Carriage Driving – what it’s all about

In her previous blog, our Carriage Driving expert – Emma Golding – talked about her path into carriage driving. In this one she gives us some more insights into what the sport is all about and what she loves about it. After having read this, it’s now on my list of things to try!

The 3 phases of Carriage Driving

Carriage driving (also called Horse Driving Trials or Combined Driving) is run on a similar format to ridden eventing. The dressage test is driven in a 100x40m arena (80x40m for novice tests) and exactly as in ridden dressage, you are marked out of ten for each movement.

Most tests consist of walk and trot paces, however canter work is a part of the advanced singles test. What you don’t have (for obvious reasons!) are the more advanced movements present in ridden dressage. However, the FEI four-in-hand test does include shoulder-in done by the leaders (the front two horses, the back two are the wheelers).

The cross country (or marathon phase) has three sections. On Sections A and B you know how long the route is and your minimum and maximum times (a fast trot is required to make the time for both horses and ponies). Finishing the section either too quickly or too slowly incurs penalties. There are kilometre markers and direction arrows and both you and your groom(s) (AKA backsteppers) keep track of your pace. In between the two sections is a transfer section which is usually between 800m and 1km for which a very generous maximum time is given but no minimum, meaning you are allowed to drive it at any pace, but it can be done easily at a relaxed walk.

After the transfer section there is a ten-minute vet halt before Section B – the horses’ heart rates are checked when they come in and they must have recovered sufficiently to be allowed to continue.

Section B is where the obstacles are and there are between 5 and 8 depending on the length and level of competition. Each obstacle is individually timed and the aim is to get in and out as quickly as possible without incurring any additional penalties for taking a wrong course or having a groom down. In years gone by, it wasn’t unusual to see a groom climb over the driver and along the pole or horses to unhook something that has got caught on an obstacle! However, this now incurs more penalties than the groom dismounting. The total time from within all the obstacles is used, along with any overall time or other penalties, to calculate the penalty score for the marathon.

The third phase is a course of pairs of cones, each with a ball on top, and you get 3 penalties for each ball knocked down, as well as penalties for exceeding the time allowed. The cones are just 8 inches wider than the carriage and there are combinations in the form of slaloms or offset combinations.

A sport that can open new horizons  

Personally, what I love most about driving is that it has given me the ability to continue to do things I wouldn’t have otherwise, after my accident. I did ride (actually using one of the greys used in Into The West!) after my accident with the help of the RDA, which I was very grateful to be able to do. However, with the level of my injury I would have been a Grade 1 para rider and could essentially only walk within an arena and I needed someone on either side in case I lost my balance. My balance is extremely poor and always a challenge as I have no use of my core muscles.

With driving though, I can walk, trot, canter, gallop (reserved for shaving seconds off exiting obstacles!) and I can drive through forests, water and on the roads. And, as much as I have come to like the dressage phase (getting it right is now its own reward, whereas I used to reward myself by doing some cones after a dressage session!), I also love the speed and excitement of obstacle driving and the precision of cones, so getting to do all three is fantastic.

The international competitions are specifically for drivers with disabilities, but at national level I compete against able-bodied drivers. I am at a bit of a disadvantage, mostly due to my lack of balance and inability to brace myself using my legs, but I can still be competitive. Competition driving is unusual in equestrian sport because there are more than two individuals out on a cross country course; there can be up to seven – a four-in-hand will consist of four horses, a driver and two grooms – but for singles there is the driver, horse and groom. The additional relationships add another factor to the sport which I really enjoy. As a driver you have to have a very good relationship with and a lot of trust in your groom, as a big part of their job is to help navigate and to use their body weight to keep the carriage upright. They in turn have to trust you not drive into a tree!

And a place to make lifelong friends

The driving community is so welcoming. They are also phenomenally helpful. Just last week Sarah (who usually transports my carriage and pony to events) was judging at Sandringham the same weekend as an event here, so another team took my carriage up north with them, then somebody else drove Lilly the pony from Kildare to Armagh (and then drove the empty trailer back to Kildare again!), whilst another team brought my carriage from the first team’s yard to the event. Then Sarah, having flown back from the UK on Sunday night, drove the lorry up to Armagh on Monday to pick up Lilly and all my stuff! And all that’s not even counting the help at the event.

Although I do tend to need more help than able-bodied drivers, the supportive atmosphere is something that all drivers appreciate. That’s why it’s a sport that no one should hesitate trying. There are lots of options for getting involved: if you have a pony that has been broken to drive or if you have never sat in a carriage before there are experienced people who can provide everything from advice on harness and vehicles to lessons for complete beginners. Drivers themselves are often in need of help with either training or grooms for events which are other ways of getting involved at less of a cost! And, like all other equestrian sports, driving events are always in need of stewards.

Driving is also a great option for anyone who can no longer ride or for smaller ponies for whom potential riders are limited – they can pull much more than they can carry, especially when working as a team. If anybody would like information on getting involved do get in touch with me.


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