This year at Ag Progress Days in State College, PA, Pam Kister, a horse trainer and owner of Grey Horse Stable, LLC in Dover, organized a carriage arena racing demonstration. “It’s a new and exciting way to have fun with your horse,” she explained.
In her line-up of horses and carriage drivers, everyone seemed to be having a great time, including the horses and ponies, who bent close around each of the obstacles in the course with enthusiasm. Drivers were from all walks of life, united in their enjoyment of the sport, the point of which is to zip around all the obstacles in the course in the shortest time possible. Participants run the course one at a time, each to carefully chosen music, which adds to the fun.
“There is a lot of strategy involved in carriage racing,” commented Kister, “more than you might think. Everyone has to go around each of the obstacles A, B, C, and D in the same order, but not necessarily in the same direction. The gates between the lettered obstacles have a red flag on the right and a white flag on the left. Some horses are better at turning to the right, and others at turning to the left. You have to choose which way to make the turns out of the gate by knowing what your animal can do.”
Smaller horses, like the Scottish Shetland ponies Olney X-Wind ‘Bucky’ and Olney You-Go-‘Roux’ (owned by Bruce and Nikita Eike), trained by Kister, or the mini ‘Rally,’ have the advantage of being able to zip around the corners closer to the obstacles. The larger horses with their longer bodies and legs make up their time on the straightaways. All courses are different. “You need to learn the course before you attempt it,” said Kister. “You also need to know your carriages and how tightly corners can be driven fast, efficiently and most of all, safely.”
Working with a pair of ponies is more difficult than driving a single horse, even if the ponies are brothers and well-matched, as Kister’s were. “You’re dealing with two brains instead of one. Driving two ponies, I must have a navigator, because in an emergency, I may need an extra set of hands. If I were driving four ponies at once, I would need two navigators.”
Having a navigator on the back of your carriage is valuable even if you’re only driving one horse. Navigators lean their weight toward the inside of corners and sharp turns to help to keep all the wheels on the ground and prevent overturns.
Carriage racing can be lots of fun with many different sizes and breeds of horses, but your success will depend on your individual horse. Some horses enjoy the sport, and others do not. You’ll quickly learn your horse’s preference.
“With carriage racing and any type of driving, ‘Safety is first,’” continued Kister. “If you’re new to the sport, you need to learn from someone who is an experienced driver, although a licensed instructor is not necessary. There are so many details you need to be aware of. For example, the harness must be fitted correctly. You must have a breech on the harness attached to the shafts, to keep the carriage from hitting the rear edge of the animal. That is your braking system. You’re not allowed to use over checks, side checks, or hobbles.”
Before you start, you need to set goals that are realistic for both you and your horse. Are you aiming to prepare for higher-level competition, or do you mostly want to learn how to have fun with your horse on your own, but do it safely?
Kister has been teaching riding and driving over 40 years, and with that accumulated experience, she has gained wisdom. “I wish I had known a fraction of what I understand now when I was in my 20’s,” she commented. “Over my career, I’ve learned, for example, not to generalize about breeds of horses. Each horse is an individual.”
Glen Myers’ Kentucky Mountain Horse ‘Truffles’, is a great example of a breed of horse not normally thought of or used for Carriage Arena Racing much less carriage driving. “As a rule, for rated driving shows and open driving shows, this breed does not place as well, since they are gaited. The trot is required for Driven Dressage and Pleasure Driving. What is unique with Truffles was that Glen drives her for trail rides and in the ring, but she had no experience with bending and stretching to go around tight corners. Glen has used her for mounted cowboy shooting, trail riding and gaiting—for all of which Truffles moved in mostly straight lines.”
But conventional wisdom about breeds can be very wrong. Truffles, like horses of all breeds, is an individual. Glen and Truffles first began practicing around obstacles about a month before Ag Progress. Neither of them had any previous experience with Carriage Arena Racing. But the horse loves the sport. “Truffles is ready to bend around the next obstacle before Glen is ready sometimes.”
For this demonstration, all the drivers were using marathon carriages, some with a step on the back for the navigator, and some without. While Kister, as an instructor and long-time enthusiast, used an all-aluminum carriage that was custom made in Florida, giving her Shetland ponies less weight to pull, Kister regularly works with horses that have been abused, physically or psychologically. She frequently succeeds in bringing them back to health and wholeness, sometimes eventually giving them to students or selling them. “I give each animal about a year to see if we can turn it around. It can be time-consuming, especially if the animal is shut down mentally. Before they are ready to go into a consistent work program I sometimes have to just sit in a chair in front of the horse to get them to make eye contact with me. It’s rebuilding trust for that horse with people. It’s extremely rewarding work.”
Pam believes that for the horse owner who is looking at exploring a new endeavor with their horse, Carriage Arena Racing is a newcomer-friendly horse adventure with ample laughter and good company.