Driving is what attracted me to the American Miniature Horse. Many people are quick to ask, "What can you DO with a mini?" and driving is a perfect answer! Although minis are not riding horses, a healthy mini can pull one or even two adults in a cart! Driving is appealing because not only can the driver enjoy it, they can bring along a non-horse person or child to enjoy it too!
What sort of Miniature is good for driving? Well, any mini over the age of three is a good candidate, and the mini should measure at least 28-29" tall. The taller the mini, the more weight they are capable of pulling. A mini can pull roughly twice their weight in a cart over level ground on good footing. For showing purposes, remember that judges tend to prefer the taller horses, as they usually have longer legs and a fancier way of moving. Yet this does not exclude those exceptional individuals who are small but mighty!
What are the different "types" of driving horses? Miniature horses are traditionally shown in three different "types" of driving classes: Country Pleasure, Pleasure, and Park. There are also "specialty" driving classes such as Fine Harness teams, Draft teams, Obstacle driving, Roadster, and even Roman Chariot! Anyway, the horse's action and temperament decide what type of driving class they are best suited for. Country Pleasure requires a horse to be obedient with smooth, responsive gaits, in other words, a pleasure to drive! A Pleasure driving horse will also be a pleasure to drive, but the horse will have more "action" in their gaits and are a little hotter, and are checked up a bit higher than a Country Pleasure horse. The Park Harness horse is the hottest horse with the most action; they have very snappy trots and carry their heads the highest. The Roadster classes are modeled after the trotting race tracks; the drivers wear racing silks and the principle gait is the trot. In Roadster, the horses are asked to trot as fast as they safely can, and requires a horse that likes to go fast for sure! In Obstacle driving the horse's training and temperament shines through the most; the horse is asked to negotiate all sorts of obstacles under harness.
So you have a horse that you'd like to start driving. Where do you begin?
The ideal time to start a horse's driving training is at LEAST late in their two-year-old year. It is fine to start an older horse. Many minis are started at two, but this is very young. The longer you can give your horse to mentally and physically mature, the better for him in the long run. The horse must be at least three to show in any classes.
First, the horse must be handled a lot. It is important that you have a good relationship with him because you want your horse to be responsive to you and trust you in his training. The horse must understand basic commands such as whoa, easy, walk, trot, etc. It is best to have the horse lunging and responding reliably to your requests before you begin to drive them. This lunging training will also begin to get the horse in shape for the work you will be requiring of him.
As you lunge, begin to introduce the harness. When you buy a set of harness, it is advisable to purchase the most expensive one you can afford. While you can easily find a cheap harness, it will not last very long and may even be a safety hazard. A nylon harness is economical and durable, but beware that it will not break if a horse gets tangled (this is dangerous) and is often not comfortable for the horse. You do not need to buy a show harness for training, but expect to spend at least $200 for a decent work harness. A set of pads for the backpad and breast strap will be beneficial to the horse as well. It is recommended that an experienced person show you exactly how to fit a harness to an individual horse. Failure to properly fit a harness may be unsafe and may cause harm to the horse.
The first pieces to introduce to the horse in lunging will be the saddle, backstrap, and crupper. Introduce the crupper gently, some horses object to having a foreign object stuck under their tail! Most minis do not mind the harness, but make sure to give them ample time to get used to how it feels on them so they accept it as easily as their halter. I lunge with the harness pieces on; it allows the horse to get used to working with it on. Next, I introduce the bit. It is my experience that this is what the horse objects to the most. I put the bit on an open bridle (no blinders) while I groom them, while they are tied, and while they are lunged. They will play incessantly with the bit for a while, but eventually their mouth will grow quiet. Make sure the bit fits them properly. I prefer to start my horses in an eggbutt snaffle, as this is the mildest bit.
As soon as the horse has accepted the bit, it is time to introduce ground driving to them! I put the horse in the full driving harness, but I do not attach any vehicle at this point. I also keep the overcheck very loose. I begin to work them in a small enclosed space. Hopefully while working with the horse you have devised a reliable set of verbal commands. This will help the horse understand what you are asking when he can't see you with his blinders on. I carry a whip in my hand while I ground drive, and I ask the horse to go forward ("walk on", "step up", or a kiss). If the horse is confused or hesitates, just ask clearly again. You can GENTLY ask with the whip after the second time, but don't scare the horse. As soon as the horse moves off praise him in a happy voice. Begin to steer the horse around the arena. If the horse seems very nervous at this point, it may be wise to have a helper lead the horse for a while while you drive them so the horse can gain confidence. At NO point yank or pull hard on the mouth! Work extensively at the walk, do not ask for trotting or backing up until later sessions. It is also important that the horse learn to stand still and to stop when you say WHOA. WHOA is the MOST important command! Small sessions will keep the horse comfortable and happy.
Contrary to a lot of people, I do not hook up a cart for a while. I ground drive my horses A LOT. They ground drive VERY solidly until they are dead broke basically, and by that time they accept a cart and driver with no problem. My horses are ground driven around the neighborhood, past dogs and traffic, and through construction zones. They can be stopped for five minutes, and do not fidget, swing their heads, back up, or forge forward. Spend a lot of time ground driving... months if you have them. If you start your horse late in their two-year-old year, you have many months to ground drive before they turn three. This is the safest way, it's easy on the horse's legs and back, and the horse is very well trained to cues. If the horse spooks, you do not risk your horse being caught in a vehicle or damage to yourself, and the horse will not be as mentally afraid for the future. Although minis are very easy to break to drive, if you give them a very solid foundation, they will be a pleasure to drive for a lifetime.
When introducing the cart, ground drive the horse in an arena while a helper pulls the cart around inside the arena with them. The horse will get used to seeing and hearing the cart. If the horse does not seem to take much interest in the cart anymore, carefully hitch the horse to the cart. Again, have an experienced person show you the correct procedure for safety and fit. A helper can walk alongside the horse in case of a problem, but if the horse has been ground driving solidly there shouldn't be too much trouble. Drive in the arena, work on turns so the horse gets used to the feel of the shafts. Do not back up the horse in the first few sessions, always drive the horse forward. Teaching the horse to back too soon will allow the horse to back up when it balks, which is not desirable. After the horse seems comfortable in the arena you can take the horse around the neighborhood for a short trip, again having a helper to assist. With any green or rusty horse it is best to have an assistant. Now, you have a driving horse and can begin to fine tune for shows!
Andrea Rollins (c)2003