A friend of mine had previously mentioned that she was doing a driving clinic on May 7, and I remember telling her at the time that it sounded like fun but I was committed to my endurance training. About 4 days before the clinic, she posted a reminder on Facebook, and all of a sudden, I was pretty interested. I've briefly entertained the notion of training Nimo to drive on more than one occasion (because maybe I should actually do the one thing that Friesians are bred for with him), but I've never pursued it beyond doing some basic ground work because I didn't know anyone who drove horses and the whole idea seemed overwhelming. Over the past couple of years, though, I've enviously watched as both Mel and Liz worked with Farley and Griffin on driving and more recently another lady I know has taught one of her horses to drive. So when I saw the reminder about the clinic, I decided I was in. The clinic was at Temple Hall Farm near Leesburg, Virginia, which meant less than an hour's drive for me, and all I had to bring was myself.
And so it was that I found myself on Kentucky Derby Day at a lovely working farm that is also open to visitors (for free!) six days a week (it is closed on Mondays to allow staff to get caught up with maintenance). The most impressive thing about the farm is that it is home to at least a dozen male peacocks. There are a few females too, but the males are the dominant display and they made their presence known...repeatedly. To the point where I have decided that owning a peacock is not in my future. I will simply enjoy them at other people's farms:)
|One of the many peacocks on the farm. They are surprisingly agile and unexpectedly vocal!|
After a few introductory remarks about safety and their experience, the instructors led us to the barn where the Percherons had been stalled overnight so as to prevent them from becoming muddy disasters just prior to us having to wrangle harnesses on them. It quickly became apparent that these Percherons were pretty special horses. Their job was both to interact with the public, including completely clueless parents and their small children who routinely ran right up to and even underneath said horses, as well as to work by pulling a wagon seating up to 30 people around the farm and even do regular farm work like mowing, raking hay, and dragging logs. Their names were Kit and Kernel, and while the farm manager said his favorite was Kit because of his extra personality with people, it was Kernel who endeared himself to me from the start. He was an older horse (my guess is late teens) and life before coming to the farm had obviously not been easy for him. He bore a permanent and quite extensive scar on his neck from an ill-fitting collar and another permanent rub across his nose from wearing an ill-fitting halter. But he still had some personality left in him and used his eyes to beg for some petting, which he absolutely got from me:)
Even though the horses had been in all night, aside from the occasional shifting of weight or movement of a foot, they were very quiet and well-behaved as they stood tied in the exterior aisleway of the barn. I did think it was funny when the farm manager explained that these were big horses with big feet, so we should be careful around them even though they seemed gentle, because getting stepped on by such a large animal would be painful. The reason I though it was funny was because these Percherons were several inches shorter than Nimo and they looked so manageable to me as compared to my horse. But I can see that if your riding horse was of more average size, these Percherons could seem intimidating.
The first step was for the instructors to demonstrate harnessing the horses. I did manage to snap a few pictures of the process.
|Demonstrating how the straps should fit - note the angle of the strap going between the horse's legs.|
|The back part of the harness, called the breeching (or britchen, depending on where you are from)|
|The holdback straps and traces (not attached to anything yet) - note the slack under the horse, which is needed to allow the harness to give as the cart or wagon moves, particularly on hills|
The instructors demonstrated a couple of tips for harnessing a team, including how to run the lines (aka reins). When driving a pair of horses, the driver only has two reins in his hands. The way that is accomplished is to use a couple of connector straps in such a way that the line you hold in your right hand connects to the right side of the bit for both horses and the line you hold in your left hand connects to the left side of the bit for both horses. That means there is some crossing of connector straps between the horses and it is super important to get that right. The instructors disagreed on whether a strap was needed to connect the horses together as they were ground driven to be hooked up to a wagon, but for exclusive ground driving, the strap became important later on.
Once the horses were driven to a good place for us to start learning how to drive them, the instructors gave us some instructions on how to hold the lines and communicate with the horses. And all six of us drove those horses without any trouble, because those horses are saints. I can't imagine any skilled riding horse who would have so patiently tolerated six different idiots wandering around a field with them over the course of almost two hours. We all had a little trouble getting the horses to walk off (drivers tend to use a lot of verbal commands and as riders, we were trying to do things like cluck, or shake the reins (it works in the movies!) instead of just authoritatively stating, "Walk On!" I kept trying to walk up behind the horses to encourage them to move forward, which I only later realized was completely useless because the horses had blinders on and couldn't see me. Although if they could have, I might have gotten kicked for my stupidity. The farm manager also recommended pulling on one of the reins a bit to get the horses thinking about moving before giving the command to go forward (this idea would prove even more useful when the horses were hitched).
|Holy crap, I'm ground driving a team of big horses!|
|I even got them to turn!|
Then, came the lesson on halt. These horses pay no mind to any sort of namby, pamby, wishy, washy, feeble vocalizations to whoa. A single commanding "Whoa!" is required while accompanied by a firm, but not harsh, pull on the lines. I royally screwed up my first attempt as the horses happily wandered around, but after the first time, I got the hang of it and didn't have any problems after that (which is good, because halting is pretty much the most important thing that you ask the horses to do).
