Emily Ham’s driving blog: keeping ponies fit on the side of a mountain

  • Dark evenings, heavy rain, howling winds and soon ice and snow — all making fitness and schooling work a real challenge for everyone, but actually making very little difference to me! You are probably imagining I am one of those lucky equestrians with an indoor school or a good-sized outdoor arena. Not the case!!

    My big obstacle to fitness and schooling is the mountainous terrain where I live in Wales, which makes it almost impossible to drive my carriage — in winter we are well above the snow line so it’s often impossible to get in or out by car even with the big 4-wheel drive !

    Our gentlest slopes here are 20% gradients with the final track to the house a rugged 30 percenter up crumbling concrete rampings with a stony trench between… not a good combination for a horse and carriage!

    Our track plunges down to rise steeply where it meets the road at the bottom whichever direction you choose to take and the steep climbs are just too much for a horse pulling a carriage and driver unless they are already marathon fit, especially when you add a groom, which we all know is essential for driving out on the public roads!

    The lanes are single track with drops to carry away the water each side so there is nowhere to pull to the side with a carriage when you meet cars and high hedges mean traffic comes up onto you with very little warning. Drivers living on flat land long for hills to improve fitness — living in the mountains I long for somewhere flat to drive

    I do count my blessings and I do have an arena, which I can use during warmer months. In winter it freezes and eventually the permafrost leads to surface water on top like a lake! We optimistically selected our flattest bit of land, halfway down our track, and started excavating.

    As you can imagine the size was soon limited by the depth of soil and rock we were carving out of the mountain, but we managed an arena of about 30x20m, which is great for lungeing work and long reining. It’s drivable for short periods, but due to the length of the carriage behind the horse it is frustratingly difficult to practise skills and there are such short straight stretches you wouldn’t want to work in the carriage too often.

    Generally though I use arena-based activities for both fitness and schooling work, with the challenge being to develop muscles and keep the pony’s interest through variety. I think that it would be very interesting to hear from drivers what arena-based activities they use — as the subject of a possible blog in the future.

    Of course I am away at university too, now for my fourth year as I am doing an MSc, so that creates further obstacles to schooling and fitness work. Friends with family members who ride or drive can keep up the horse’s training even if their own opportunities to train are limited in term time depending on how often they can get home.

    My parents kindly look after my horses, but are not riders or drivers or happy to work at schooling. The ponies exercise with turnout and some basic lungeing activities between my visits home. Of course this is far from ideal and I always take these factors into consideration when competing and I must take special care to warm up and cool down properly at events.

    I have brought Alfie, my Welsh section D, to Aberystwyth with me, as the university’s equine campus has excellent facilities. The indoor school is Olympic-sized and beautifully rolled so I can drive inside as well as there being outdoor arenas for working him.

    Welsh section C Mr J stays at home nearer the competition venues and I get home when I can — usually twice a month. Because the phases of indoor driving are short in duration and over much shorter distances than outdoor trials we can be successful even with reduced fitness as he is obedient and supple.

    I am very proud of my ponies for what they achieve for me and wonder what we could achieve with more opportunities to train together — oh to win the lottery and move somewhere more suitable for driving!


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