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January 6, 2020

Safety While Driving Horses

Photos and videos by Karen Pickering

Learning to be safe while driving

Disclaimer: I’m fairly new to driving. While I had a great instructor for my first few lessons, I’m not an experienced driver. Over the years I have driven draft teams but very little. These are observations based on the little experience that I’ve had. Thank you to the Whatcom drivers for your patience and encouragement!

Check your Gear!

Whether you’re riding or driving a horse, some of the same safety considerations apply. Keeping your tack clean and in good repair is place to start. Making sure there is no loose stitching or weak, worn leather components is a must. Cleaning your gear after a ride or drive ensures you will find any tears or damage before you pull it out for the next ride. Starting with good quality tack helps you to enjoy your leather for many years and is less likely to break. Even if you’re using BioThane®, make sure and keep it clean. I LOVE my BioThane® harness because I just clean it with a brush and soapy water after a drive. I purchased mine from Carolyn from Equi-Market online. She was super helpful and spent quite a bit of time helping me with selecting and fitting the harness.

BioThane® is the brand name of all coated webbing products made by BioThane® Coated Webbing Corp. It’s basically a polyester webbing with a TPU or PVC coating that makes it more durable, waterproof, and easy to clean.

Take Lessons Before You Drive

I started ground driving my miniature horse to get a feel for rein tension and making corrections. Driving requires contact on the reins (never loose) which is different than the way I ride on the trails. On the trail, I like a loose, relaxed rein to let the horse his head down to look as he crosses logs or creek beds. With driving the horse takes his cue from tension on the reins. Because you’re hooking your horse to a cart, lessons are critical to learn the order of hooking up your horse and how to safely attach the horse to the cart.

I would highly recommend taking lessons from an experienced trainer to be safe. Of course, driving a seasoned horse when learning makes good sense both for the safety of you, your horse and other people. I could tell that Chloe (my miniature horse) had been driven before so I was pretty excited about getting a cart and harness to start on my adventure.

Barb Hento of BB Stables - horse driving instructor.
My instructor, Barb Hento of BB Stables, checking my gear before my first drive.

It Takes A Village

The first time I hooked Chloe to a cart it took 3 people; the instructor, a groom to attach a lead rope to Chloe and me in the driver’s seat. My instructor gave the lessons in an indoor arena so if Chloe did get away from me, she was still contained. I probably had 4 or 5 lessons in the arena before taking her outside a contained area. My instructor determined that she had most likely been driven because she had no fear of the cart or pulling it. She accepted the crupper easily which usually takes a little getting used to if they’ve never worn one before.

Be Prepared Before Driving on the Road

Chloe the horse out for a drive on the road.
Chloe and I taking a drive around town.

There are certain considerations before venturing out on the road with a horse and cart, especially for new drivers like me. I went for walks along the road with Chloe to get her use to cars, trucks and all the strange things she might encounter on a drive. A plastic bag floating across her path could be disastrous if she wasn’t schooled before taking her on the road. Again, many of the same principles apply whether you’re riding or driving.

Another effective way to get your horse use to traffic is to pony them from another horse. I would ride my saddle horse, April, who is used to the traffic, and lead Chloe. This got her familiar with cars, dogs and noisy trucks. Chloe, like other miniature horses, is pretty confident so she adapted quickly to driving on the road. I spent quite a bit of time driving up and down the driveway and around my field before venturing out on the road. We live on a dead-end road, so I have good options for training.

Driving a horse and cart through a drive-thru pharmacy
Running errands around town

Driving Safety Tips

If you are driving away from the farm on the road, be sure and let someone know where you’re going. Carry a cell phone in case of emergency. Always make sure you have a safety triangle on the back of your cart. My instructor suggested I always carry a whip. This Is not only to get my horse moving but to deter dogs that may come after the horse and cart. I take my dog with me which has proved helpful in distracting loose dogs. They’ll come after her first, ignoring the horse. Be sure your horse is dog broke. There are lots of dogs out there with untrained owners.

On one of my very first drives I was trotting down an old airstrip. It’s a great training area because driving on asphalt is easier pulling, less dirty and certainly less bumpy. I had my dog, Enya, trotting along beside. I hook a leash to the back of the cart to keep her secure. (I’m sure this is probably breaking some rule, but it’s worked well for us so far). She gets exercise and it proved a good decision this day.

There was a guy who had 2 dogs out playing on the airstrip. As soon as they saw the horse and cart they came bounding after us, barking every step of the way. I stopped Chloe and stood still while the dogs came racing up to us. They went for Enya. Fortunately, Chloe stood still waiting for me to give her the signal to go. I pulled out my whip in case the guy couldn’t get control of his dogs or they attacked either Chloe or Enya. The dogs reluctantly came for their owner but only after several attempts to get their attention. It could have been a wreck. SO…I was very glad Chloe is fearless.

A team of North American Spotted Draft Horses in a parade.
A team of North American Spotted Draft Horses owned by Paul & Gale Nelson of Reinbow Ranch. Taking during the 2018 Memorial Day Parade in Bellingham, WA - Click on image to watch video about harnessing safety.

Safety Gear

I believe that being prepared and visible is one of the most important considerations when driving on the road or on a trail. Put an ID collar on your horse. You can either have them around the neck or on their legs. If the horse loses its rider or driver someone can easily identify the owner. The rider or driver should wear a safety vest. Use hand signals when driving on the road. They are the same signals as a bike rider uses. Just be sure you and your horse are well marked. I have a couple of companies I can recommend for safety gear.

They both sell safety gear for you, your horse and even your dog.

Be Considerate

One of the things I learned many years ago is that most riding horses are terrified when they see a horse pulling a cart. It seems the smaller the horse the more fearful the horse being ridden is. If you encounter someone riding when you’re driving your horse stop and let them pass. It seems odd for horses to be so afraid of another horse pulling a cart, but most are. Take time to let the rider approach your rig so their horse can see what he’s so afraid of.

Remember to take care of the safety stuff first so you can enjoy your driving experience. The safer it is for you and your horse the more fun and enjoyable the drive. People love seeing a horse and cart. It’s fun, functional and a way to keep your horse exercised. People who have been injured or are a little older can really enjoy driving as an alternative to riding. Since we can’t ride miniature horses, this is a great way to keep them fit, not fat!

Finally, check your homeowner’s insurance. If you have an accident while on the road with your horse know beforehand that you have insurance coverage. If you’re driving for pleasure you most likely need a hobby farm endorsement added to your policy. Please check with your insurance agent for details. Driving with friends can be a great outdoor activity and yet another sport you can do with your horse. Be safe, have fun!

Download this handy Trail Driving Safety Tips provided by the American Driving Society

Karen Pickering
Owner/Publisher Karen’s lifelong love of horses began at a very early age when she wore out a couple of rocking horses before convincing her parents to get her the real thing. That ill-tempered bay gelding, Brandy, was a challenge for the young horsewoman, but it drove her ambition to become a horse trainer. After attending Canyonview Equestrian College’s Horsemanship Program, Karen realized she needed work that was a little more lucrative than training, so she took a job with Customs Brokerage to pay the bills. There, she discovered an affinity for computers and a talent for creating informative, entertaining newsletters. The Northwest Horse Source began as such a letter in December 1995, with a distribution of 1000 copies for its 12 black and white pages.  Now 25 years later, it's an online magazine and website with a reach of over 19,000 per month and growing! Not bad for the results of one woman’s dream to work with horses!

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