalled the winter there are a few things you need to address first. Being your horse has not had a bit in it’s mouth for several months it’s always good to check his teeth and have them floated if needed. For those of you who pull your horses shoes at the end of fall to let them stretch out during the winter months you will need to have the farrier come and  trim their feet and have shoes put on for the start of the season. The last thing you need to do is assess your horses general health and if you have any issues address them before you start working with your horse.

Once you are able to start working your horse in carriage you should start with 15 minutes a day with a walk – trot – walk session has a warm-up period. If you have gone your 15 minutes and your horse is blowing and breathing heavily then you need to make it a shorter session until he can do the work in the time allotted. The basis of this warm-up period is to help send the blood to the muscles and the legs so that they get warmed up in the still cool days and help the tendons become loosened thereby avoiding any health issues.

After each session you need to have a cool down period of just walking, this can be anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes depending on your horse. I have found over the years working with my horses, that a schedule of  three day on and a one day off works, works well with them.  As your horse starts to get fit you’ll want to add more time to your daily session for a maximum of approximately one hour of working. You also want to add, to your walk – trot – walk session, a canter section to help increase his heart rate to be able to achieve maximum conditioning. When you start adding the canter sessions start with just one or two minutes of cantering and then go back to the trot or the walk. At first I would only add a couple of these canter sessions into your workout and as your horses condition improves you will be able to canter for longer periods of time.

If you really want to keep track of how your horse is doing in his conditioning then the purchase of a Polar Equine Belt that goes with the Polar RS800CX watch would be one way to accomplish this. The watch is normally used for us humans to keep tract of pulse and respiration’s during exercise.  The system has been adapted for the horse so that you can watch and track his P & R during his workout.  It also comes with a computer program that supplies you with charts and statistics of your horses progress.

There are also other adaptable apps for your cell phones that can also work.

The following is what your horses pulse should be at different work modes, remember theses are just approximate numbers:

Resting pulse 40 beats per minute

Moderate work 75 to 100

Heavy work 101 to 200

Recovery should be 10-15 minutes to less than 60

If it drops to 44 to 52 than work can be increased

If above 70 then work was to hard

These are just guidelines and if you have any questions than consult your veterinarian.

Now that you have the horse, carriage and harness it is time to put it all together.  Probably the easiest way would be to enlist the help of a seasoned professional to help you with this.  If that is not possible I will explain the basics of the process.

Gather up your horse and prepare him much as you would if you were going to ride him.  Brush and clean him off, check his hoofs,  make sure all of the goobers are out of his eyes and braid his forelock which will help when putting the bridle on.

Next make sure that your harness is put together.  If you purchased a new harness, they generally will come in pieces so you will need to put it together.  If you purchased a used harness then it is probably already together, but you should check to be sure that there are no breaks in the leather and that there are no pieces missing.

Now start harnessing the horse.  First put the saddle on and loosely buckle the girth. Next put the crupper around the horses tail making sure not to catch any hair from his tail and buckle it. Put the breast collar on by buckling the neck strap over the withers, and lay the traces over the back of the horse so they are not dragging on the ground. Then undo the girth and run it through the false martingale and buckle the girth tight.  Finally put the bridle on being sure not to bump the blinkers against the horses eyes.  Fasten the throat latch and the caveson.  Attach the reins to the bit then run them through the terrets on the neck strap and the saddle, fold and lay across the horses back.

It is now time to put the horse to the carriage.  This is when a second person comes in real handy to head the horse while you are hitching.  Bring the carriage up from behind putting a shaft on each side of the horse and slipping the end of the shaft through the shaft tugs, or if you have quick release tugs bring them around the shaft and buckle, all the way to the tug stops on the shaft.  Next working one side at a time bring the trace back to the carriage an slip the large buttonhole over the single tree ends, or if you have quick releases then connect to them. Attached the breeching strap through the footman loop, wrap, then buckle back to itself catching the trace in the loop that you have made.  Then buckle the tug strap to the overgirth strap to hold the tug in place.  Repeat this process on the other side of the horse.  Lastly bring the reins back and buckle them being sure that they are not twisted, get in and have a safe and pleasant drive.

