General Driving Safety

  • Margentino, Marjorie R.

Before you hook your horse for the first time know that it drives and that the horse has pulled a vehicle before. If there is any uncertainty, and you have not seen the horse in harness pulling a vehicle willingly or the horse has not been driven for some time, start by ground driving the animal to avoid any possible wrecks. The following ground work is not intended to be used in training a horse that has never driven before, but as an outline of exercises that can be used to determine if the horse has in fact driven before, and to refresh the memory of a horse that has not been driven recently. The safe driving horse must perform these exercises flawlessly before being hooked to a vehicle.

Ground driving in harness only without the vehicle may take several weeks to several months before the horse is ready to move to the next step. You will know the horse is ready if: the horse is comfortable in and accepts all parts of the harness; the horse will "walk-on" on command; "trot-on" on command; halt and stand quietly for extended periods of time; back readily on command only; and turn.

Once the horse has mastered the above commands, slowly introduce it to the vehicle. Do not hook the horse directly to the cart. Have someone head the horse with a lead shank and a halter under or over the bridle. The driver should walk along side the horse's hindquarters with the reins as if in the cart. Two other aides should hold the cart shafts on either side of the horse, actually pulling the cart as the horse walks along. Once the horse is use to the noise of the cart and the feel of the shafts touching its' sides as it turns, the helpers can slowly insert the shafts into the backsaddle tugs to familiarize the horse with the weight of the vehicle. Do not hook the traces. Once the horse readily accepts the feel of the vehicle's weight, the traces may be hooked. A person should remain at the horse's head, the driver should still be walking along side and the two other aides stay walking along side the cart in the event the horse needs to be unhooked quickly. Again this process may take weeks. Once the horse seems steady, the driver may enter the vehicle, but it is a good idea to keep the header until the horse is used to pulling weight. This whole process may seem slow and unnecessary, but in the long run can prevent many accidents that may permanently ruin the horse for driving. A driving horse requires a certain temperament. A horse which willingly pulls a carriage may still be too much to handle in harness although it is safe under saddle. If you must drive, look for a quieter horse. Not all horses, no matter how well mannered under saddle, will be well mannered under harness.

Now that you know the horse will pull a vehicle, there are many other precautions and training techniques that must be mastered and adhered to before taking the horse on the road or in public. Foremost, any time you or your passengers are in the carriage, wear an approved ASTM safety helmet. Driving accidents happen suddenly without warning and are often serious. If a passenger refuses to wear a helmet, do not permit them in the vehicle. After the horse is harnessed, it should stand quietly while being hooked. If possible always have someone head the horse when hooking to the carriage. This is a must at any horse show, pleasure drive or other activity no matter how well the horse stands at home. Never trust the horse in an unfamiliar environment. There are strange noises, smells, horses and other activities that will unexpectedly set off even the quietest of horses.

If someone has assisted the driver in the actual hooking of the horse, it is the responsibility of the driver to check the other person's work to ensure that everything is properly adjusted, buckled and secure.

NEVER REMOVE THE BRIDLE OF A HORSE HOOKED TO A CARRIAGE and never hook a horse that is not wearing a bridle.

Never tie a horse by the bit, and never tie a horse hooked to a carriage to a tree or trailer. Unhook the horse from the carriage before tying the horse.

Never leave a horse hooked to a carriage unattended, even for a second. It only takes a fraction of a second for something unexpected to spook a horse.

When you first start to drive or anytime you drive cross-country or out on the road it is important to have someone with you that can help in case of an emergency. Small children or people that have no knowledge of horses are not recommended as passengers on the vehicle of a novice driver. The passenger or groom on the carriage should be able to competently assist the driver in case of emergency.

Never tie yourself or passengers into the carriage. Seat belts are for automobiles, not carriages. The driver should never enter the vehicle unless reins are in hand. The driver should be the first person in the carriage and the last one out. Never leave a passenger in the vehicle without a driver with reins in hand.

Once in the carriage, the driver should always carry the whip in hand. The whip in driving replaces the legs used in riding. The driving horse should respond readily to cues from the whip and not be startled by its use. (The horse should be accustomed to the use of the whip during ground driving.) The whip socket is meant to hold the whip when the driver is out of the carriage.

Before taking the driving horse out of the home environment it should stand quietly upon command and for long periods of time, both on the flat and on a slight incline. The horse should also back readily, but only on command. A horse that suddenly flies backwards in harness is very dangerous. When a driving horse gets excited or in trouble the best thing to do is keep the horse moving forward. DO NOT ALLOW IT TO RUN BACK because the driver will have no control.

Also familiarize horses with anything they might be faced with in public or on the road; such as street signs, painted road lines, storm drains, manhole covers, mail boxes, garbage cans, bridges, dogs, cars and trucks, horns, air brakes on large trucks, bicycles, joggers, skateboarders, horseback riders, other carriages, umbrellas, balloons, water crossings, and sleigh bells.

If you plan to do horse shows, pleasure drives, polo drives or parades; the horse should be use to: sirens, flashing lights, marching bands, loud speakers, coaches, coach horns, and firecrackers. When parking at shows or events give yourself plenty of room to work. Do not be afraid to ask someone not to park close to you. Make sure there are several "escape routes" big enough to get a carriage through in case you get into trouble once the horse is hooked.

Do not allow people to come up and pet your horse once it is hooked to the carriage. The horse cannot always see the people because of the winkers on the bridle and may become startled with unexpected hands touching its body. Also keep people away from the wheels and back of the carriage for safety reasons.

On pleasure drives and special exhibition drives, make sure you can manage your horse in the presence of strange horses and people. Your horse should be content to remain 10 to 20 yards behind the carriage in front of you, and tolerate numerous stops and starts. A well mannered driving horse will not rush or become aggressive when passing another carriage or when being passed.

When driving on the road, the horse's feet should be shod with borium on the shoes for added traction on the smooth pavement surface. The back of the carriage should be equipped with a "slow-moving vehicle" triangle. Know and obey all motor vehicle regulations, and obey all traffic signals. Use hand signals when making a turn. Drive the carriage in the lane, not half in the lane and half on the shoulder. By driving half in and half out of the lane, cars often will not slow down and use caution when passing. A car just touching the hub of a carriage can cause the carriage to flip over. If you feel a car or truck is approaching too fast for the safety of you and the horse, motion them to slow down. If a line of traffic is accumulating behind you, look for a safe place to pull off the road, halt, and allow the traffic to pass.

Before driving cross-country, make sure you have permission from the land owners of the property you will be crossing and be familiar with the trails you use. Often riding trails become impassible for carriages in some spots and offer little room if any for turning around. Don't get yourself into a dead end.

If you approach riders while out driving slow down and stop until the rider signals you to continue on. Many riding horses are not accustomed to carriages and spook easily at the sight and sound of them.

As a driver if you can remember the safety precautions mentioned above and your horse can handle the common obstacles it may be faced with on the road and in public, then you are sure to have a safe enjoyable time with your horse and carriage.

Marjorie R. Margentino, Program Associate in 4-H Animal Science

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