Combining tradition and competition: Group aims to spread popularity of carriage driving

For equine enthusiasts looking to get off the hoof-beaten path, there are a number of organizations that offer hobbyists something a little different.

One such venture is the Tri County Carriage Association based out of the Westfield Heritage Museum in Rockton, Ontario.

Established in 1983, the organization has over 75 members from across southwestern Ontario who love carriage driving and want to give others a comfortable place to learn about the safety and procedures for operating equine-drawn vehicles.

President Jackie Shute, of Puslinch Township, has been with the club for 16 years and says the organization is where many people’s love for carriage driving began.

Tri-County offers two types of shows; pleasure and combined driving, as well as non-competitive social rides.

Shute says pleasure driving is “all about looking pretty.” Light breeds of horses or ponies are hitched to a two- or four-wheeled show cart. They are then driven at a walk and two speeds of trot and judged on the horse’s manners, performance, quality and conformation.

“You’re judged mostly on how everything looks,” Shute says. “The cleanliness, the appropriateness, both the harness and the carriage – that it fits the animal and that it’s pleasing to the eye.”

The combined driving competition has three parts: dressage, cross-country marathon and obstacle cone driving (similar to the mounted sport of eventing).

The dressage test is a series of movements performed with the aim of looking effortless, with horses completing circles, figure-eights, trots, canters and halts.

“It’s a lot of communication and talking to your animal and building that relationship so they trust you and know what you mean and [can be] consistent,” says Shute.

The marathon portion tests speed, endurance and stamina of horse and driver, typically over a 10 to 22km course with three to five sections. At Tri-County events, their course is 5km.

Throughout the route there are obstacles or “hazards” that can include water, tight turns, bridges or steep hills. Scores are based on how quickly the carriage can navigate through the obstacles.

Despite being called a marathon, it is not a race. Each section has a set completion time. If a competitor finishes too slowly or quickly, penalties will be deducted.

“You can’t miss a gate, you can’t drop your whip, you can’t have your groom fall off. You can’t get stuck and you can’t go through a gate out of order,” Shute says.

“When you’re doing this at a canter there’s a lot going on, so there’s a huge amount of memorization.”

The most tricky event is the obstacle cones – considered the show jumping of carriage driving. Participants must negotiate a course of up to 20 cones, each balancing a ball, without knocking any over.

Because the cones are placed only a few centimetres wider than the wheels of the cart, this requires a high level of precision and communication between horse and driver.

“It’s not hard to learn but it’s like most things, the more you learn the more you can learn. You never cap out what you can teach your horse,” Shute says.

For many carriage drivers, the historical aspect is part of the sport’s appeal – and finding vintage clothing and antique carriages is half the fun.

“There’s so much tradition involved in carriage driving, everything has a purpose,” she said. “If you were a fine lady driving to tea, you needed a driving apron or lap robe to keep you clean … brown gloves and brown reins – even if your harness is black. You wouldn’t want to get to the tea party and find out you had black hands. And the hat is just an excuse to have a really nice collection of hats.”

While some higher-level competitions require specific dress, Shute says at their level all that’s needed is the basics: an apron, brown gloves and a hat.

They are also flexible in terms of vehicle and horse.

“If you come with a metal vehicle that’s okay as long as it’s safe. Same with the harness, it doesn’t have to be leather as long as it’s safe for the horse and safe for the driver,” she says.

“People come with horses, with ponies, with donkeys and occasionally there’s a mule that shows up. We try to be as inclusive as possible.”

Equine partners are expected to be able to stand quietly and have a good walk – with the ability to move from a working trot, to a lengthen trot with ease.

One of the unexpected benefits of carriage driving, is that it makes you a better rider, says Shute, and teaches participants to build stronger systems of communication with their animals.

“We’ve removed part of how you communicate with your animal. Now it’s all done with your hands and so you learn to be able to manipulate what your horse does in the carriage itself,” she says.

“If I want to move my horse to the right or the left, I don’t have my legs to do it with, so it educates riders to used their hands more effectively in conjunction with their legs.”

Carriage driving is also an alternative for those who have difficulty riding astride due to injury or age, while still providing a level of competition and enjoyment.

“If you have a 25-year-old horse that isn’t athletic enough to do riding, a lot of them take to driving as an older animal because you’re not balancing the weight of a rider and it’s easier work,” Shute says.

“(For) those who aren’t riding anymore because they’ve had hips replaced or they’re finding it difficult on their knees, this is absolutely easier on your body.”

Because carriage driving can be associated with the Mennonite community, there are a number of misconceptions surrounding the sport. Shute says it’s actually a lot more complex than people think.

“We expect different trots and we’re looking for dressage-like movement, as opposed to just driving down the road,” she says. “Mennonite horses know what their job is and that’s to take you from point A to point B.”

Tri-County is also active in getting youth interested and hopes to establish a driving camp in the near future. Currently the group offers a red light, green light show where a young person is teamed up with a regular driver and together they navigate the course.

At each obstacle, the driver poses a question to the youth, if they answer correctly they are able to continue, if not they are held back for an allotted amount of time.

“It’s a fun opportunity for kids who would like to come out and come driving with us where they’re safe and have the opportunity to be on a horse and carriage,” she says.

Although Tri-County is very much an entry-level organization, it provides many opportunities to move up in the world of carriage driving through clinics, networking, social events and regular shows.

“There’s so much you can do with it, you can keep continuing to learn. I’ve been driving for 20-some years and each pony takes me to a new level,” she says.

“I have these ‘aha’ moments where I go, ‘I read that in a book and I just saw it happen!’

“To me those are the really good things. It’s something we do for enjoyment so it needs to be enjoyable.”

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