Even the smallest ponies can have a go at driving trials
What’s on offer in the harness world
Are you an adrenaline junkie or a stickler for accuracy and precision? Are you hooked on presenting the perfect picture in the show ring or dressage arena or addicted to the challenge of cross-country, distance events or Le Trec?
Whatever category you fall into, it could be time to take up the driving reins because just about every ridden discipline has a driving equivalent. In fact, drivers could argue that theirs is the greater challenge because in some cases you’re working with more than one horse at the same time.
Horse driving trials is generally regarded as the most demanding discipline and equates to three-day eventing. Day one is devoted to the dressage phase and, as with ridden dressage, tests are performed in an arena and demand obedience, accuracy and fluency. Day two is the marathon section, a great crowd puller equivalent to cross-country that includes water complexes and challenging terrain. On the third day, competitors drive the cones section; here, as with the show jumping phase, accuracy is vital.
Jill Holah, a former top pairs competitor who is now chef d’equipe to British teams, says that while it might seem a huge step from pleasure driving to competing, club events under the auspices of the British Horse Driving Trials Association are a great way to start. She explains that because safety is paramount, most clubs have assessment systems for newcomers to make sure correct practice is followed and that all equipment is safe and well fitting.
“Never be too proud to ask for advice,” she urges. “We’re a friendly lot in the driving world and are only too willing to help.”
Private driving is the equivalent of ridden showing
If fully-fledged driving trials are beyond your aspirations or budget, you could try the popular indoor version. This sport started in 1998 and its governing body, Indoor Horse Driving Trials UK, now runs a series of competitions throughout the UK between October and April, culminating in a two-day final. Wendy Peckham, a freelance public relations consultant from Lincolnshire who drives for pleasure and in competition, is one of many converts.
“At one time, driving was regarded as something you took up either when you gave up riding or wanted a job for an outgrown pony,” said Wendy, who drives Hunters’ Gift, a 15.1hh coloured vanner. “Indoor trials gives me the buzz and adrenaline rush I used to get from show jumping and is also something I can do with my partner, Patrick.”
There are three phases: paces and precision, cones and obstacles, designed to translate outdoor trials to indoor ones and to condense a three-day event into one. This makes it much more accessible and, says Wendy, you don’t have to spend a fortune.
“If you have the right horse or pony and a sound carriage that complies with the rules, you’re halfway there,” she explains.
Scurry driving — or to use the correct name, double harness scurry driving — is another discipline guaranteed to get the adrenaline of both drivers and spectators running. This is where pairs of ponies negotiate a course of cones at full gallop, aiming to clock the fastest time. It’s made more difficult by the fact that balls are positioned on top of the cones and time-penalties given for each one knocked off.
Good pairs of scurry ponies are highly prized and their names — Pooh Bear and Piglet, Bow and Arrow, Touch and Go — are all part of the sport’s charisma. Yet driving ponies don’t have to cost a fortune, as Amanda Saville, third in the Osborne Refrigerators Double Harness Scurry at last year’s HOYS with Mac and Munch, proves.
Scurry driving is grand prix racing for ponies
We’re a friendly lot in the driving world and are only too willing to help – Jill Holah
Amanda, who is based in at Lockerbie, Dumfriesshire, also runs the Chariots of Fire stunt driving team, a popular attraction on the show circuit. This year, she’ll be appearing at venues as far apart as Scotland, Essex, Norfolk and Hampshire, thrilling the crowds with a display that includes driving over and through fire.
Many of her ponies are rescued and more than repay her by helping in her work with drivers who have special needs, under the auspices of the Sports Driving Unlimited charity. Amanda also works with Bennington Carriages in Lincolnshire, offering Try Driving days under the banner of Sports Driving, a non-profit making organisation that promotes carriage driving.
Aimed mainly at people who are interested in horses but have never driven before, these experience days offer hands-on experience with a Bennington Fun Bug carriage and Amanda’s ponies.
“The emphasis is on fun and how accessible the sport is, with no need to get concerned about rules, regulations or etiquette at this stage,” explains Sue Mart from Bennington.
The ultimate: Sue Mart representing Britain at the World Championships with Steppers Viceroy
Ask Amanda which area of the driving world gives her the greatest buzz and she has to think hard.
“All of it!” she says finally. “It’s the absolutely pure thrill of being able to make a connection with your pony, to be at one with him and get a result.”
There are many driving activities that are less fast and furious, but just as addictive. Over the past few years, many riders have taken up the challenge of BHS TREC, which combines an orienteering trail, control of paces on a marked track and an obstacle course. Now there’s a driving equivalent, complete with a summer series of competitions.
There are three phases — the safety presentation, a timed drive and a skills section. The first looks at everything from the fitting of harness and balance of vehicle to additional features such as fluorescent wear. Phase two requires turnouts to cover five to eight miles at a recommended speed of 7-8mph, with checkpoints along the way and perhaps a compulsory walk section where points are deducted for any break of pace.
Finally, there are the skills, with marks awarded for successful completion. These could include reversing alongside a straight line painted on the ground, negotiating a cone slalom, driving through ground poles laid in an L-shape and maintaining a halt while your groom dismounts, walks round the turnout and then remounts the vehicle.
If you like the challenge of endurance, British Driving Society (BDS) long-distance drives may appeal. These take place over marked routes and must be driven in walk and trot at set speeds. The route is divided into two, with a rest halt at the halfway point.
There are three levels: the bronze award involves driving 40km in one day, the silver calls for 40km on day one and 20km on day two and the ultimate gold award is carried out over 80km and two days. There are also newcomers'/veterans' drives over 10km courses.
Wendy Peckham, Patrick Nix and Tommy at an indoor driving trials
The BDS emphasises that long distance driving isn’t so much about competing against other drivers, but gaining individual awards for good management, training and skilful driving. The philosophy is that entrants compete against their own achievements, not against each other.
Experienced whips with a hankering for something completely different can opt for tandem driving. Here, instead of a pair of horses or ponies being harnessed side-by-side, one is in front of the other.
The Tandem Club is part of and runs under the auspices of the BDS and is open to BDS members who hold its statement of competence.
Prospective members are scrutinised during the drive at the annual Meet — which this year takes place at Weston Park, Staffs, on 18 July — and if successful, can wear the club’s prestigious silver tandem bars badge.
Last but not least, don’t forget private driving, the discipline that equates most closely to ridden showing classes. There are competition opportunities for every driver, turnout and budget, whether you drive a family pony to an exercise vehicle, a high-stepping Hackney single or pair or a four-in-hand to an elegant carriage. If you’ve got that driving ambition, you’ll find something to suit.
British Driving Society: www.britishdrivingsociety.co.uk
Horse Driving Trials: www.horsedrivingtrials.co.uk
Scurry Drivers Association: www.scurrydrivers.co.uk
Osborne Scurry Group: www.osborne-ref.co.uk/osg/
Bennington Try Driving Days: www.benningtoncarriages.co.uk
Amanda Saville: www.chariots.org.uk
Indoor Horse Driving Trials UK: www.indoordriving.co.uk