Short cuts can have long term effects

You have a new horse or pony. Maybe he has already has been taught to drive, maybe you are planning to do the training yourself. You are excited to get into the show ring or show off at the next club drive. Slow down.

Knowing when your horse is ready for public can mean the difference between years of driving pleasure or a very brief season of questionable success.

Take your time. Be patient. It takes time and mileage for a horse to become confident, trust you, and to be happy in his work. If winning is the most important thing to you, then buy yourself a ‘made’ horse. One that not only is well-trained to drive, but also has experience driving in public.

Marcie Quist and Craig Kellogg have been partners in the training of several successful driving horses.* Some they have started from scratch, some have come to them with some driving experience. Either way, they follow a strict routine with time and patience being the key ingredient to their success as trainers and the horses’ success both in competition and as pleasurable horses to drive.


Standing maybe the most important ‘gait’ a driving horse can learn. Craig and Marcie say that many of the horses that have come to them with driving experience have not been taught to stand.

Work starts in the barn when the horse is brought out of his stall or in from the pasture to be groomed or harnessed. In the beginning, someone stands near him so that every time he moves, he can be put back in his place. In the case of a horse that has already been taught to pull a carriage, Craig has found that after the horse is brought back into the barn to be unharnessed after a drive, he is more likely to stand immobile without being held or tied, but someone is always nearby to manage the situation. It can take six months to a year before they can trust the horse to stand without being monitored for movement. “Every time they forget, which is what they do, and are not corrected,” says Craig, “you’ve trained them to know they can get away with it.”


“You have to have the same exact routine every single day,” according to Marcie. “It’s all about following the same routine, especially with a young horse.” Working in a quiet environment is important at first. Take them out of the barn and ask them to stand. Marcie and Craig believe that no horse should be put to a carriage that hasn’t been used to being long lined. They even long line horses that come to them already trained to drive. They start long lining in an enclosed area, and ask them to stand. Then they take them down the driveway, and ask them to stand. Then they go down the road where they see and hear more, and ask them to stand. The distance and distractions are increased slowly.

“Help your horse be successful at what you want him to do, “says Marcie. “Don’t set him up for failure. Repeated success will increase his confidence because he learns what you expect from him. And then when a problem arises, the horse will look to you for support and direction.” Marcie tells her horses, “Don’t you worry about that – I’ll tell you what to do.”

While routine and consistency are important, Craig says eventually it is good to do things in different places. For example, instead of putting the horse to the carriage in the same place every day, move the carriage to a different place. This is part of the transitional training so when you take them away from home, they won’t say “but this isn’t how we do it at home.” They have to learn to stand anywhere you put them.

Off-site training

Marcie and Craig often take their new horses to a local show – it doesn’t have to be a driving show - enter one class and then scratch. “Pay the $10” Marcie says. “It’s worth it just so you have the opportunity to expose him to different sights and sounds and being away from home.” They often take a friend, a seasoned horse that will not react to all the stimulation. This helps to give the inexperienced horse confidence. ‘Comfort food’ such as hay also keeps them calm. Marcie and Craig don’t do anything more than walk the horse around on a lead, letting him look around.

If the horse is fidgeting or seems nervous, sometimes they’ll put the harness on because that is something that the horse knows about and is comfortable with. Going to the horse show is new, but putting on the harness is something he does everyday and settles him right down. It is part of building his confidence.

Don’t assume that because horses are used to doing certain things at home, they’ll be used to doing them when away. Things like golf carts, tractors or dogs can be much scarier than the ones at home.

Waiting four to six months before taking a horse to his first competition is a rule of thumb they follow. Again, patience on your part is sometimes hard to have when you really want to compete and show off your new horse.

Another tactic is taking them to a competition site when there is no competition. You can lead them by hand, or drive them around the area. Take them another time when something not too exciting is happening – like a clinic. A clinic is generally a quiet environment. Maybe the horse’s friend is having a lesson and he can watch and absorb all the sights and sounds. You are not being disruptive to the clinic if you just quietly lead him around. Others won’t mind if your horse is behaving. If he isn’t, be considerate and don’t upset those who are participating in the clinic.

