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Preparing for Long Distance Drives
by Barb Lee

What is a "long" drive"? For some, it would be a trip around a large pasture. For others, it might be a pleasant afternoon of driving around the neighborhood back roads. For still others, it could be a "trek", traveling perhaps hundreds of miles, over several days or weeks. Writing an article about preparing for a "long" drive is a difficult task!

Gizmo takes in the view of Mt. Hood, across Summit Meadow, in Oregon's Mt. Hood National Forest

For me, living in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains in western Oregon, a good drive is when I can get out and go fifteen or twenty miles on the logging roads. Even better, to be able to go on a week long camping trip with horse and carriage and drive my brains out for days on end. That's my idea of heaven! These are the things I do in preparation for a spring and summer filled with long days in the cart, behind a game little horse.

The horse, of course, is the first consideration. The whole effort begins and ends with him, his good health, soundness, and willing attitude, so he gets my undivided attention. All of his concerns are put first.

The driving season begins for us in late winter, donning all sorts of waterproof gear and starting the slow, steady conditioning work that will gradually intensify as the good weather approaches and the high country opens up. There is lots of good information available on conditioning, and it pays to have at least a modest understanding of the physiology of exercise and care of the equine athlete.

Gizmo heads deep into the bush on a trek through Oregon's Cascade Mountains.

The longer your trips, the more critical it is that you know how to care for your horse before, during and after strenuous, sustained exercise. All your errors in judgment in this area will show up at the worst possible time! So doing your homework beforehand, doing the conditioning, knowing how exercise affects your horse, and how to manage his physical well-being will pay off as you head into the driving season.

It goes without saying that before you undertake a long distance drive, regardless of what that means for you, your horse is already driving well, that you have control in sticky situations, and that you are working well as a team. Unfortunately, your horse isn't going to learn everything he needs to know for trail driving inside an arena! Or even in a pasture. My experience has been that my horse can learn something to death in an arena, but one step outside the gate, and it's a whole new challenge. So before you dash right out of the arena onto the trails, broaden your comfort zone gradually. I wore out a couple of pairs of running shoes, jogging my starchy little horse around the neighborhood, before I ever started creeping out the driveway with him harnessed to the cart That may not be necessary for you. You must be the judge of his readiness. A bit of advice, though, would be to not fall prey to pressure from others, to take the horse into potentially dangerous situations before he is (or you are) ready.

Now let's take a look at the horse's gear, from the ground up. If you're doing a lot of driving on pavement, as I do, traction and concussion are going to be your main concerns. Having gone through just about every "sport" shoe, specialty nail, and concussion pad on the market, I've settled on EasyBoots® as my ideal. They offer great traction and on gravel roads, excellent sole protection. There are some techniques that make the use of EasyBoots® practical and simple. But they are not for everybody. There are lots of options for traction. Slick steel shoes can give you some problems, so talk the shoeing/traction situation over with your farrier. He/she will be your best guide.

Long distance drivers can be "creative" in tweaking their gear for the greatest comfort and efficiency for the horse. On a break during a drive in the Cascades, Gizmo is secured with an Aussie "necktie" instead of a halter. He wears Easyboots for traction and hoof protection, and Cool-Max sock liners under his concussion-dissipating sports boots, to prevent chafing and keep grit out.

EasyBoots® do not necessarily protect from concussion, although I believe they reduce it. I use the sports type boots that are designed to reduce concussion and support the suspensory system. It is impossible to determine whether these boots are doing the job for which they are designed, but so far I have had no problems with lameness, and we do miles and miles on hard surfaces. For me they are a reasonable investment in my horse's legs.

There is controversy about using any sort of leg wraps for long distance work, due to the buildup of heat, and the possibility of chafing. My experience has been that if you stop at ten miles or so for a routine break, you can take the boots off, rinse the grit and sweat off (if possible), and the legs will cool quickly. Then the boots can be reapplied.

Now we move up to the harness. let's start with material type. Some people prefer leather, some like synthetic. Be aware that either material can be made into excellent harness, and likewise, either material can be made into an evil torture device for your horse! And even an excellent harness can press into soft muscles and skin which are unconditioned to work, causing pain or wounds. Whichever material you choose, and assuming the harness is well made and in good repair, here are some basic things to keep in mind:

ANYTHING that does not fit well, or is a marginal fit, will end up making your horse's life miserable on a long drive. Marginal stuff may be okay for around the arena or paddock, but could result in a serious wound or pain during a long drive. That pain could result in disagreeable behavior, perhaps rebellion, or just plain quitting. At the least, a painful muscle or a raw will put an abrupt end to your fun, and will have you feeling badly about hurting your horse. I can't emphasize this enough. Even the best gear can disappoint you if you don't pay strict attention to careful fit. I really believe, if your horse starts offering some inexplicable rebellion, look to the fit and function of his equipment. He probably hurts somewhere.

Another way to spoil your fun prematurely is to try to get by with gear that is not in good repair. An untimely breakage will slam the brakes on your drive in a hurry, and possibly in a very unfortunate place. If you have questions about it, fix it or replace it. Ten miles from home is not the place to regret your inaction!

Most people drive their horses in breast collars. If this is your choice, be sure it is nice and wide, so as to distribute the pressure over a broad surface.

My choice is to drive in a neck collar, for several mechanical reasons that are somewhat outside the scope of this article. Here again, it is vital to get a good fit.

