Endurance riding is great fun. I live for the wonders of beautiful trails like Bryce or Grand Canyon XPs, or for the challenge of the mountains like at the Trinity River Challenge. But my horse and I both get bored easily, and with my endurance riding being very limited this year, we have become quite stir crazy on just our local trails day in and day out. I live in one of the most wonderful places around, with mountains on one side, the ocean on the other, and the fog bound, towering Redwoods all around. Some people think I must be crazy to be bored here, but I must have some Gypsy blood in me, as I always want to see new places and love traveling. One of the downsides of living where I do, is the long, wet, and very muddy winters which further limit where I can ride (mostly the beach or gravel roads). I decided it was time to do something new this winter…driving!

Having fun at the Patriots Day Ride a few years ago. Photo by Bill Gore.

Armed with a couple of driving books, a cart I traded some trimming for (still working on obtaining a harness, so for now I have to borrow bits and pieces from friends), and a good horse that allows for my stupid ideas, I set a goal of driving down my local beach by February. 90 days SHOULD be enough to cart train a broke riding horse, right? We shall see, I suppose. If it all works out, we also have a really nice 'trail' that extends for a number of miles that I wanted to try out. Problem is, though it is for bikers, hikers, and equestrians, they PAVED the whole thing. So we have a good ten miles or more of a coastal trail, but it's all pavement. Not much fun to ride, and not safe if shod, in my opinion, plus all that concussion. With a horse wearing hoof boots it should be perfectly safe and the concussion mitigated some and with the cart, I would have some incentive to at least check it out more.

When I first got Eowyn going as a youngster some four years ago, I ground drove her a little to teach the basics of rein use and under saddle work without a rider. As she was hand raised and mellow about all things, she picked up the idea fast and we spent little time with it, skipping to hopping on and just working in the round pen in the saddle. Then she went off to a local trainer for the rest of her under saddle start, and he also did only ridden work. As a result, she didn't get the amount of ground driving most horses I start with, get. Add to that, she was trained to be light and go off seat and leg more than anything else (the trainer is a reiner, and I also don't like using a lot of rein either). So when I pulled out the long lines and started driving her, it was a very drunken affair. She didn't know where to go, without my seat and leg giving her direction, and when I would have more contact up on the reins, she'd either stop completely, or tossed her head all over in protest (and this is in just a sidepull, mind you…she rarely goes in a bit anymore, as we have no need for one on the trail or while endurance riding). We would weave all over the arena and it was fairly frustrating.

I decided I needed a little help, since things were not as easy as it appeared. A friend of mine lives not even a mile away and she drives both carts and works drafts. She also is part of a local group that is trying to get a driving club going, and has several very experienced members. So after some arrangements, I rode over to her place one day for some help with ground work. We put the harness on Eow, drug a singletree (which is used to drag logs and such, or also comes hooked into carts and wagons) around for Eow's first 'pulling', and then ended up 'driving' up some gravel roads with me and Eow behind the pony cart for something to follow. This worked much better! Though still a bit 'drunk', the road confined her a bit better and following the cart fixed our 'forward into the bridle' issues we were having. She soon was trying to pass the cart and even at a trot we were getting along well.


Left: All geared up with driving lines and the one piece of harness I do have.
Right: "Did you see that MONSTER up there!?" (A pony up in Karen's round pen, zooming around.)

Our first attempt at pulling the single tree and learning how to turn properly was interesting. Our first turn was too sharp, and Eow got one of the traces between her legs. Luckily she is rope broke and waited for me to untangle her. Our drive out on the local gravel roads following Karen in her pony cart was also interesting – Karen's loose mini-donkey decided to follow us. Eow kept trying to follow him to the grassy areas for snacks. She caught on fairly fast on the road, and was soon getting up ahead of the cart even at a trot. A side benefit of teaching your horse to drive – you will get fit fast! With the miles of walking and running behind them while ground driving, there is no need to hop on a treadmill at the gym. I guess it makes up for later, when all you do is sit in the cart all relaxed.


Left: Karen getting ready to drag the single-tree behind Eow. 
Right: All hooked up and ready to pull for the first time.
All in all, our first day of 'official' driving training went very well! It looks like Eowyn will take to driving (once we have the steering and go forward issues figured out) pretty well. She seemed happy to be doing something different, and it will give us both a challenge. We are not the typical driving team, with our Easyboot Gloves and Back Countrys (though much safer than shod on those blacktop roads) and blinker-and-bitless bridle, not to mention the part Arab horse (which you do see in the Arab show ring being driven at times, but most people don't think of them as a driving horse), but we can do it! It will be a good variety to add to the endurance conditioning schedule as well, while also keeping weight off her back and getting her hind end engaged. I will continue to blog about our new adventure as we learn more, so stay tuned!
Natalie Herman