Carriage Driving. Is it for You?

Carriage Driving. Is it for You?

Celebrating Ascot Night at the 45th Anniversary Walnut Hill Carriage Driving Competition

The sun scorched the Walnut Hill Oval as people from all walks of life arrived on the grounds dressed in various degrees of finery for the popular Wegmans Ascot Picnic Night on Friday August 12th, 2016.

The evening was chock full of fun events including the Carriage Dog and Fancy Dress Costume Classes which delighted young and old patrons alike.

Harris Seed Co,

Fancy DressThe Harris Seed company stole my heart with their beautiful flowers aboard and brought back the romance of an olde English scene in Covent Garden. Royalty was well presented too in the elegant ensemble worthy of any King.

Four in Hand

Mini in HarnessThe evening also included a good variety of driving classes and award ceremonies, from the minature horses, to the single carriage to the large team events. Truly there was something for everyone to enjoy. The huge volunteer team that takes the time and effort to put this event forth should be proud indeed. It was a remarkable way to spend a glorious summer evening.

Fire Truck

At the close of the Friday event after all the classes were complete the arrival of an antique steam engine pumper drawn by two Belgians was a sight to behold. The horses were spooked at the set up and quickly recovered. Once the pump was placed in The Oval the team was unhitched and the fire fighters began pumping water over the dry footing. It was a highly enjoyable demonstration.

Fire Truck

Fire Hoses

Children at Walnut Hill

Children were soon begging for the water to come over the rail and the crew obliged, dowsing a hot audience of excited youngsters with periodic blasts of cool refreshing rain. There was also a special exhibition of The Morrisville College Belgian Six Horse hitch and prizes were awarded for the special picnic set ups which were quite elaborate.






My favorite of the many exhibitions was the suicide hitch. Here’s a photo that needs no explanation.

Suicide Hitch

Have you ever entertained the thought of learning to drive a carriage? A conversation with a relatively new competitor to the world of driving, Sandra Eckhert yielded some frank advice including how she trained her puppy Olivia to stay in the carriage for the Carriage Dog Class and some other great tips on how to get started driving.

You participated in the Carriage dog class. Can you tell me about the age of your dog and how you trained her to stay in the carriage?

Olivia is an Old English Pocket Beagle who was 10 months old at the time of the competition. I had started training her to sit in the carriage when she was about seven months old. I trained her by having her sit in a shoe-box sized clear plastic open box that was attached next to me on the seat of the carriage. While I did have a leash with me during training, the leash was not held by me or tied to the carriage. Dogs cannot be restrained for the carriage dog class, and they must not interfere with the driver in any way. She learned to sit or stand in the box while we were driving, and had to learn to balance herself at both the walk and the trot, and to sit quietly when we were standing. I brought small treats with me during the training to help reinforce what I wanted her to do. For the Carriage Dog class, she sat in a shallow wicker basket that had a small soft cushion in it. She seemed happy to ride on the carriage, and wasn’t fazed by the crowd or the commotion.

What was the highlight of Ascot Night for you?

Sandra Eckhert

FLEC Picnic TableThe highlight of the evening for me was driving in the Carriage Dog class, but the whole night was so much fun. I had been going to Walnut Hill as a spectator for many years before I learned to drive, and that evening has always seemed magical. This year the weather was gorgeous, it was really a golden summer evening, and it was especially nice to have so many folks from the barn turn out to watch {Sandra currently boards at Finger Lakes Equestrian Center in Canandaigua, New York}.

What was the highlight of your participation at the whole event?

Sadra Eckhert

The best part of the event for me was competing with my horse, Carter. This was my first year owning him, and he had never shown before this year. I felt our relationship grow as we worked through some of his “show jitters” of an unfamiliar show ring and the large number of participants in the classes. My favorite class was the Cross Country class, which consists of a route that navigates through some grassy areas and some woods, and you have to negotiate a number of obstacles including a covered bridge, two water crossings, and a number of other freestanding obstacles. He was game and listened well, and negotiated the water willingly. I couldn’t have been happier with how he performed in that class.

Can you give me some background on Carter and how you came to the world of driving? How long/previous horse experience etc.

This is my seventh year of driving. Although it seems like I have been around horses for far longer than that, I really had very little experience with horses until I had children. As a teenager I got to ride a horse several times with a close friend who owned a horse. She put a Western saddle on another horse in the barn, saddled up her horse, and off we went trail riding. I remember that on the way back to the barn her horse would always speed up, sometimes heading back to the barn at a gallop. I was too young to know enough to be fearful; and I found those rides to be incredibly fun and exciting. I told myself then that someday I wanted to be more involved with horses.

After I had my children, I wanted them to learn to ride at a young age, so they started in lessons when they were about four and six years old. I also took lessons and was interested in becoming more proficient, but found that trotting resulted in low back pain. When I was thrown off about a year into taking lessons, I questioned whether it was something that I should continue with for myself. My children loved to ride and continued to take lessons, and eventually we bought our first horse, a six year old Morgan gelding.

We have always boarded our horses as we do not have a barn at home. But owning a horse means you need to learn to care for it and the more I interacted with horses and cared for them, the more hooked I became. The relationship with a horse is really special and unique, and the more time I spent at the barn, the more I wanted to be involved in some sort of equine sport for myself.

