Man has been driving horses since the Romans harnessed them to chariots and, even earlier. But with the mechanisation of agriculture and the arrival of the motor car during the twentieth century, is the driving horse now firmly rooted in the past?
Driving is alive and well, thriving in leisure, business, remedial and competitive areas.
Why Do People Still Drive Horses?
In the same way that some ladies choose to ride side-saddle, driving is a pursuit which has ardent enthusiasts and has never really fallen out of favour. Just as with riding, there is a hard core of leisure drivers who just drive because they love it. It is certainly popular amongst those who have hung up their riding boots due to age or injury but, nevertheless, driving is most definitely not the exclusive domain of the middle-aged and older.
Stage & Screen
If the plethora of costume dramas on television and film are anything to go by, then a driving yard that can supply authentic horses and period carriages will never be out of work. Because horses are such a crucial part of man’s history and evolution, a programme or film does not have to be set very far back in time to require the assistance of professional carriage driving teams for period input.
Match & Dispatch
There has been a growing demand for horse-drawn hearses usually featuring a pair of smart black Friesians with purple plumes on their heads. Horse-drawn landaus or other traps are also popular for weddings. Sometimes, driving yards will run a business offering horse-drawn vehicles for these key events.
It is sometimes a well-kept secret that the Riding for the Disabled, RDA, also offers carriage driving sessions to mentally and physically impaired people who may not be able to ride or who may derive more benefit from driving. Some of their carriages are bespoke to user needs and will accommodate a wheelchair. Bennington Carriages have worked with the RDA for a long time producing vehicles specifically tailored to the needs of the disabled driver or passenger. The RDA has been supporting carriage driving since 1975.
Beer has long since ceased to be transported on drays pulled by heavy horses but some breweries still use Shires and other breeds for promotional purposes. Witness the very famous Budweiser Clydesdales.
There are pubs in the City of London and other inner cities which to this day cannot be accessed by lorries so some British breweries keep small teams to deliver to these establishments and then spend the summer showing these turnouts on the county circuit.
Only a handful of enthusiasts still use heavy horses to work the land. But there are professional yards who keep teams of Shires, Suffolks, Percherons and Clydesdales, touring the summer county show circuit and doing promotional and display work. Vehicles pulled are usually original agricultural turnouts with the horses shown in traditional horse brasses, anchor plaits and mane rolls. There is a big move afoot to support these old breeds as many are listed as critical by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST) with seriously dwindling numbers.
The Queen and other members of the Royal Family have done their bit to maintain carriage driving traditions. What royal or ceremonial occasion would be complete without a team of Windsor Greys or Cleveland Bays from the Royal Mews?
It was HRH, the Duke of Edinburgh who was so hugely influential in establishing the competitive international sport of carriage driving when he began driving after his retirement from competitive polo in 1971. His access to carriages, horses and a large, flat private estate –Sandringham in Norfolk – helped to develop the sport to what it is today. Prince Philip was responsible for the early shaping of competitive rules and became a high profile participant until well on into his eighties. He still drives a team of Fell ponies today in Norfolk but gave up competitive carriage driving some years ago.
What’s on Offer for the Beginner Driver?
Learn first of all about the different types of driving. Everyone has to start at the beginning but a particular facet of driving may interest you above others and be something you are keen to work towards over time.
Just as it says on the tin, driving for pleasure is whatever you want it to be, a great way to enjoy the beautiful British countryside. There are charity drives and pleasure drives, sometimes combined with leisure riders and even cyclists, a relaxing way to enjoy private estates and stunning scenery.
This is showing but with a horse and carriage. If you like dressing up then this is one to consider.
Small light vehicles and teams of ponies – double harness scurry has two ponies in the shafts, often Welsh, going at breakneck speed, thrilling and great fun. Navigate your way around a timed course of cones and right angles and slaloms, a test of speed, agility and skill.
A mash-up of dressage demonstrating skill and control with a couple of obstacles to navigate at speed all within an indoor arena.
Very similar to the ridden equivalent of eventing, Driving Trials have three distinct phases, dressage, cross country in open fields with hazards, obstacles and water to negotiate and the final section of cones, displaying skill, control and agility.
Orienteering but in a carriage. Rather like point to point, you have to navigate your way from one defined point to another in the fastest time.
Getting Started: Carriage Driving FAQ
If you have never driven before then it is best to learn with experienced help or tuition from an established driving yard. You may want to break your own horse to harness later on but, as with riding, two novices learning together is a recipe for disaster so seek qualified help.
The British Driving Society website is a mine of information about all things carriage driving including a very useful compendium of contact details for officials divided up into geographical areas. You will easily be able to find a local driving yard from here and they may let you observe driving and offer lessons.
Some yards will offer a taster day where you can spend time understanding the harness, how to put a horse between the shafts and then go out for a drive, perhaps with the opportunity to even take the reins.
