After last week’s blog about the fast and furious experience of breezing a race horse, things took a turn for the adorable and tiny this week. I visited Heather Briggs and Rachael Blanchard at Belle Grey Farm in Upperville, Va., and learned all about combined driving!
I briefly perused Belle Grey’s website before the lesson, and the pictures were mostly of single ponies pulling carts, so I figured that was similar to what we would do in a lesson.
You can imagine my surprise when I walked into the barn and saw first one, then two, then four pinto miniature horses, in four teeny tiny matching harnesses! The squeals and exclamations that came out of my mouth were at a pitch that could only be heard by dogs. BUT REALLY, LOOK AT THESE PONIES.
|It is near impossible to discuss minis without your voice climbing a few octaves. Leading the team are Ace and General, and in the back are Chance and Rocky, with Rachael Blanchard driving and me along for the ride.|
After bringing my enthusiasm for the adorableness of four matching minis down to a manageable level, I took a look at the carriage they would be pulling and immediately had doubts as to whether I should be allowed to drive it. This wasn’t a light little two wheel cart like I had pictured; it was a marathon carriage! With four wheels and a metal frame, it reminded me way too much of a car, which is a vehicle I know with 100 percent certainty I am terrible at driving.
Luckily, Belle Grey driving instructor Rachael Blanchard took care of all the driving with four horses, letting me take the reins after unhooking the front pair (she must have requested a copy of my driving record from the DMV before the lesson). The two poor souls left in my stead for my first driving experience were Rocky and Chance, and I’m assuming they were selected because their names aptly describe how driving goes when the reins are in my hands: rocky and chock full of chances for mishap!
For example, mishap No. 1:
|If you were wondering how confident I felt about my ability to not run down cones in the cart, well—my face says it all.|
When Rachel was driving the four minis, she cantered them through marathon obstacles that were solid wooden posts, but we stuck to trotting through cones and balls when I took the reins, and I believe the above picture explains why. Flash back six years to 14-year-old Ann in driver’s education, and I think you will find I was wearing a very similar facial expression while backing over cones in a driving test. Rachel said I had pretty good cart awareness, but I think she was just throwing me a bone after seeing the cone carnage I left in my wake.
My steering skills left a little to be desired, but along with weaving cones we also went in a big loop around a track, and that’s where Rachel let me canter Rocky and Chance. Sitting in a carriage pulled by tiny adorable horses is what I imagine Santa feels like—no wonder the guy is so jolly, flying around in a horse-drawn carriage is awesome! It’s like being in a real live Wells Fargo commercial. If anyone ever tried to rob a stage coach of minis I was driving, I feel pretty confident we could get away at a canter (given the chase took place in a straight line, and the bandits were also mounted on 36-inch tall horses).
|Now this is more my speed-going fast is way more fun than finessing my cone weaving skills!|
Here’s a fun fact about driving I didn’t know, though: When you are driving more than two horses, only the pair of horses closest to the carriage actually pull the carriage. The other pairs assist with leading the "wheelers" around, and occasionally will pull a little bit, but Rachael said they’re basically on a break when they’re in the front. Traditionally speaking it was just more stylish to drive four horses than two, and the horses out front are supposed to be the prettiest horses.
This puts a new spin on the Christmas reindeer we all know and love—basically Santa is just showing off with eight reindeer—only Dasher and Dancer actually pull anything! And then on top of all these extra deer Claus tacks on a flashy red nosed one out front? Come on, pal. Who are you trying to impress, the other fictional holiday characters? Was the Easter bunny giving you a hard time at dinner one night, and you just thought, "I’ll show him—Dasher, Dancer, round up six of your best looking friends. We’re going eight in hand this year."
We keep it classy at Belle Grey—none of those flashy six extra quadrupeds, just two trusty minis and one terrible driver! Regardless of how awful I drove, it was an incredbile feeling to be in charge of a team of little horses, weaving (and crushing) cones and cantering along the track. If you ever get the chance to give it a try, go for it, but stick to the minis; Rachael and Helen tell me they're much more forgiving of mistakes than most of the big horses, and at least they look cute running over cones!
Thanks a million to Heather Briggs and Rachael Blanchard of Belle Grey Farms for letting me try out driving with your fabulous team of minis!
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Ann Glavan is an editorial intern for The Chronicle of the Horse. Originally from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Ann grew up competing at A circuit shows in the hunter and equitation divisions, first on her pony Is A Belle and more recently on her horse Happy Go Lucky. Ann interned for Phelps Media Group during the 2014 FTI Winter Equestrian Festival before joining the Chronicle team for the summer. She currently attends the University of Missouri and is studying journalism and economics.