As Horse & Hound driving editor, I’ve toyed with the idea of learning to drive for some time. I’ve ridden since the age of four, and even worked for a harness racing trainer, but never been taught to drive.
During the past five years, several drivers have kindly handed me the reins. I’ve taken control of Sally Mawer’s scurry ponies, instructor Chris Van Reen gave me a lesson, and private driver and breeder John Bulmer has trusted me to trot his Morgans in an exercise vehicle. But I never learned to drive “properly”.
I was even offered the use of one competitor’s horse for a season, which was very tempting in theory – including lessons with a four-in-hand driver – but my commitments wouldn’t allow me the time it required. Apart from working in the H&H offices in London five days a week, I also report on driving or show jumping at the weekend, as well as stewarding at BSJA competitions.
Back in May last year, local driver Dave Titmuss offered me a drive with his horse, Duke, whenever I had the time. Unfortunately, free days during the summer months are few and far between and, after getting lost in the whirlwind of qualifiers and championships, I’d all but forgotten the offer. Then, towards the end of last year, the offer was repeated and I promised myself that I would not to miss this opportunity again.
I got a taster at a BDS Beds, Bucks and Herts newcomer’s event at Shuttleworth College, which Dave and Duke attended. Dave talked me through driving some cones in the indoor school, and then later we went for a drive along the quiet lanes around Shuttleworth. Emily McPheat, who is also learning to drive, came along too.
The next day, I went to the Carriage Driving Fair at South of England Showground. I love this event because it’s a chance to catch up with people I haven’t seen all winter, find out what plans they have for the coming season, and, of course, do a bit of shopping; Watching the displays and talking to drivers and grooms whetted my appetite to learn even more.
The next weekend I arrived at Dave’s yard to be greeted by former paraequestrian team silver medal holder, Steven Manyweathers. He is currently stabling his horse, Jordan, at Dave and his wife Jean’s yard. Emily and Steve’s daughter Fleur were also there to great me. First of all, Dave showed Emily and me how to put the harness on and how to “put to” – the technical term for attaching horse to carriage. Then we all headed out for a drive. I went on Steve’s backstep with Fleur, while Emily and Jean accompanied Dave and Duke.
There is a lot that you can learn from the backstep, including very importantly how to keep the vehicle in balance. We enjoyed rather a fast canter along a local byway at one point, and I found myself hanging on for dear life as the muddy puddles gave my coat a fetching new design. This was in stark contrast to Steve’s tiny daughter, who might as well have been filing her nails she was so relaxed.
The following day, we went for another drive. This time I was on Dave’s backstep. At a quiet point, Dave handed me the reins for the drive home. He talked me through how Duke responds to various signals and what speed I should be going when tackling hills and turns, as well how to behave to other road users.
The next Friday I had my first proper lesson in the school. Until now I’d been using two hands and no whip, but Dave told me I was going to learn how to drive one-handed, coachman’s style.
When driving one-handed both reins are held in the left hand, with the nearside rein over the top of the index finger and through the palm of the hand, and the offside rein between the ring and middle finger. The thumb, ring and little fingers secure the reins in the palm of your hand. The whip is balanced in the right hand, and the right hand is also used to aid shortening the reins and to help with changes of direction.
The reins are much longer and heavier than their ridden cousins and my hands began to ache very quickly. After working on transitions and tackling some cones, Dave allowed me to use both hands again to give my left arm a break.
By the end of the lesson I could see Duke was working much better and I had adopted a more correct upright position in the carriage, rather than being hunched forward. Let’s hope I can remember all I have learnt in time for my next drive out.