In 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.