What Gear or Kit Do I Need to Learn to Drive?
Very little initially. Your driving yard will provide horse and vehicle but you will be asked to wear a correctly fitting and current hard hat when you start having lessons as it is possible to fall out of a cart or carriage. Leather riding gloves are essential and remember that driving is cold as you are just sitting so even on a warm day, it can be quite chilly. Smart blankets are the order of the day, the Queen always has one in her open top Landau! If you are going out on the roads then it is usual to wear high vis but your driving yard should provide this for you while you learn.
Can I Break My Own Horse or Pony to Harness?
You may harbour dreams of driving your own horse or pony. Many horses transfer well from ridden to driven work but not all.
Breaking horses to drive is the same as breaking in horses to ride, a pretty specialist job. If you are a new driver, then this is probably something you won’t do yourself. A professional driving yard can assess your horse or pony to see whether he would make a good candidate for harness work.
Leisure driving requires access to suitable paths or quiet lanes. You will need a spare stable for the trap or carriage. If you intend to compete then you will have to have a vehicle which can transport both horse and carriage. And, of course, you will need a harness. Many harnesses used for every day are made of webbing which is less expensive and easy to keep clean. For showing or competition turnout, you will need a leather harness and an appropriate costume for yourself.
What Are the Most Popular Breeds of Horse for Carriage Driving?
Almost any horse or pony can pull a cart but there are certain breeds which feature quite regularly with specific types of vehicle and styles of driving.
The smaller two-wheeled vehicles will often have a smart, large pony or a small horse with an eye-catching gait, for instance, a high-stepping Welsh Section D or Hackney. The larger carriages feature teams of two or four, a popular choice for which would be Gelderlanders. They are a breed named after the region of the Netherlands from which they originate. Often flat-topped, quite square horses, they are commonly chestnut with white socks and make a striking sight.
This is the province of Welsh ponies who seem to be perfectly suited to this sport, quick and agile, they love it.
Agriculture Work & Showing
This is an opportunity to showcase the heavy breeds. You might see a hay wain being pulled by a single or pair of Suffolk Punch horses or a brewers’ dray with a team of Shires.
The smaller agricultural and trade turnouts of which there are many – the milk cart, the coal wagon or the bread van- usually use stocky cobs or large ponies. For authenticity, it is important that the type of horse between the shafts is matched to the history and style of the vehicle.
Almost all of the British native pony breeds drive well and this is a popular job for an outgrown child’s pony. There are breeds which were purely used for driving and which have been lost in the mists of time following mechanisation.
They include the Norfolk Roadster and the Yorkshire Coach Horse. A Vanner is a small horse or cob from which we now derive the word, ‘van’. They had multiple uses between the shafts. The Cleveland Bay survives but is struggling with low numbers. The breed reinvented itself as a hunter and jumper and was a popular cross with the Thoroughbred in the later years of the last century. However, with the ascendency of the continental warmblood breeds, the Cleveland Bay has fallen completely out of favour.
And don’t forget the donkey! The Donkey Society has a strong presence on the country show circuit and so as well as offering the chance to show donkeys in hand, there are also driving classes.
Carriage Driving Terminology
Here’s a few driving terms and their meanings to help get you started.
The driver of the horses is referred to as ‘the whip’ although of course he or she also carries a whip.
The number of horses between the shafts so a team of four described as four in hand, a team of three, a pair or single horse. A tandem is a pair but hitched one in front of the other not side by side. Unicorn turnout is a team of three with a single horse hitched in front of a pair. Three abreast is three side by side, most commonly used in agricultural work.
Sometimes also called a breastplate collar, this is the large padded horse shoe shaped part of the harness which goes around the front of the horse and which he leans into in order to draw forward and pull the vehicle.
A popular bit used specifically for driving.
Seen rarely in riding horses now, a cupper is a leather or webbing strap which is attached to the central part of the harness and loops around underneath the horse’s tail before re-attaching to the harness. It is designed to stop the harness around the barrel of the horse from slipping forward.
Benefits of Carriage Driving
Whatever level of involvement you are considering, carriage driving offers something for everyone and with every type of horse.
- It is sociable, involves at least two people, driver and groom plus you can take passengers. It is a hobby or sport to involve family and friends
- Use an outgrown pony and give them a new lease of life
- It allows the less able, the elderly or the infirm to still enjoy the pleasure of time spent with horses
- For those that are interested, there is a thriving competitive scene up to international level with lots of different facets depending on your ambition.
The British Driving Society is your starting point for information, contact details and events. Go along and watch a show or visit a driving yard. With historical antecedents stretching back for hundreds of years, carriage driving remains alive and well in the 21st century. An inclusive pastime, it is a modern competitive sport or a peaceful opportunity to relax in the countryside with your horse.