For someone obsessed with horses, I have only experienced a tiny sliver of the wider horse world myself as an English rider. When I had the chance to take a driving lesson with FEI-level driver Jessica Tanglao, I jumped on it. I loved the experience and was surprised that—along with learning a lot about driving—I also took home lessons to apply to my riding. Most were concepts we talk about all the time in riding astride, but seeing them translated to a different language helped “drive” home their importance.
In my lesson, I practiced driving between sets of cones on a 40-meter circle. Dancer, a 18-year-old Saddlebred, was my equine teacher. Driving was more challenging than it looked watching my professional instructor. By the end of the lesson, I’d hit more than a few cones (which are specially designed not to get caught up in the carriage when you run them over). I returned home with a sore upper body and lots of takeaways that I now am thinking about when I’m in the saddle.
1. Use Your Core
Use your core muscles, not your arm muscles to carry your reins. When you’re driving, your reins are your only connection with the horse. They’re heavy because they are much longer than riding reins. You also carry a whip, which serves as the equivalent of your leg, and it’s much heavier than a dressage or lunge whip. My arms were sore within minutes.
Jessica helped me adjust my posture and use the muscles in my shoulders and back instead of my arms to hold a connection. My core muscles are, uh, not as strong as they could be. Driving was a great core workout when I was using my body correctly.
When I’m riding with the light feel my green OTTB likes, it’s easy for me to just use my hands and arms to connect with my horse instead of focusing on the muscles in my back and core. My driving lesson was a great reminder to engage my core muscles in the saddle.
2. Can’t Steer? Go Forward
I found steering challenging while driving, because I didn’t have a good sense of where the carriage wheels were going relative to the horse and my body. Without strong guidance from me (and sometimes because of conflicting signals from my novice hands on the reins and whips), Dancer got wiggly and enjoyed trying to make a break for the gate.
Jessica told me that if I wanted to steer better, I’d need to go more forward. Wow—after a few clucks, Dancer’s wiggles disappeared. I was amazed.
I shouldn’t have been, because my riding coach is always telling me to send my horse forward when we get into steering trouble or other antics—even if we end up going beyond our original rhythm. But when driving, it’s just so much easier to see the horse get straight, because you have a bird’s eye view. I’m keeping that image in my mind as I ride.
3. Don’t Nag With Your Aids
I sent Dancer forward a lot with clucks during my lesson, and as the lesson went on, he responded less enthusiastically. Jessica explained that she often tunes up Dancer’s aids with a tap of the whip if he doesn’t respond quickly enough. I wasn’t organized enough with the whip to back up my voice, so my voice became less meaningful to Dancer as the lesson went on.
Watching video of myself riding my OTTB, I see myself using my leg again … and again … and again … without the response I want. My driving lesson was a good reminder that I need to stop nagging and escalate my aids with my whip; otherwise I’m just making my leg aid less effective.
4. Remember The Outside Rein
A good connection to the outside rein is essential. Jessica instructed me to hold a steady connection with my outside rein to encourage Dancer to bend appropriately for his path of travel.
I am used to this concept from riding, but driving showed how much I was losing this connection. Without my body or leg to back me up, it was very clear when I lost the outside rein: We ran over cones.
5. Half-Halts Are Your Friend
No, this isn’t exactly breaking news, but in driving, you can use your reins for a half-halt just like you do when you ride, but you can’t really use your hips like you do in the saddle. Instead, you can say the horse’s name to get their attention. Just like in riding, half-halts are used in driving not just to woah, but to signal that something is coming, like a transition or a change in direction.
I could stand to use more half-halts in my riding, and driving was a good reminder of that (though unfortunately my horse isn’t voice-trained so nicely!).
6. Rhythm And Straightness For Roundness
I was pleased with how Dancer’s posture and bend improved when we were more forward and straight. His back came up; his neck went down, and he had a lovely trot. It was fun to see his whole body and not just the front end. Jessica told me not to worry about his head—just send him forward and straight, and he’d become round on his own. (This sounds a lot like my riding coach—maybe I should listen?)
7. Appreciate Your Equine Teachers
We’re so lucky to have good horses to teach us. Most of my riding lately has been on my greenie, so it was lovely to work with well-trained Dancer, who has competed up to the FEI advanced level of combined driving. He was very forgiving when I accidentally sent him forward with the whip and then asked him to whoa, or pulled him left and then suddenly pulled him right while I learned how to carry the long reins. A horse that is responsive to the aids tells on your mistakes and helps you learn. I’m grateful for Dancer, and all the wonderful horses who have put up with me as I’ve learned!
I’d love to take more driving lessons when I have the time. I had so much fun and found new insights to bring home to my own riding. If you have the chance to try driving—or any other new-to-you equestrian discipline—seize it!
Tracy C. Gold is a writer, freelance editor and mom living in Baltimore. She rides her off-the-track Thoroughbred The Quantico Kid, purchased in autumn 2021, at Tranquillity Manor Farm in Maryland. An alum of U.S. Pony Clubs and the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association, she competes in local hunter shows and rides for pleasure now. She is the author of the picture books “Trick or Treat, Bugs to Eat” from Sourcebooks and “Everyone’s Sleepy but the Baby” from Familius. You can learn more about Tracy at tracycgold.com.