Beginners Guide To Carriage Driving

Bay Horse in Harness with a carriage attached

Horses have been trained to pull carriages for thousands of years. Not only used for transporting goods, but they also played an important part in warfare pulling chariots and in entertainments such as racing and charioteering during Ancient Greek and Roman circuses. In modern history, they have been used for transportation, agricultural and industrial work such as towing canal barges or working in the pits. Four-in-hand coaches pulled by smart teams of four horses were seen regularly in Rotten Row in Hyde Park. Even with the advent of the combustion engine which saw the replacement of horse-drawn vehicles by tractors and motor vehicles, horse-drawn carriages have remained a much-loved feature throughout the UK and beyond, both in equestrian sports and for leisure purposes. As well as maintaining vintage carriages, there is a growing industry for the production of modern purpose-built carriages here in the UK and Europe. Here we will look at some popular forms of carriage driving and their uses in today’s world. 

Horse and Carriage Sporting Competitions 

Whilst a popular sport during Roman times, racing chariots around a circus has long been replaced by other types of carriage driving spots which are enjoyed by an increasing number of adults and children. Asides from driving a horse for pleasure to enjoy the great outdoors, there are different disciplines of carriage driving as a sport. During these carriage driving sports, drivers will drive either a single, pair or tandem (two but one in front of the other) team (4) of horses who are harnessed to their carriage. Some carriages have two wheels and others have 4 wheels. The type of carriage used will depend on the type of competition and the number of horses pulling it.

Some different types of carriage driving include:

  • Horse Driving Trails: also known as Combined Driving. This can be a one-day, two-day or three-day event which includes dressage, marathon cross-country and obstacle phases. These reflect the ridden phases in eventing with the marathon being the equivalent of the cross-country jumping phase and the obstacle phase being the equivalent of show jumping.
  • Indoor Carriage Driving: this takes the phases of outdoor driving trails into indoor arenas over the winter and each competition runs as a one-day event. There is a national championship to qualify for as well. It is an excellent training ground for the different disciplines and welcomes even the most inexperienced of competitors who wish to learn and improve.
  • Scurry Driving: purpose-built carriages pulled by two ponies race around an arena through cones and obstacles at break-neck speeds. The fastest clear round is the winner. This is exciting to watch at County Shows throughout the country.
  • Private Driving: This is a showing event and requires the horse, carriage and driver to be presented to an extremely high standard. There are classes here for specific breeds such as Hackneys, Welsh Cobs and British Native breeds as well as ride-and-drive competitions.
  • Tradition d’Attelage: This is a relatively new 2-day event which originated on the continent and is concerned with the preservation of original (classic) carriages and accessories. Not only judged on the standard of turnout, but these events also require the carriage to be driven on a road route and on the final day to take part in a cones course.

Classes are divided up depending on your experience level, whether you’re driving horses or ponies, and the number that you are driving. You can even be involved if you don’t wish to drive; grooms and backsteppers play an important role on the day! 

Most importantly of all, keep yourself safe. There are experienced carriage driving instructors who can help you ensure that your horse and carriage are correctly put together and trained in your particular area of sport. As with any sport, there are risks involved which is why it’s worth considering Carriage Driving Personal Accident Insurance, especially if it is something you do regularly. 

Horse Carriages for Work & Leisure

Horses and carriages as a method of transportation were phased out towards the end of the Victorian era, as motor vehicles became more readily available. However, they’re still extremely popular in the leisure and holiday industries. You may well find a horse and carriage trotting down quiet country lanes or see them driven on forest tracks or parks. Nowadays you can arrange for horse-drawn carriages for weddings, prom nights and funerals, or even book one for a special picnic ride or enjoy a tourist carriage ride in a town centre or by the seaside. 

Outside of this, horse-drawn vehicles and machinery are still used in agricultural work up and down the country. This is an increasing area of expertise with working horses being used by forestry commissions finding the horses are more suitable for logging and forestry work than heavy tractors. As well as agricultural work, some businesses specialise in teaching people how to drive carriages and offer experience days or lessons so that you can learn the ins and outs of carriage driving.

 If you are driving carriages as part of a business, it is worth taking out our specialist Carriage Driver’s Commercial Liability Insurance, to make sure you are covered in case of any accidents or injuries relating to the public. 

Preparing Carriages & Harnesses for Competitions

During the presentation stages of various driving events, judges will grade you on the turnout, safety, cleanliness and overall condition and impression of the horse’s tack, carriage, and the dress of the driver and groom, which means it’s essential to keep your carriage and harness in tip-top condition

In terms of the harness, it should be sound, clean and fit the horse/pony correctly. If driving more than a single, all harnesses should match, although different bits are permitted. The carriage should be the correct size and weight for the horse pulling it, as should the height and length of the poles for pairs and fours. 

Providing regular care and maintenance to your equipment can help you identify any defects or parts that need to be repaired or replaced. Cleaning and maintenance are important for both harnesses and carriages. Leather Harness in particular requires regular cleaning to remove dirt and sweat and feeding to keep it supple. Modern harnesses are often easier to care for but still need to be regularly checked for wear and tear. Carriage care includes washing down the carriage, polishing leather areas such as the dashboard and splashboards, polishing the brass, oiling areas that have become squeaky and touching up the paintwork where needed. Where possible, store your carriage in a securely locked and dry area to avoid dampness and rust. It is highly recommended to insure your Driving Carriage and Harnesses against damage, loss or theft as they can be expensive to repair or replace. 

Learning To Drive Carriages

If you’re interested in getting involved with carriage driving, your nearest equestrian centre will be able to offer advice and point you in the right direction of a driving instructor. These instructors will have their own horse and carriage so you can try out in a safe environment, and they may be able to help you train your horse to drive. You can also visit the British Carriage Driving website for more information.