Remember there are many styles of harness and different makes are built with little differences.  Using quick releases to connect your traces, breeching straps and shaft tugs onto your horse is a good idea for in an emergency you are able to get your horse out of the carriage quicker then unbuckling every buckle, because an emergency is just that and the quicker you get unhitched the better. Although quick releases are a great help they to can become stressed to the point that they will not release so always carry a knife on your person.  Replacing some harness pieces is a whole lot cheaper than loosing a horse or injuring a person.

In the many years that I have been driving and teaching students to drive one of the most costly mistake that new drivers make is to purchase the cart before they even have a horse to pull it.  There are many reasons to have the horse first and I will cover several of them in this article.

If you have the cart first then you are pretty much stuck with trying to find a horse that will fit the cart or carriage or you will probably have to sell the cart and purchase another for the horse you choose. This might sound simple but it is not.  This also dictates the size and type of horse you now are looking for which makes your choices even fewer especially if you want to buy an already trained horse.

If you have a horse that is not even started his driving training then you don’t even know if he will take to driving at all so then again you have a cart that possibly will not be used.

Some  things to consider when looking for a cart or carriage for your horse are:

  • What sort of driving are you planning to be doing? Combined Driving, show ring driving, Heritage classes or pleasure driving just for you, your family and friends.
  • Are you going to be driving a single, pair or team? Only single horses can be driven safely in a two wheel vehicle.  Pairs and teams must be hitched to four wheeled vehicles.
  • What size is your horse: mini, pony, small horse, horse, warmblood or draft?
  • What do you want the vehicle to be made out of: wood vehicles need to be kept inside because wood is always shrinking so a constant temperature and humidity will help slow this process down.  Steel or any other metal is much more durable but they can be heavier.
  • You must consider the weight of the vehicle not only for the sake of the horses but also for you. A 400 pound carriage is easy to push around on the flat my yourself but in dirt and going up any small grade not so.

The following weight assumptions are for a horse who is in top physical and training condition pulling mostly flat terrain with occasional heavy pull and short rests:

  • Horse pulling on flat roads 1:3 ratio (1000 lb horse pulling 3000 lbs).
  • Horse pulling on bad or hilly roads 1:2 ratio (1000 lb horse pulling 2000 lb).
  • Horse pulling on very bad roads, sand, mountains, fields 1:1 ration (1000 lb horse pulling 1000 lb).
  • Horse doing a Combined Driving marathon course 1/2 to 3 times body weight (1000 lb horse pulling 500-3000 lbs).

When choosing a carriage the equation would be:

Cart weight + Passenger weight + Conditions of road surfaces + type of work to be done = Total weight your horse will be pulling.

Miniature horses were bred for pulling carts in the coal mines therefore pound for pound pulling is skewed.  Under normal conditions a well conditioned and trained mini can pull 1 1/5 times its own weight (200 lb mini pulling up to 300 lb). There have been mini who have been able to pull 10 times their weight but I would not ask a mini to do that.

Ultimately it is up to the driver to make a well educated estimate of the weight his horse can pull taking into consideration the above information.

Once you have figured out the type of carriage you need to buy then you have two options:

  • Buy a new carriage that is the correct size and weight that you horse will need for his chosen job. Two wheeled cart starts at about $500 up to about $4000.  The more options and extras you add the price goes up.  Two wheeled antique or reproductions can be even more.

Four wheeled carriages start even higher, you can expect to pay anywhere from $5000 and up.

  • The other choice is to buy a used cart or carriage. Although you might pay a bit less for one, for the most part I have found that carriages do hold their value very well. If you decide on a used one make sure you ask all the right questions:

How old is it?

How long has the present owner owned it?

How many owners has it had?

Has it ever been in any accidents?

How much does it weight?

Are the shafts adjustable?

What type of wheels are on the cart?

If it has brakes have they been properly taken care of just like on a car.

When was the last time it was hitched to a horse?

             Who is the maker?

If I were to suggest anything you should absolute do if you are new to driving is to take a knowledgeable driving person with you to look at your chosen cart or carriage.