Check It Out

CL-030 DRIVING CLASS GENERAL RULES

H. Safety

5.   Blinders and overchecks or sidechecks are required.

That’s the rule of the American Miniature Horse Association. A similar one graces the pages of the American Miniature Horse Registry rulebook, and many other breed organisations.

Rules for Pleasure Driving Competition

207.3 Harness

H.  Check reins and martingales (except false martingales) are prohibited in Obstacle classes. Failure to comply will incur elimination. In other classes, check reins and martingales may be appropriate turnout for certain vehicles. See Appendix PD-C. Turnout and Appointments.

Rules for Combined Driving Competition

940.5 Auxiliary reins

5.1 Auxiliary reins (including any type of check reins) are not permitted when in harness. At ADS-recognised events for Training division only, side checks may be used at the Driver’s discretion.

And that’s the rules from the American Driving Society.

So why is there such disparity in the rules of organisations that both create rules for the well being of the horses competing?

Many people believe that it’s unsafe to drive a horse without a check on. Even the rule itself is filed under “Safety”. I’ve heard some very well respected judges and trainers in the Miniature Horse industry speak with great confidence that a check is a “safety issue”. The justification that they use is that if the horse can’t get their head down to buck, they won’t be able to have a wreck.

Anyone here ever seen a wreck in the show ring? *Raises hand* I’m sure we all have. And those horses were wearing checks.

Anyone here ever seen a horse get in a wreck because of their check? Perhaps they got it hooked on the shaft, or just were so uncomfortable in the position it forced them into that they felt they had to do something dramatic.

I read a quote recently, credited to Tom Dorrance: “A horse does one of two things: what he thinks he’s supposed to do and what he thinks he needs to do to survive.”

A check is not a safety device. Anyone who thinks it would hold a horse’s head up should’ve met Bunny, the foundation mare of our herd. Bunny was a big personality and a very good driving horse. In her strongly enforced opinion, there was absolutely no excuse for putting a check on before she was properly warmed up. If you dared to do so, she would, with hardly any drama, break the check.

There is a piece of tack you can use if your concern truly is safety and preventing bucking. It’s called a kicking strap and you can see it in this photo of Rocky:

rockkickstrap

It’s the piece of leather that goes over his bum just ahead of his crupper and extends to the shafts on both sides. Most of the time, it does nothing at all. But, if he did decide to kick or buck, in order to lift his hind end to do so, he would have to lift the entire weight of cart and driver. Horses that wear a kick strap decide in a hurry that bucking probably isn’t worth while after all. I use one with all my greenies at home, and if I had the slightest concern I would use it in the show ring too … there isn’t a rule against it, and safety > aesthetics. Besides, with his breeching on, it does blend in pretty well.

So if the safety issue doesn’t hold water, what is the purpose of a check?

dukesdchk
Duke, wearing a sidecheck. A sidecheck attaches to the bit, goes up the sides of the horses face and through the bridle midway between his eyes and ears, then attaches to the harness saddle.

A side check is sometimes called a “grass check” and as the name would imply can be used to keep a particularly determined grazer from snatching bites or ignoring their driver entirely in favour of green grass. We are all familiar with a Miniature Horse’s love of grass, and it’s easy to see how a child or even some adults might not have the strength to resist. I expect that’s the reason for the side check being permissible at Training level only at CDE’s. (See rule book excerpt above). The side check can be adjusted so that it only comes into play when they snatch for grass, and won’t interfere with most of the head and neck movements that are necessary for them to be comfortable and balanced. While much more flexible than an overcheck, the sidecheck still has the potential to be very restrictive if adjusted too tightly.

An overcheck is designed to lift the horse’s head. That’s it.

If you choose to use an overcheck, please do so with some forethought and knowledge regarding the natural movement of the horse. Used carefully, in only appropriate situations (ie – a perfectly level driving arena) then you may be able to use it without any harm or discomfort to your horse.

In order to be able to see correctly, horses need to be able to drop their heads. If you are driving in low light or on unfamiliar terrain, don’t use an overcheck.

Horses rely heavily on their head and neck for balance. If you are driving on uneven ground or cross country, don’t use an overcheck.

A green or learning horse needs to be able to find their balance before they are asked to move in an unnatural frame for them. Don’t introduce an overcheck until well into a horse’s training.

If you are a beginner driver, yay! Have lots of fun playing with your horse! But if your starter harness came with an overcheck (and, in my experience, probably one that is too short), a pair of sharp scissors is all you need to make that little adjustment permanent. Just because it came with the harness, doesn’t mean you have to use it.

Improperly adjusted (ie – too short) overchecks inhibit the correct movement of the horse. While they may end up with superficially “flashy” movement on the front end, they will travel hollow in their backs with their hind legs trailing out behind them. This posture will quickly result in the creation of a ewe necked, sway backed horse, and contributes to arthritis and other joint issues in their stifles and hocks.

Proper movement is powered by the horse’s big engine – their hindquarter. In order to be truly light on the front end, true collection vs the damaging “false collection” created by a tight overcheck, they must transfer weight onto their hindquarters. This means they need to reach well under themselves with their hind legs, round their back, and yes, drop their head.

Image, wearing an overcheck. An overcheck attaches to the bit, goes up the front of the face and between the horse's ears before attaching to the harness saddle. As you can see here, Image's overcheck is not inhibiting his ability to use his hind end or round his back; in fact, he is rounder in this photo than Duke in the sidecheck is above.
Image, wearing an overcheck. An overcheck attaches to the bit, goes up the front of the face and between the horse’s ears before attaching to the harness saddle. As you can see here, Image’s overcheck is not inhibiting his ability to use his hind end or round his back; in fact, he is rounder in this photo than Duke in the sidecheck is above.

Now, lest you think that I believe anyone who uses an overcheck is unnecessarily cruel, think again. My Image drives in an overcheck, as that’s what he’s used to and comfortable with. He does not, however, use a check at all outside the show ring, and it is adjusted to allow him to use as much of his natural movement as possible. A rule is a rule, and since a check is required to show at an AMHA/R show, my horses wear checks in the show ring.

The VSE (Very Small Equine) division is growing in leaps and bounds in combined driving and pleasure show competition. Many of these drivers have registered horses, and the Classic Pleasure division at AMHA shows is tailor made for horses who are trained to do dressage. (Country and Single are for more advanced dressage horses, but that’s a topic for another time.) However, many of these competitors have no interest in a sanctioned show because they refuse to inhibit their horse’s natural headcarriage by use of a check. I believe the registries are missing out on a potential increase in entries; all it would take would be a simple rule change to “sidechecks or overchecks are optional and to be used at the discretion of the driver”.

When you look at the rules outlined at the beginning, you can see where checks can be safely used and where they can’t. In the show ring, where the horse is always on level ground, they’re required. In a pleasure show, where the horse is always on level ground, they’re allowed except in obstacle classes, where the horse needs his head and neck to improve maneuverability and balance. And in combined driving, where the horse relies heavily on his ability to travel correctly and balanced both in the dressage ring and over some very wild terrain at speed, a check would be simply dangerous.

If you are aware of all the pros and cons of using a piece of equipment, then you can make the decision that is right for you and your horse.

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