Emily Ham’s driving blog: tackling the challenges of driven dressage

  • Life has been very busy with lectures and course work, so it was wonderful to have Saturday afternoon off to support the equine campus by being a dressage writer for the British Dressage affiliated medium and advanced tests.

    It was such a useful session observing and recording the judge’s opinion and has really helped me develop my understanding of what is required at this level. It is certainly an activity I would recommend to all drivers. Hopefully I am now better informed to progress in my driven training with Alfie and Mr J when we tackle next season’s open class test on the national horse driving trials circuit.

    People unfamiliar with driving are often surprised at the variety of paces expected from a horse pulling a carriage. As you work through the levels, the driven tests at outdoor trials allow you to show free walk on a long rein, medium walk, collected, medium and extended trot, as well as working trot and in advanced level, collected canter too. A rein-back of quite a number of set paces is also expected, which is quite a challenge in a four-wheeler, as it is very prone to jack knifing!

    As with ridden dressage, schooling is essential and it’s not necessarily an advantage to have a pony with a flamboyant action as rhythm, regularity and tracking up are fundamental, with correct bend, suppleness and lack of tension essentials to success. What is regarded as an excellent way of going in the show wagon classes is not going to gain favour in a dressage test!

    My Welsh section C Crossfield Glory, aka Mr J, is a prime example — hugely successful and flamboyant as a show wagon horse including wins at the Royal Welsh, he has had to unlearn everything and work up from the absolute basics. Holding his head high and hollowing his back, he would lock his neck and pound out a massive front end trot which could be maintained lap after lap. It has taken years of schooling to persuade him to walk instead of jog in the carriage and to track up in a working trot. Softness, correct bend and a good outline have come with time and patience and, of course, consistency.

    Even after years of schooling he needs time to work into a steady rhythm and as he is easily bored or excited, he will often throw away far more marks on the basic moves than he gains with his wonderful (and now correct ) extended trot. A square halt of 10sec is one of our most challenging manoeuvres, yet in the showring he will stand patiently in his carriage in the line up for 10min or more. Part of the problem is, of course, in the dressage test he is anticipating what comes next and eager to get on to the rein-back or the move forward into trot!

    Teaching him to canter in the carriage, essential for successful obstacle driving, was another real challenge as when asked to strike off he would fling himself forwards ever faster at a big show wagon trot and become extremely agitated. I am very grateful that in driving, including dressage, oral commends are considered an essential aid, as once he understood the command this problem was sorted.

    To help him learn to canter freely on command we recruited a patient and good rider and he worked with her under saddle until he struck off happily when told. Although he had not specifically been broken to ride he took to it quite readily as he was used to the shafts of a two wheeler along his sides and some weight on his back. It just took quite some time for him to understand leg aids and to ride forwards, so voice aids were the essential means of communication and provided reassurance and continuity at all paces and to stop. For a horse who was so strong and forward going in a carriage it was interesting to see the contrast in his attitude. It gave hope that he would respond readily to all the schooling we were putting in.

    Now Mr J is a responsive pony, who canters willingly on command and loves the obstacle phase above all others, though he also enjoys the cones in an arena challenge event or outdoor course where the aim is go round clear as quickly as possible! Without doubt good schooling in dressage is the key to success in driving trials in all 3 phases — as a well-balanced pony who responds to half halts and can perform flying changes will fly the cones and obstacles more smoothly and efficiently.

    I have always enjoyed dressage, favouring the classical approach to training. I used to compete in ridden dressage at area level for my Pony Club, first with my cob-thoroughbred, then with my young Andalusian horse. How I envy those who are light enough to ride their driving ponies and school them under saddle as well as in a carriage!

    I have to rely on long reining, although I am keen to recruit a good rider for schooling Alfie while he is at uni and then he can enjoy beach hacks and showjumping too , which will keep him interested and also help with fitness. Ultimately, though, we will be able to improve his dressage by working him under saddle — who knows, we may even enter him in some British Dressage!


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