The frequency with which you can do all this training will have a bearing on how soon you can expect to make your first big driving debut in public. If you can only do this once a month, it will take a lot longer than if you do it weekly.

Exposure alone is not enough. Trust in you is essential. You cannot expose them to enough things to eliminate any reaction. They have to learn to trust. Exposure teaches them to learn to trust you to make the right decision for them.


After all the exercises mentioned above, the horse still needs to be fit enough to do the job he needs to do at the competition or drive. Over facing him physically can ruin what you’ve accomplished so far. All your hard work will be for naught if his confidence is ruined because he is stressed and unhappy and not comfortable in his work. If you live on flat ground, don’t plan the first outing on hills.

Bad behavior can be the result of being over-faced, a lack of conditioning or confidence. He might refuse to go forward, buck or kick. If he is not used to the harness, it could be making him sore. This is particularly important if you change from a breast collar to a full collar without taking the time to toughen his skin.

Fitness is not the same as strength. A certain degree of fitness can be achieved in six weeks. On the other hand, strength can take up to two years to achieve. Making tight turns in a combined driving obstacle take a lot of strength.

When you finally enter your horse in his first CDE, don’t let the thought of winning a blue ribbon make you forget your goal – to have many years of pleasure with a happy horse. Craig suggests driving them in and out of the obstacle, forgetting about doing all the gates, or if you do, make wide, sweeping turns. You might be able to yank him through a tight turn, but the next time you will likely encounter resistance because your horse has lost confidence in you. Or you’ll find that he’ll try to duck into every opening in self-defense to avoid being abused by the reins. He needs to learn to wait for you to tell him where and when you want him to turn.

The competition is not the place to make any significant change to your routine, training, harnessing, or driving. Training should be done at home, not in the ring.

In the cones class, look for straight lines and large circles. Remember, your goal is not to win but to build your horse’s strength and confidence. The course may not be designed for your horse’s ability to drive it. Don’t try to make the time or take the short routes. If you have to make large circles, do it.

Getting the horse ready for dressage and cones is a quicker process; it takes more time to develop the strength to do a full marathon. Entering some combined tests might be a better choice at first than a full CDE. Even if you are a dyed-in-the-wool CDE driver, you might enter a pleasure show that offers dressage and some cones classes.

Leave the dogs and small children at home so you don’t have any distractions and can concentrate on your horse.

At home simulation

If your goal is combined driving, work your horse that way at home. If the speed at Training level is 13 kph, work at that speed when you can. Know what the walk speed feels like. You and your horse need to know what both feel like. Drive at that speed for a few minutes at first and build up to going longer and longer distances at that speed. “You can’t bop along on a loose rein all the time,” says Craig, “and then expect the horse to become collected enough for dressage or move along on the marathon.”

Craig also believes that the horse should learn to canter when put to the carriage at home, so if he is startled and he breaks into a canter at the show, he won’t be surprised and overreact.

Once they’ve achieved a certain level of fitness and strength, Marcie believes you should train twice the time and distance expected on a marathon in order for them to be ready. She notes that a one-day competition that includes dressage, cones and marathon, requires more fitness than a full three-day competition.

“You can’t force horses to do anything. Ask them, expose them gently to what you want them to do. If they don’t like something, ask them to ignore it.” Craig says he tells the horse, “If you don’t like it, don’t look at it!” Different horses have different bug-a-boos. One might not like plastic, another may be terrified of garbage cans. Some horses are ‘lookers’ and will want to ‘discuss’ their issues with you. Your ‘conversation’ needs to be firm and confidence building. This also varies with the breed.

Crossing Water

Be prepared to put your groom down the first time you drive a water obstacle. You can practice at home, walking them through every puddle you can find. When your groom is down, ask him to walk into the water in front of the horse but don’t lead him. Show him that it is safe. Usually he will follow.

The rule of three

Marcie and Craig explain what they call the “third day syndrome.” The first time the horse doesn’t like something, he is intimidated and will listen to you. The second time he will check it out but still let you talk him out of over reacting. The third time they have the courage to leap. If you can get them through the third day successfully, the fourth and subsequent days will likely be better.

If you go slowly, do your homework, both you and your horse will enjoy the process and enjoy many years of driving together.

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Driving Digest Magazine
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