How to keep a horse in harness in good health *H&H Plus*

  • What does it take to keep a harness horse in good health? Driving vet Rosie Mould MRCVS offers her advice

    From a fun outing with a pony and trap to the four-in-hand championships at international FEI level, driving encompasses a huge variety of activities.

    Any type of horse or pony can learn to pull a carriage, as long as he is confident and well trained enough to go forwards with a wheeled “creature” chasing him. The sport offers a second career for riding ponies who have been outgrown, an alternative for ponies not compatible with small children and a shared experience for families and friends.

    Just as the ridden horse should carry weight on the hindlimbs to free up the forelimbs for movement, the driving horse should push with his powerful hindquarters – rather than pull – and use his shoulders and bodyweight to propel the carriage forwards. Once momentum is achieved, the effort required to keep the carriage rolling will depend upon the surface, the gradient and the requirement for twisting and turning.

    The horse’s level of training will then come into play, along with the skill of the driver and the “backstepper” (the passenger positioned in the rear of the carriage), to reduce the load and produce a smooth ride.

    Instead of carrying a rider of, say, 70kg, the horse must in effect push the weight of the vehicle and its passengers – which represents quite a difference in effort. As a result, driving can exert pressures on hindlimb function that differ in their intensity and occurrence from those on ridden horses.

    Wear and tear

    Training for any driving competition requires a methodical approach to fitness. As it takes several years to develop a high-level competition driving horse, much like in any other discipline, various orthopaedic “wear and tear” challenges can be encountered along the way.

    If the horse has to negotiate obstacles, it is important to give him the best chance of cornering securely at speed to reduce the risk of self-injury, so pay attention to shoeing and the type and tting of any studs or pin nails used. But self-injury is relatively rare and overreaches unusual. Leg injuries more often occur during accidents or are occasionally caused by the other horse in a pair or a team.

    Joint pain, sacroiliac joint issues, hock problems and, in particular, hindlimb tendon sheath injuries and in ammation are all common. Addressing and diagnosing these at the outset will almost always produce a better long-term result.

    Those horses who perform in the S-shaped outline often seen in driving, where neck flexion comes mainly from the poll and not from the lower neck as well, tend to suffer more, as their hindlimb muscle structure does not support their activity. An occasional stride of lameness turns into an “every stride” issue, or a single “unlevel” comment from one dressage judge becomes the opinion of all three.

    Some lamenesses, particularly in the hindlimb, are difficult to see and might only manifest themselves while the horse is in the carriage. I sometimes get onto the carriage in the backstep position while the horse is working to identify the issue.

    As veterinary expertise increases and with the use of lameness detectors, it is now often possible to diagnose problems earlier and o er orthopaedic treatments more speedily. An equine physiotherapist qualified with the Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Animal Therapy will help with this, particularly if they see a patient regularly, as they can detect changes quickly and bring them to an owner’s attention.

    Whether you’re driving a horse for leisure or competition, harness must be well fitted and maintained to prevent rubbing or bruising.

    Driving bridles and bits are chunkier and heavier, especially in pairs and teams where the bits incorporate more metal to avoid trapping the coupled reins that cross over between horses. Driving saddles look more like rollers, but require the same attention to detail as a riding saddle to ensure that they are comfortable and do not put pressure on the spine. A double girth is used, so there are more buckles, and usually a crupper that ts under the tail.

    MMKHG6 Windsor, UK. 12th May 2018. Day 4. Royal Windsor Horse Show. Windsor. Berkshire. UK.CAIO-CAI-Driving Marathon. Horse Four in Hand. Daniel Naprous. GBR.  12/05/2018. Credit: Sport In Pictures/Alamy Live News Credit: Sport In Pictures/Alamy Live News Credit: Sport In Pictures/Alamy Live News

    Athletic demands

    The competition driving horse is not only pushing extraordinary weight around a dressage arena and demonstrating accuracy and speed around a cones course, but also must complete a marathon – the most strenuous part of which is a section of up to 9km that includes up to eight timed obstacles. The marathon lasts for between 60 and 90 minutes and incorporates a 10-minute halt, with vet checks en route and at the finish.

    Surface and gradient can have a profound e ect on the effort required; hard ground is often preferred to soft, while sand, mud, water and hills all make additional demands. A low-grade lameness or poor shoeing can be sufficient to make that extra effort impossible, while a subtle respiratory condition such as equine asthma may only become symptomatic under athletic stress.

    Accidents do happen, sadly. Usually, the faster the pace, the more disastrous. Horses can be trapped if the carriage overturns; once freed, however, it is amazing how many seem to stand up relatively unscathed.

    Injury can also occur if a horse is accidentally turned into a post, or a pair is “split” with one going either side of it. Remember that a driving horse’s sight is limited by blinkers; these must be fitted correctly to allow a sufficient range of vision. A positive spin-off is that blinkers afford good eye protection.

    Shoulders tend to receive the worst of the damage in collisions, although modern harness is well padded over crucial places and will provide some protection. Most drivers use protective boots in the faster phases, to reduce the risk of traumatic injuries to the lower limbs.

    As with any equine athlete, meticulous preparation and appropriate competition aftercare will go a long way in helping the driving horse cope with the rigours of the sport.

    Dual disciplines

    Many driving horses are also ridden, switching happily between the disciplines.

    When introducing a horse to a completely new activity, however, bear in mind that established riding and driving animals are very different. Riding horses usually have better developed shoulder and forearm muscles, whereas driving horses tend to develop the medial (inner) thigh muscles – which can only add power to the ridden capacity. A horse who has only ever been driven will lack muscle across the withers and back, so this area must be developed gradually with “long and low” work, through a mixture of riding and lungeing.

    A programme of static and active exercises, including stretching, polework and circles, will further help the driving horse adapt to being under saddle. He may already be familiar with lateral work, such as leg-yielding and shoulder-in, as part of his dressage and cones training, so this can be built on for ridden dressage. Remember, too, that a driving horse will be used to blinkers and may not be familiar with what happens behind him, even if he has been ridden before. He’ll also have undergone some voice training.

    Generally, it is the inflection of the voice, rather than the actual words used, that gives the command. The universal continental expression for “slow down” or “halt” is a rolled “rrrrrr” sound, so be careful what you ask for. Once verbal communication is established, it is easy to combine this with the ridden aids and then to drop the speaking altogether to remain within ridden competition rules.

    Ref: 18 February 2021

    You might also be interested in…