Driving Miss Daisy

victorianhorsescoach_bvcIn honor of El Dia de los Muertos, have a nice funeral coach, drawn, of course, by Friesians: the beautiful “Belgian Blacks” that have been pulling funeral coaches for some little while now.

I’ve talked a lot about riding but very little about driving, mainly because I’m a rider and driving is not my forte. As dramatic and romantic as the ridden horse is and was, however, the real working equine of the pre-internal-combustion period was the driven horse. He pulled a plow, a chariot, a cart, a coach, a caisson in the army, a log out of the woods–his uses were endless, and some are still en vogue, not only among enthusiasts but among low-tech farmers, haulers, and loggers. 

Any well-set-up, decently conformed horse with a sensible mind can be trained to drive. (Trained being the operative word. For more on that, see below.)  Breeds such as the Morgan are famous for their versatility, and are world-class driving horses as well as very fine riding animals. You’ll still meet old Ethel with the lovely show foal at heel, who plowed the back forty yesterday, is taking the kids on  a trail ride today, and tomorrow we’ll spiff her up and put some hoof polish on and pick up some ribbons at the regional Morgan show.

There are however specific types of horses that are designed for driving. Because they don’t have to carry weight, their backs can be somewhat longer and less closely or strongly coupled, their gaits can be fast and/or flashy rather than smooth, and they can, if they’re expected to pull larger rigs, be extremely broad, tall, and massive–enough so that their backs are uncomfortable to sit on. Think of the Budweiser Clydesdales with their imposing presence and their flowing leg feathers. I’ve known great riding Clydes, but their true metier is the multiple-horse hitch pulling the big wagon.

This is where your Giant Fantasy Horse(tm) can come into his own. Tog him up in handsome harness, hitch him in a four-in-hand, get him pulling a royal coach, and there’s his natural element. He’ll be spectacular, too–times four or six or eight if you’re feeling ambitious. Just be sure your coachman is a bluff and burly sort, because that many big guys can take some serious arm strength to control through the reins. Your elegant lady or your handsome dandy might be better served with a smaller vehicle and a single horse or pair, perhaps a fiery and elegant team of hackney horses with their high knee action and refined build, or in a more rural setting, a nice trotter or pacer. Don’t forget the sleigh, either–consult Currier&Ives prints for the type of horse that would skim along over the snow, sleighbells ringing, jingaling.

Do be aware however that whatever size, type, or kind of rig you’re writing, horses are not born knowing how to carry a rider or  pull a vehicle. A driving horse will not know what to do when a rider gets on his back, unless he has been trained at some point to saddle, and a saddle horse can literally flip out if hitched without warning to a cart. This is counter to the myth of the coach horse cut out of the traces for Our Heroine to ride gallantly for help, and you won’t be making your knight’s destrier an instant cart horse, either.

What happens when the driving horse is sat on for the first time is, he may not try to buck you off–he’s used to the weight and movement of harness on his back and sides and gripping his barrel–but he won’t know what it means when you apply a leg aid (kick him to make him go). You’ll have to figure out how to emulate the slap of reins on his back or hindquarters, or else hope he’s trained to a verbal or audio cue. He may not be a great pleasure to sit to, either, if he’s been bred for a big trot rather than a smooth one. Pile driver, anyone? More so if he’s been trained only to trot and never to break into the much smoother and easier-riding canter.

Of course this offers many opportunities for danger, conflict, and humor, which the writer is free to take advantage of.

Same applies to driving a saddle horse, only more so. Most saddle horses are not naturally inclined to be Zen about a whirling, rattling, shaking thing chasing them from a couple of feet aft of their tail. Their first instinct will be to kick the hell out of it and get rid of it. If that fails, depending on personality and pilot interference, they’ll either bolt uncontrollably or rear up and flip over. Possibly both.

They aren’t awfully fond of large rigs close by them, either, especially behind. In parades, the big coaches and the beer wagons will try to stay well away from the ridden units, or if they must march together, the coaches will try to be in front where the saddle horses can keep an eye on them.

So, how do you teach a horse to pull? You start gradually. You get him used to the fit and feel of the harness (which is complicated, with many moving parts; if you’re going to go into detail about it, best get some hands-on experience). Then you ask him to pull something relatively small, light, and undangerous: a tire, a pole, a small log. When he gets used to this, you ease him up to pulling a light cart, which includes teaching him to back into the shafts. Then you devote as much time as it takes to making him calm, sane, and not flippy.  Teaching him not to rear is important. Blinkers or blinders help with this: they close off his extensive peripheral vision and allow him to see only what’s ahead of him, which defuses the majority of spooks.

