So you've decided you want to pursue training your horse to drive. There's no doubt that it is feasible to train your horse yourself, even if you eventually turn your horse over to a professional. Essential to training a horse to drive is patience and knowing when to back off and go more slowly. Any time your horse loses confidence or balks at an exercise, take a step back and revisit your previous exercise. Sometimes you'll have to approach exercises various ways to keep your experience positive. Of course, this is part of training horses and horsemanship of all types. However, due to the nature of driving, it is absolutely essential that you do your homework, groundwork, and reviews consistently, thoroughly, and slowly. Otherwise, you could end up behind your horse being dragged against your will without control. To prevent that, here are some things I found important in training my driving horse.
1) Evaluate yourself and your horse for temperament and aptitude for driving and training. Be especially honest about your ability to be patient and calm in the face failure. Even if your horse is willing, you'll both meet obstacles that produce failure after failure and require thinking outside of the box. A good horse for driving is calm, trusting, obedient, willing, and confident. Of all these traits, I think calmness is the most important. Driving requires a calm temperament because so much of driving is contrary to a horse's fight or flight nature: blinders prevent their typical 320 degree vision, a noisy and bouncy vehicle follows behind no matter what the speed, and the reins are the only means of control. To a degree, you can develop the traits I mention, but calmness is probably the most difficult. In addition to these traits, your horse must, at minimum tolerate, but preferably enjoy the driving experience. Once you've honestly determined the two of you possess the traits above, then you can move forward.
2) Desensitize your horse to anything rubbing or pressing against them, especially areas not typically rubbed when riding. The shafts and traces can rub against your horse's shoulders, barrel, flanks, and hindquarters. The breast collar will rub and exert pressure on your horse's chest. Many riding horses are trained to back up with pressure on their chest, so you have to overcome this training to have a successful driving horse. In the event of an equipment failure when driving, desensitize your horse's legs to various straps, ropes, and even poles brushing or rubbing against them. During the desensitization process, identify any problem areas for your horse. Every horse (and human) has their idiosyncrasies and each needs to be addressed. Even if you don't think one of your horse's (or your own) sensitivity to something applies to driving, work on it until it is no longer an issue. Any time your horse gets nervous throughout the training process, work on the trigger until it no longer causes a negative response from your horse.
3) Spend hours and hours ground driving. Saddle and bridle your horse like you're going for a ride (or use a training surcingle), but use long lines (see my other post Drive-Training on a Budget). There are at least two schools of thought on ground driving: stand/walk just to one side of your horse's haunches or stand/walk straight behind, but far from your horse's haunches. I tend to switch back and forth between positions. However, I have never had much luck with an alternate style that is more like longeing with the far rein behind the horse's haunches, but if that's your preferred method, go for it. Go through all your horse's paces, except the canter or lope since most driving horses don't canter in harness. Eventually, add a sturdy pole or lightweight board first to one side, then the other, and then both. Have a friend/assistant help you with your 'shafts'. You can also use something as a drag attached to your saddle and/or breast collar. Have an assistant with a rope attached to the drag exert a little pressure on it and keep it from catching on anything on the ground. Start ground driving in an enclosure and as you and your horse gain experience and confidence, venture out into areas you'd like to drive in the future.
4) Understand the differences between television horsemanship, riding horsemanship, and driving horsemanship. One of the first things to realize is that you should NOT slap the reins against your horse's haunches to cue your horse to move forward. This creates movement of the bit and can confuse your horse. At the early stages, it is best to use voice commands that your horse is already familiar with from longeing. Carry a driving whip (a longeing whip or in-hand whip will suffice) and use it as an extension of your hand, just like when you longe, in place of your legs and seat. Another early lesson to learn is to lengthen the outside rein while maintaining contact when turning. Since your whole horse's length is between your hands and the reins, when your horse bends through turns, their outside lengthens much more than under-saddle. Due to their length, driving lines are heavy and can create strong signals to your horse, so try to avoid over cueing. Also try to avoid extra slack in the reins since they're a tripping hazard for both you and your horse. Turning while driving is also different, since turns aren't typically as sharp. When you're using your 'shafts' or drag line, be sure to remember not to turn too sharply. Otherwise your horse can step over and tangle in the 'shafts' or drag lines.
5) Add blinders to your equipment. Up to this point, all the training I've described can be done without special equipment. In fact, I recommend starting out in equipment familiar to both you and your horse. Once you've done all of the exercises above in familiar equipment, try to lay your hands on a bridle with blinders. Once you have one, start all over again. You can even ride in the blinkered bridle to familiarize your horse with the inability to have full range of vision. Be prepared for your horse to be a little bit nervous. Proceed until your horse is confident and then begin a new exercise. Don't forget that working in the round pen, longeing, and even ground driving will seem like new experiences to your horse once you put blinders on the bridle. Your horse won't be able to see your cues, so you'll have to really rely on your voice, reins, and whip. It's very easy to think you've been using on your voice, reins, and whip, but once you put the blinders on, you may find your horse confused because your horse has been like Clever Hans and reading your body language this whole time.
Once you and your horse have worked through these essentials, you should have a good idea of whether it's worth your money or time to further invest in your driving adventure. If mastering these essentials was easy, your next step will be either to send your horse to a driving trainer or proceed with caution to continue on your own. To brave it out on your own you will need to buy or borrow a full harness and cart. Even if you've decided driving isn't for you or your horse, you have still gained a better relationship and understanding of your horse and yourself. Good luck and drive on!
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