Proper Driving – From Posture to Harnessing
Miniature horses have some of the biggest hearts of the equine world… especially pound for pound. They will throw their entire body, heart and soul into working for someone they love and have a connection with – contrary to popular belief that all ponies and minis are a$$holes! (Believe me I’ve heard that over and over in all the years I’ve been driving ponies and minis!!)
With that in mind what can we do to help make their job easier and more enjoyable? There are many little things that add up to a happy horse and happy driver!
First of all – posture. Posture is very important when riding, though I feel it’s often overlooked when driving. After all, we are sitting in a cart not on the horse – so how could our body position effect the horse? The answer is A LOT! I see so many people driving their horses like this:
Arms straight out, back rounded, leaning forward in the cart. Surprisingly I see many people driving like this in the show ring! The posture in the above photo isn’t even as bad as I’ve seen. Typically when someone is driving like this they are putting pressure on the saddle of the harness which is putting weight and pressure directly on the horse. If you find yourself driving like this… lengthen your reins!! Typically people are doing this when they feel a bit out of control and are shortening their reins too much. A rule of thumb – don’t put pressure on BOTH reins at the same time as that just causes the horse to push into the pressure more. Hold lightly with one rein and put a little bit of pressure on the other. Not turning pressure but “talking” pressure.
In this photo you can see that the cart is tipping slightly forward, messing with the carefully managed balance of the cart.
Just as when riding, you want a bend in your elbow when holding the reins. There should not a straight line from the horse’s mouth through to your shoulder, but a straight line from the horse’s mouth to your elbow…
This is Sky’s power extended trot. She is such an amazing mare! This trot is the most awesome thing to sit behind! Notice how the cart is now balanced correctly. The shafts are literally floating the shaft loops. Here’s a video of that as well:
Something that I notice is often missing is the single tree. This is actually a very important thing for every single cart to have. If your cart doesn’t have one, buy one and put it on! The single tree helps the horse pull the weight of your vehicle by allowing the swinging motion of the horses shoulders. If you don’t have a single tree your horse will become sore in both the shoulders and the neck. Also please, please do not wrap your traces around your shafts before hooking them to the single tree. If your traces are so long then get shorter ones.
Here is a video of the single tree in action:
How you sit in the cart will directly effect how well your horse can do it’s job – give you an enjoyable ride. You are not sitting in a recliner so don’t kick back and be lazy. If you are driving an easy entry cart, have one foot forward to prevent you from bouncing forward onto your mini if you hit a big bump or your mini stops suddenly or spooks.
Contrary to popular belief there is a weight limit per mini. As a rule of thumb I do not expect my mini to pull more than her own weight for long periods of time. If that means I have to lose some weight then so be it! I have lost over 30 pounds since February in order to make Sky’s load more equal to her weight, including the cart. For shorter periods of time and with a properly fitting harness and well balanced cart a mini horse can pull 1 1/2 times their own weight. With a properly fitting harness and a well built four wheeled vehicle a mini can pull twice their body weight on flat, smooth ground for short periods of time. Typically my mini pulled this much weight when we were in parades with my wooden buggy, pulling me and my two little boys plus, our combined weight plus the wagon weight. You will hear many different opinions about how much a mini can pull, most of them are wrong. To make a small, fine boned mini pull more than their own weight is unfair and will ensure your mini does not have a good time when driving.
I always pay attention to how my mini feels about me catching her (or him!). If they meet me when I’m carrying the halter or even meet me at the gate then I know I’m doing a good job of keeping them comfortable and they are having a good time. This does not mean you can’t make your mini work! Sky pulls me up some pretty steep inclines, we bounce across fields and through ditches, she walks, trots and canters in cart and we explore all over our area. She comes home sweating but she is always happy to have me halter her and most of the time her ears are forward and happy when we are out and about! If she walks away from me when I go out to catch her I know that the last drive was a bit much. So I’ll make sure to take it a little easier on her this time and see if that changes how she feels about being caught. It always does!
Now onto the harness! Please, please make sure your harness fits your horse well. A too small or a too large harness will make their job more difficult and less comfortable. A harness that is not adjusted well will make their job more difficult and uncomfortable. Your harness should be adjusted the same on both sides. If your girth is on the second hole on the right side, then it needs to be on the second hole on the left side.
**The girth on a harness NEVER needs to be tight. Don’t tighten it down like you would if you were riding. It’s just not necessary.
Make sure your saddle and back strap are in the middle of your horses back…
Sky was resting a foot in this photo, but you can see how everything is properly centered. And note that her crupper is on the first hole on the left and the right! I have seen horses get some pretty bad sores from a crupper that isn’t balanced on both sides. That leads me to having the back strap adjusted correctly. It should NOT be loose. The crupper should have just enough space for one finger to slide under it when your finger is flat to their body. This is mostly adjusted by the back strap.
Next is the breeching. This must be about half way down the horse’s butt. I often see it far too low which could result in sweeping the horse’s legs right out from under it as you go down a hill. I’ve actually witnessed this happen to someone else’s horse and it wasn’t pretty! The breeching should be adjusted in such a way that when it engages on a hill it doesn’t tighten with a slap! My rule of thumb is I should be able to just fit three fingers between my horse’s butt and the inside of the breeching. This allows the breeching to engage without “grabbing” my horse…
My breeching loop on my cart is too far back. I have adjusted my wrapping to make up for this but I suggest having a new loop welded onto your shafts a bit further forward. Screwing something to your shafts isn’t a good idea because drilling holes in the shafts will create a weak spot.
As for the bridle I don’t like to have that too tight. The old rule of thumb was to have 3 wrinkles at the corners of the horse’s mouth. I had an old cowboy friend have me pull my lips tight and see how that felt after a few seconds. It did not feel good! He always let his horse hold the bit. You have to adjust it a little bit so it doesn’t drop down and hit the horse’s teeth, but I like just one wrinkle, leaving some room for them to hold the bit without it being jammed into their mouth…
This bit is from Chimacum tack. It’s the 4″ bit. She had a smaller 3 1/2″ bit earlier in the year and it fit exactly to the corners of her mouth. But when I switched her to this bit she was much happier, less chewing of the bit and less dramatic turning. I like to have a little space on each side of the bit once it’s in the horse’s mouth. There is no need to have everything jammed up as tight as it can be, nor hanging down flapping around as loose as it can be. There is a happy medium!
The horse’s eye should be in the center of the blinders. And a bridle that doesn’t have the wire holding the blinders is not worth having! Without that wire the blinders will often sit right on the horse’s eyes. The blinders should not touch the horse’s eyelashes!
If there is rubbing from the buckles on the girth and the shaft loop straps you can get a girth cover to help pad that area. You can also cut the foot off a pair of socks and use the tube part to pad the girth! I’ve done that so many times! This is a big black fleece I found on Amazon. Another thing I discovered is if you get a longer girth, so the buckles come up a bit higher, you will not get ANY pinching or rubbing in the girth area.
I need to make a few adjustments to it. It’s a bit too wide so I’ll cut it and resew it to a better width.
There are many ways you can make your horse’s job easier when pulling a vehicle. This information plus much more can be found in my book, Step-By-Step Guide to Training a Miniature Horse to Drive.
Now it’s time to get out there and enjoy your horse! I wish you many happy trails 🙂
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