I had started attending the Walnut Hill shows as a spectator and after a couple of years Walnut Hill Ring Masterdecided that I wanted to learn to drive. Looking back, I was pretty ignorant in how I went about it; and I was very, very fortunate to have not gotten injured (or injured a horse) in those early years.

The first horse I purchased for driving was an eight year old Morgan mare. I bought her sight unseen, and without a pre purchase exam or having seen any video of her driving. The trainer I was working with was very knowledgeable about riding (she was my daughter’s instructor then), but she knew very little about driving. My first horse was not very interested in driving, and the trainer was not comfortable with such a green driving horse. She was a lovely riding horse, so I sold her.

My second horse was a five year old Morgan mare that had done pleasure driving (light harness) at shows but had never been in a carriage harness. We used a very light two wheeled cart and I drove her in a very light harness with an overcheck, but drove her through pastures in heavy footing and on hills. I know now that this was not appropriate and was likely very uncomfortable for the horse. An acquaintance of the trainer was watching one day, and afterward she approached me and gave me the name of a man who trains driving horses and gives lessons. She tactfully suggested I might want to contact him before ‘something happens’. I took her advice and moved my driving horse to his barn. I learned an incredible amount about driving from him, and began showing with the barn that year in a number of carriage pleasure driving shows.

Carriage driving competitions are usually either a “pleasure show” with mostly ring classes with multiple other horses, showing at the walk, slow trot, working trot, and strong trot gaits; or “combined driving” which is analogous to Eventing, with driven dressage, a cones course, and a cross country marathon with hazards. After about 3 years of taking lessons and showing at pleasure shows with that instructor, I found myself drawn to the world of combined driving, and I wanted to advance my skills as a driver. I was particularly interested in driven dressage, because of the skill it takes on the part of both driver and horse, and the relationship that develops as part of that process. I went on the internet and looked for “carriage driving training” and found my current trainer and coach, Suzy Stafford who is located in Pennsylvania. Suzy has competed at the national and international levels and I was thrilled that she was willing to take me on as a student. I started driving there for a few days at a time for lessons.

When my mare was found to be not well suited for the rigors of this type of driving, I sold her and purchased another horse that Suzy had trained and competed with. Sadly, I only owned him for about a year when he severed his cannon bone while galavanting in his pasture and had to be euthanized.
Suzy helped me in my search for a new horse, and taught me about all of the things that you need to consider when buying a horse. The search is a painful process in my opinion, very similar in many ways to online dating. You see an ad with a picture of an amazing horse (or a grainy picture of something that looks vaguely like a horse). You read the description that promises so much (although some descriptions hint at the truth underneath – the “first one to greet you at the gate” is the pushy, ill mannered horse; the one with the “fluid gaits” spooks and bolts; the “seasoned show horse” is barn sour, etc).

Trips were made with great anticipation, only to find a horse that was not as billed, or worse, lame or in once case deformed. Most often, though, I found nice horses that just didn’t seem to be the right fit. When drove them it just didn’t seem to feel quite right. Suzy had told me that when I found the right horse I would know, but this was a new concept to me and frankly, I couldn’t picture it happening for me. I had seen every ad for a driving horse on the market during that period, and had personally evaluated about eight of them. I started looking on breeder websites and making cold calls to breeders hoping I would find something that way. I wanted a Morgan so I looked on the AMHA website that listed breeding farms by state, and I made my way down the East Coast, looking at all their websites. When I got to Florida, I saw the RCV Morgan website.

RCV Morgans are a small breeding farm outside Jacksonville. On their site, they had a six year old gelding listed for sale (RCV Avant Garde - aka “Carter”); who was listed as both riding and driving. And there was his picture; to me the most handsome horse I had seen in a long, long time. The next day I called the breeder and found that he was indeed still for sale. A week later I spent three days driving him at their farm, and fell in love with him. And while all horses have issues and none are perfect, I felt from the start that he was the horse I was supposed to own.

What advice can you offer to anyone wishing to get into driving?

No matter how much experience you may have with horses doing other disciplines, get help from someone who is experienced with driving horses. There are so many safety issues with driving that need to be learned right from the start. In addition, the proper selection and fit of harness and vehicle to the horse are essential to protect the well being of the horse. In addition, starting a horse in harness is best left to a professional in my opinion. Some horses are just not well suited to driving and a seasoned driving professional will be the best one to judge a horses suitability. All of that said, driving is a wonderful sport and one that people can participate in well into their 70’s and even 80’s.

What are your plans for you and Carter. I know you were at NJ CDE - can you tell me a bit about how the classes went, placement wise etc.?

Carter has done well his first show season, doing both pleasure shows and CDE type competitions. His confidence has grown with each show, and he seems to take things in stride. He has taken to driven dressage very well and we were able to compete at the Preliminary level this year. He just completed his first full length CDE (prelim dressage, a cones course and a twelve+ km marathon with six hazards) and we placed third overall in our division. We will continue to train through December, and then he will have a month off in January. In mid-February we will head to Florida for about 6 weeks, where we will train with Suzy and compete in some shows there, then we will head back North just in time for mud season!! I hope for many more years with him; he makes me smile every day.

Walnut HillSo if you fancy yourself seated behind the horse on a carriage instead of in the saddle why not give driving a go? The Walnut Hill Carriage Driving event has something for everyone to enjoy, from miniature horses to large elegant teams of gleaming black Percherons. An evening at the family friendly Ascot Night might just inspire you to get started!


Driving into the Sunset