Driving horses – an introduction

A step-by-step guide to training a driving horse.

So you want to train your horse to drive! As with all disciplines, the primary goal is to achieve a confident, happy and comfortable driving partner who enjoys his job. Because horses are flight animals, you have to instill confidence in them and earn their trust. You have very few aids in driving, so your horse’s confidence has to be developed over time by repeating the following steps.

Step 1: Teach him basic ground manners

This step can take minutes or months. You want a horse that isn’t nervous but also doesn’t push you around. Teach him how to stand on cross ties, stand tied, be groomed, have his feet picked up, back up on the lead, and have a blanket and harness on.

At this stage, I leave the horse in his stall with a blanket on. This gets him used to having something on his body. I make sure there is nothing he can get hooked up on, such as water buckets, etc.

Step 2: Put on the gear

The next step is to put the saddle, crupper and breeching on the horse (see diagram at right) while he’s in the stall. Tie the breeching up to the shaft tugs so he can’t step on the straps, and give him plenty of hay so he’s got something to do. Try this for an hour a day for a few days unless he objects to the crupper. If this happens, take more time to lift his tail until he accepts it. Mares are usually worse than geldings at this. Just work calmly and deliberately.

Step 3: Walk him in the gear

When the horse accepts the harness and crupper, start leading him around the farm. Introduce him to dogs, cats, vehicles, etc. You have a lot more control over him on a lead shank than you will in a carriage, so take this opportunity to condition him to the equipment. If he seems afraid of anything, show him that it’s okay.

Step 4: Try the snaffle bit

Tie a snaffle bit to his halter and let him figure it out, again in the stall. Give him hay and have him eat with it. As usual, take anything he can get hooked on out of the stall.

Step 5: Teach him to “go around you”

Next, I teach the horse to go around me in the stall (Photo 1). When he’s accomplished that, we move to the round pen (Photo 2), and finally the field (Photo 3). I keep him in a halter for this step with the bit attached.

Step 6: Attach the longlines

Once he’s going nicely around you at a walk and trot, and will halt on command, attach longlines through the shaft tugs to the halter rings (Photo 5). Continue in the round pen until he can turn and stop (Photo 6). When you’re first starting out, it’s good to have a lunge line attached to his halter as well, just in case he decides to take off.

Step 7: Incorporate the bit

We communicate with horses through their mouths, so this is an important step (Photo 7). Once he’s fine going around you in the round pen with this configuration, start taking him around the farm, longlining him from behind. Ask someone (a header) to walk with a lunge line at the horse’s shoulder to give him confidence (Photo 8).

Step 8: Desensitize him

When my horse is doing well with the idea of me walking behind him, I will start scuffing my feet and hitting bushes with my whip to desensitize him to surrounding noises.

You can attach a few empty soda cans on a long piece of baling twine and drag it behind you (never attach it to the horse) when you’re longlining. It makes a racket just like carriage tires on gravel. If he’s nervous of the sound, let him look at and smell the cans.

Step 9: Introduce the breast collar

Secure the breast collar and attach a heavy single tree for him to drag on his own (Photo 10). Put baling twine extensions on the traces to make sure the single tree never clips the horse’s heels. He should still be in an open bridle at this point, with a halter over it. Use a header if necessary, and be careful not to trip over the single tree.

Step 10: Add the reins

Now is the time to put your reins on the bit rings. You’ve been teaching the horse to stop and turn, so this should be a non-issue. Continue to walk with him, always incorporating stopping, standing and turning.

Step 11: Repeat the previous steps with blinkers

Once your horse is doing well with all this, it’s time to go over all the previous steps again with blinkers (see sidebar at right). This can take time, so be patient!

Step 12: Attach the carriage

Finally, it’s time to introduce the carriage. I use a very light breaking easy entry cart , and always keep the horse’s blinkers on to minimize distractions. In the barn aisle where I groom him, I stroke his hindquarters with the shafts of the carriage before putting them into the shaft tugs (Photo 12). Then I drag the carriage by the shafts and ask my header to lead the horse forward. I bump the horse with the shafts on both sides and, if he’s okay with this, I hook the traces to the single tree.

Since the breeching still isn’t done up, I keep my hand on the shaft to prevent the carriage from coming up on the pony. Otherwise, he is pulling it himself (Photo 13). Once he accepts this, I attach the breeching and the over girth and off we go for another walk. Do not make tight turns at this point as you don’t want your horse to get stuck in the shafts.

Do this for as long as it takes your horse to become very relaxed. By this time, pulling the cart should not be an issue. If he’s nervous about the sound of the cart, you’ve gone too fast and need to go back to where he’s comfortable.

When my horse is confident, I will just slip into the cart from the left side (the perks of an easy entry cart) and we’re driving!

Now, all that’s left is to strengthen the trust between you and your horse. Remember – if he flees, your carriage (with you in it) goes with him. He has to pay attention at all times when you’re driving him, and that means you have to pay attention at all times also!