Horse Activities: Driving

Experts believe that horses have been used to draw (pull) vehicles since as early as 2000 B.C., possibly even before they were ridden. The benefits are obvious: faster transportation, the ability to haul people or goods, and even sport.

Though equines can be driven from the ground in training, horse driving usually involves outfitting one or more horses in leather harness, then hitching the harness to a two- or four-wheeled wagon, van, carriagecartsleigh, or similar vehicle. The horses are controlled by a driver who usually sits in the vehicle with his hands on the long reins (or lines), which connect to the bridle portions of each horse’s harness.

Today, besides being for pleasure, transportation or farm work, driving is the focus of many different sports:

  • competitive driving of antique vehicles (with turnout and suitability of the horse and carriage judged);
  • combined driving (in which individual or teams of horses compete in dressage, cross-country/“marathon” and stadium/“cones” or obstacle phases, with carriages appropriate for each phase);
  • draft, fine (formal) harness, pleasure and “Roadster” classes at horse shows, with harnesses, breeds and carriages appropriate for each division and class;
  • horse pulling competitions at draft horse events, where harnessed draft horses compete to see which single horse or team can pull the most weight for a short distance;
  • harness racing, in which certain breeds of horses (Standardbreds in America) race around a track at a trot or pace while pulling featherweight, two-wheel carts called “sulkies” (See Harness Racing under “Horse Activities.”)

Different types of harness and various hitching arrangements are used for different purposes; much of the equipment used will depend also on the number of horses and the type of vehicle involved.

Though the equipment does vary, traditional harness generally includes: a collar or breastcollar around the horse’s neck or chest; traces (the strap or chains that take the pull from the collar or breastcollar to the load); a harness saddle (a supportive pad on the horse’s back); belly and back bands; a girth or surcingle; a false martingale (to hold the collar in position); a crupper (a loop under the tail to keep the harness from slipping forward); breeching straps around the haunches of the horses in back, which allows them to slow a vehicle (may be unnecessary in fine harness or with a light cart); shaft tugs (loops attached to the back band, if needed, to hold up the shafts of the vehicle in van or fine harness); terrets (metal loops that help guides the reins/lines and prevent them from getting tangled); a bridle for each horse (with special bits and possibly blinkers); and the reins or lines (long leather straps that run from the bit to the driver’s hand).

In the case of teams, the bridles of the horses in back often have rings at each end of the browbands through which the lines of the horses in front of them pass. The reins/lines may be joined together for ease of handling.

Any horse or pony can be taught to drive, but certain breeds are best suited for certain types of driving. For example, draft breeds or draft crosses are an excellent choice for pulling plows or wagons, and American Saddlebreds are among the breeds that often excel in Roadster classes at horse shows. Morgans are very popular for combined driving, along with several pony breeds and warmbloods.