Your children have outgrown their pony and he needs another role, or maybe you have given up riding but are looking for another horsey hobby, or perhaps you need a new challenge in your life. If so, why not consider carriage driving? It is an exciting sport that can really draw you in —just ask the more than 5,000 members of the British Driving Society (BDS). The organisation’s website tells you all you need to know about taking up driving, but here’s a primer to get you started.
The first rule of thumb is not to run before you can walk. You may consider yourself a competent rider, but driving is a different skill and before you rush into spending money acquiring the pony and the vehicle, find a trainer and spend time learning your new pastime.
This is where the BDS comes in particularly useful, as its website boasts a list of area commissioners and their contact details. Phone or email your local one and they will be happy to explain the best way to get started. BDS trainers will teach you the fundamentals of the coachman’s hand (holding the reins), how to put the harness on correctly and how to put the pony in the vehicle, as well as the actual skill of driving.
Don’t expect to be a brilliant driver overnight, however. It can often take a year driving alongside an instructor before you are ready to progress on to your own pony and vehicle.
Linda Swain, a BDS council member and an area commissioner with decades of driving experience, sees a number of would-be drivers (‘whips’) thinking of taking up the sport because they want to give up riding due to a confidence crisis.
But she cautions that to be a good driver you need plenty of nerve, especially because in many areas there are no opportunities to drive off road — drivers are not permitted on bridleways — and so you will find yourself on public highways alongside cars, vans, lorries and tractors.
“You need courage when a huge lorry is hurtling towards you, as well as the ability to deal with potential risky situations,” says Swain. “On occasions, driving on the road can be quite scary and you have to be both bold and sensible.”
As a beginner with new-found driving skills learned from a trainer, you are now ready to either train your own pony or find one for driving. But which is the best option?
“You need a pony who’s been there, got the T-shirt when you are starting out,” says Swain. “I always recommend that in the first instance people find a quiet driving pony, rather than breaking their own to harness. The problem can be that good, experienced ponies are generally hard to come by.”
The ideal conveyance when you start out is an exercise vehicle. Some may be imports, but Britain boasts some excellent coachbuilders — and if you buy British, the company will be able to help you with any issues you encounter, service the vehicle for you in the future and also provide you with expert advice.
Thimbleby & Shorland, auctioneers in Reading, host four carriage sales a year and the prices of many traditional vehicles have fallen dramatically in recent years, so you should be able to bag yourself a bargain. However, always take an expert along to advise you before you buy.
There is a vast array of harness types available these days to suit all pockets, but at the higher levels in the show ring, leather, rather than synthetic, harness will be a requirement.
Driving on the road is no different to riding — a safe approach is essential. Wear high-viz clothing and a hard riding hat.
While many people are happy driving around their local roads and never feel the need to progress, there are many opportunities for drivers who wish to try new challenges. Rallies or driveouts (driving’s equivalent of fun rides), generally at distances of up to 10 miles and often followed by a fun, friendly picnic, are a great way to start off with a group activity.
For anyone wanting to progress to low-key competitive driving, there is BDS Trec, a three-phase contest beginning with a safety presentation, followed by a drive over a timed distance and then the third phase of untimed skills in an arena.
From there, those with a competitive thirst may want to follow in the footsteps of Prince Phillip and take up cross-country driving, which can be fast and fun. British Carriagedriving runs national and regional driving trials, all of which are listed on its website, www.britishcarriagedriving.co.uk.
If showing is more your bag, you can take part in fixtures that are organised by the BDS, some qualifying classes for the annual championships at Addington. “You can start showing at a very low level using your exercise vehicle,” says Swain.
Carriage driving isn’t something you need to do in isolation — it’s a great family activity. Your children can become involved, especially if you are breaking their outgrown pony to harness. Junior training courses are run by the BDS.
Remember that even a small pony of around 12.2hh can pull two people in an exercise vehicle and you always need a capable ‘groom’ to accompany you.