For those of us who love driving – which is, of course, nearly everyone who’s ever had the opportunity to drive! – it’s so much fun to get a young or new horse started in harness.
But there are a few questions we should ask ourselves before we start fitting that harness.
Is your horse physically and mentally mature?
While horses should generally be at least 3 years of age before they’re asked to pull weight, horses mature at different rates. If they’re four, but they still look like a yearling then maybe you want to give them another year to grow up and fill out. And mental maturity is important too. I joke that their brains don’t come in until they’re 6, but it’s not that much of a stretch. Driving can be dangerous, so if they’re not mentally mature enough to be able to truly learn and understand what you’re teaching them, then waiting might be the best option.
Remember that most horses take until at least six until all the growth plates in their body have closed. Don’t be in a hurry – there are lots of other fun things you can do with them in the meantime, all of which will benefit their future driving careers. Hopefully you want to drive them for the next 20 years or so, there’s no need to rush at the beginning.
Are they comfortable in their bodies?
We don’t want to teach a horse new skills AND ask them to use their muscles in a new way if they’re in pain in any way. Check that your horse is sound, and if you’re not experienced enough to tell, a routine veterinary exam might be in order.
Have your horse’s teeth checked by a qualified veterinarian before they start carrying a bit. Even young horses (sometimes especially young horses!) can have painful dental issues that need to be addressed, or their first associations with the bit will be negative ones. These early experiences can colour their entire driving career, so the time and money spent have their dental care addressed will be well worth it in the long run. Be sure to ask your vet to check for wolf teeth as well, so they can be removed if needed.
If, at any time through their driving training, or even later in their career, your horse starts reacting badly, always rule out pain first, before trying to address it behaviourally.
Have they learned how to learn?
Since driving involves a firmly attaching a wheeled projectile to a flight animal, I recommend it isn’t the first thing a horse learns.
If your horse has spent their life mostly in the pasture, getting basic care but little active training, then I recommend some groundwork and learning about other things before tackling driving training.
Teach them to negotiate obstacles and the cues for whoa, back, and even gee and haw (or whatever directional terms you prefer) in hand first – it will translate to your driving training and put you way ahead.
Take them for walks, and to clinics and shows or other outings, so they can start seeing the world before they do it in front of a cart.
Showmanship, or tricks, or liberty work – it doesn’t matter what you teach them, it will all benefit your future driving training, as your horse learns how to learn and the two of you develop a language and method of communication.
Do you have a relationship?
Horses are herd animals, and they’re going to be much more comfortable if they’re familiar with you before you start working towards driving.
If they understand your method of communication, are comfortable with your training methods, and generally trust you then things are going to go a lot more smoothly.
In addition to teaching them other skills to build your rapport, don’t forget to have downtime too and just hang out together. Take your horse out to hand graze, find and scratch their favourite itchy spots, and just hang out in the pasture with them, watching them with their equine friends.
The more you and your horse know about each other, the smoother your driving training is likely to go.
In my Training Your Miniature Horse to Drive online course, I have a whole module before ground driving, to really set your future driving horse up for success.