You might also, though this is a much longer process, start him off as a foal beside his mother, running free with the vehicle, then as he gets older, tying him to the cart and letting him move along with it. When he’s old enough to pull the weight of the cart (probably around age two or three–he can start younger than a ridden horse because pulling a well-matched vehicle puts less stress on his body than carrying weight), you may hitch him in a pair with a steady older horse, and he’ll learn from example. Then in time he’ll learn to fly solo or to fit into the team, and you’ll have a steady driving horse for all useful purposes.

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Driving Miss Daisy — 6 Comments

  1. There’s a fine semi-fictional account of the difficulties to be had with badly-trained driving horses in THESE HAPPY GOLDEN YEARS by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Almanzo Wilder, in a courtship move that only a guy with no chick cred would make, takes the author out driving behind horses that are prone to rearing and bolting. At least they are not actively vicious!

  2. Oh yes. She wrote from experience, too.

    Driving is actually ‘way more dangerous than riding. You have less control over the horse or horses, and you’re in a vulnerable spot if they decide to kick. And if they freak or bolt, not only can they be difficult or impossible to stop, the vehicle can roll over or crash. That’s bad news for the people in it, not to mention anything in its path.

    We’ve had some serious accidents at the Tucson Rodeo Parade, which is 100% nonmechanized. Teams broke and bolted and ran into other teams, and in one case a tiny child who should never have been there (she was ‘way under the age and size limit) lost control of her ridden horse and was crushed under the stampeding wagon.

    The vast majority of driven horses are well trained, calm, and well managed, but when something does happen, the potential for mayhem is considerable.

  3. Even with well trained horses mayhem can lurk. I’ll never forget the sight of a very well trained Friesian dancing about on it’s hind feet while hooked to it’s Meadowbrook due to a plastic bag blowing up and into it’s belly, or four in hand coaching team in a forward spook when their coach bottomed out and scraped it’s axles on a ramp. That was a bit hair raising!!!

    There are many books that can be found showing collections of Coaches and carriages from various times and places for the author who wishes to lend a bit of authenticity to their horse-powered world. Amazon has a great selection, and you can find them through a decent research library.

    Many regional museums have a few carriages or wagons on display, and most living history parks have some sort of horse-powered exhibits and someone who is willing to expound at length on their horses and vehicles.

    The Kentucky Horse Park sometimes features information on the driven horse in all it’s many jobs as well.

  4. Yeah, well, there’s a reason why coach bits tend to be a bit more severe (pun intended!) than riding bits. Take a close look at the settings on the shanks of the bit on the next driving horse you see–your classic Liverpool has three settings, based on severity and need for control. When my son showed 4-H at a neighboring county, one of the features was a draft horse exhibition including traditional farming and road grading equipment. I got to talk to a few of those guys–totally fascinating stuff. Plus my trainer has judged a few draft harness competitions. Those show drafts are *hot*! Hotter than you’d expect. My trainer also has a story about witnessing a spook and runaway at the state fair just outside the arena when he was judging–big six horse Shire hitch, driver couldn’t get them under control to stop them without hurting someone, so he steered them into the wash rack. The lead horses died in the process, but none of the other state fair exhibitors or attendees got hurt (and there are usually a LOT of people in that area–the drafts are stabled by the cattle and sheep, so the area includes exhibitors and attendees).

    My maternal grandfather (who, sadly, I never met; I was born after his death–my mother was 40 when I came along) was a horse whisperer of sorts, back in the work horse era. He rehabbed and trained workhorses. I learned a very few of his tricks from my mother. Oddly enough, some match up pretty closely to modern natural horsemanship stuff…which leads to my contention that the concepts were always around, on a low level.

    One thing I did pick up from both my mother and my mentor was that good horse training of a young saddle horse included a progression through light harness training. My first Shetland was broke to drive, and I got to watch the cart-breaking process done with a full-size breaking cart for two young stallions. Because I was around people whose experience included driving horses for work, I never thought of it as a big deal as a kid (well, now I do because I’m more aware of what can go wrong. They worked with threshers and really big equipment. I haven’t). That Shetland would run away with other drivers, including my father (experienced with driving horses), but he wouldn’t run away with me.

    I’d like to put my mare into the shafts. I think she’d look very nice, especially since she has a good trot. But I lack the money and the time to put it together. Might be something to do later on–she already adapts well to ground driving.

    And if anyone reading this is ever up around Walla Walla, Washington–one of the area museums (County? State?) near the Whitman Mission has this incredible full-size display of a 40 horse/mule threshing/combine hitch, using fiberglass models. It takes up an entire building, and it’s totally amazing to see. Standard horse used to pull that hitch was around 1300-1500 lbs, and I’m not surprised that some of that blood probably made it into the local stock horse breeding (a reason for Hancocks to be as snuffy a QH line as they are…).