We finished our ground driving education with learning to back the horses. Backing is necessary in limited cases (especially for a team which is hitched not by backing up to the wagon but by walking over the middle pole that connects the wagon to the horses), but it is still an important skill. And it is hard on horses to back a lot too, which is why the continued patience of these horses was pretty amazing. They backed many steps multiple times for all six of us. And the connecting strap that held the two horses together near the back of the harness helped compensate for our not-yet-educated hands.
|Apparently I wanted lots of space between me and the horses as they started backwards!|
We got the horses bridled again (they wore their harnesses during the break, which is something they are used to doing as part of their jobs) and then we learned about hitching horses to a wagon. Basically there is what is called a team pole and a neck pole (I hope I'm getting the terminology right, here). The team pole is a wooden (or metal) pole that goes between the two horses and connects to the the hitch of the wagon (possibly called a doubletree, but don't quote me on that). The team pole is attached to the middle of the neck pole at a right angle. The neck pole connects to each horse's neck collar via a system of straps (sort of like a breast collar, but looser - remember the first picture with the instructor demonstrating the angle of the straps?). Together these two poles, along with some leather straps called traces, sturdily connect the horses to the wagon.
Once the horses were hitched to the wagon, we all piled in and got more directions on how to drive a team of horses pulling a wagon full of people out in the wilderness. Because there was no arena or even fencing to keep us on track. We would be driving on the 6 mile trail that the farm manager made specifically to exercise the horses on days they were off or periods when they were not working to help keep them in shape. (This trail is open to the public for riding and driving and even includes some logs for cross-country jumping...and creek crossings...)
I observed several people drive before I took the lines. But nothing truly prepared me for the experience. One of the instructors was sitting next to me to help in case of trouble, but it was pretty much on my mind that I was responsible for driving these horses and not having some kind of horrific accident with nine people in the wagon (six participants, two instructors, and one assistant). Driving a wagon is much different than ground driving. There was a power that came from those horses that is like nothing else I've ever felt. They were beautifully behaved, but when they started forward, I almost came out of my seat because I wasn't prepared for the movement on the lines as the horses pulled the wagon. It wasn't difficult to adjust to, though, and I got to do a creek crossing through water that was probably 12-15 inches deep (so cool!), and near the end, my instructor worked with me to fine-tune my steering skills, so I was able to run the wagon pretty close to trees without getting hung up and avoid some of the worst mud, so the horses wouldn't have to work so hard to pull. And I was pretty much hooked on driving. I seriously need a team of Percherons NOW!
Don't get me wrong, I love riding. The connection is much different and much more intimate than with driving, but I can see how people become fans of driving. There is something so amazing about being able to communicate with a horse in that way and driving through the countryside was so absolutely pleasant. I can't describe it any better than that. Plus, I felt a bit like someone from the 1800s when we went through uneven ground or hills - it was like living a piece of history.
I also resuscitated my ground driving sessions with Nimo. While his temperament is not necessarily the same as the Percherons (who seemed pretty much unflappable and very good at their jobs as opposed to a horse who is still afraid of stumps in the woods), Nimo seems to be awesome at tolerating me attempting to hook multiple long lines to him and convincing him to wander around the arena. Even at age two, when I first started lunging him (not for more than 5-10 minutes at time and only at the walk and trot), he was so tolerant of the process. He will literally stand forever while I hook things up, realize they aren't right, fix them, still am not happy, and tweak them again. Having long lines wrap around his body (using double lines to lunge, anyone?), even his hocks and lower hind legs is a non-event for him. He is a little uncertain about moving forward with me behind him, but after only two sessions, that is improving, and he isn't bothered in the slightest by me moving in and out of his vision behind him. (If you've never done it, ground driving requires standing just to the inside of the horse and then crossing behind him to the other side when you make a turn.) Of course, hitching him to a cart may be another story, but now I have a plan and it honestly shouldn't take that long if I can stick with it.
So stay tuned, because my driving whip and neck-collar measuring device just arrived today and I've got driving lines on order!