Your harness saddle should be wide, for the same reason as your breast collar, to distribute the weight of the shafts over as much surface as possible. Four inches is about average, with plenty of clearance for the spine. A spring steel tree is generally recommended. Breeching is an absolute necessity, at least for singles. Some pair drivers prefer to drive without…but my personal preference would be to have breeching for long distance driving, regardless of the availability of brakes and other stopping mechanisms.

A basalt floe on a drive in Oregon's high desert. Gizmo is wearing winkers that allow 180 degree vision, great for letting the horse pick his way on narrow trails!

Make sure your horse is harnessed to the vehicle correctly. There are many books that will help explain what "correct" is. And "correct" in terms of what is comfortable and efficient, as opposed to "correct" in appointments, can have two vastly different meanings. For recreational driving, it is far more important to have two 100% sound straps with different colored hardware, than all the same hardware with one strap being suspect. Once harnessed, stand back and look at your turnout…make sure there is nothing to interfere with the traces as they pass in a straight line from the front of the horse to the singletree. Any interruption in "draft", however minor, will just make it that much more difficult for your horse to draw the load. Incorrect hitching can cause some of the draft to be taken across the neck or saddle, causing pressure and pain, and sometimes, permanent damage.

Most likely, if you are just venturing out into the open, you are the proud owner of some sort of two-wheeled cart. The style of vehicle you choose is a matter of personal preference and somewhat outside the scope of this article, but again, a few points to consider…

Soundness: For long distance driving, for ANY driving, the soundness of your vehicle is paramount. The vehicle should be equipped with a singletree, to which the traces are attached. This provides relief from the rubbing of the breast or neck collar, as the horse advances each forelimb to move the vehicle. Make sure all your nuts and bolts are tight. The wheels should be serviced routinely, and the bearings checked and greased. Wooden wheels should be sound and tight. Never drive a vehicle with any sort of weakness in the wheels!

Lightweight wire wheels are not recommended for driving where the conditions could be a bit rough. A sharp jolt, hitting a chuck-hole or a rock, can fold a wire wheel up like an accordion. Flats and blowouts also occur, and these could be difficult to deal with out on the trail.

Balance is always a challenge with two wheelers. Your horse should have to carry as little shaft weight across his saddle as possible. With a decent vehicle, a great deal can be done to balance the vehicle correctly by moving your body, or otherwise distributing your load in relation to the axle. The better the balance, the better the ride, too. So do what you can to "feather" the balance, for your horse's comfort as well as your own.

Brakes on two wheelers is a controversial subject. Some horses work well in breeching, but may find it alarming when first asked to hold back a heavy load on a substantial grade. Even if he does work well in breeching, your first aim should be to take as much work out of the drive as possible for him, give him every advantage, and spare him unnecessary effort. Brakes on a two-wheeled cart can be used efficiently to simply keep some of the weight off the horse. They can add considerable downward pressure on the shafts across the saddle, so should be used with discretion. They are not a common option on two wheeled vehicles, but they warrant some consideration for driving in hilly terrain.

For four-wheelers, turning radius is important,

Californian Mike Proto-Robinson, his granddaughter Janelle, and her friend Geriann Henderson, taking a break during the recent Oregon Trek. Mike drives a pair of Andalusian mares.
and the vehicle should be cut under to manage turnabouts on narrow trails.

If you are currently shopping for a cross-country type vehicle, do your homework here very thoroughly. The efficiency of draft will have a tremendous impact on your horse's comfort and ability to easily draw the vehicle. For a long distance vehicle, this must not be overlooked! Many modern four-wheeled vehicles MUST have extra weight over the rear axle in order to be stable. The comfort of the ride, for you, will either enhance your experience or destroy it. Make sure you have plenty of leg room. This is imperative not only for comfort, but also for safety.

Now that you've got your safe horse safely harnessed to a safe vehicle, what do you take along with you? Well, if you're just going around the block, not much. But if you're going for a good long drive, perhaps in some remote area, consider the advice that is given to hikers and backpackers. Make a note of what they would expect to need if they were stranded overnight in the woods. I have a kit in a soft-sided pack, that would probably see me through about three days of being lost, besides having an assortment of items that could be (and have been!) used to repair minor breakdowns. One time I got very near hypothermia on an unexpectedly cold drive in the forest, and had all the essentials on board to start a small fire to thaw out!

Think about your horse; he will appreciate a small lunch in a nosebag at the halfway stop, as well as a drink of water.

Rob Johnson, Australian Standardbred trainer, drives Gizmo, the author's Morgan gelding, along Oregon's miles of public beaches.
I always have a collapsible bucket, and carry two gallons of water on board. Learn how to keep your horse hydrated! He can sweat up to four gallons of water per hour, so a quick drink during a long, hot drive won't slake his body's thirst. Learn, too, about electrolytes and their proper use. Books on conditioning and endurance riding are good sources of information. Evaluate your situation, and think ahead, then pack accordingly.

As far as driving technique goes, you might consider learning to use the Achenbach rein handling technique. Contrary to popular belief, this is not an exclusively show ring technique. It will give you a wonderful, gentle, flexible contact with your horse that he will appreciate, and you will soon find quite comfortable.

As you go farther and farther afield, you will develop your own techniques and revise your equipment to enhance the experience for both you and your horse. Whatever you do, don't forget to look around and absorb the beauty of the natural world around you. You are having an experience that few people can boast of in this hectic world. Slow down, enjoy it! Oh, and don't forget to pack your lunch!

Barb Lee lives with her husband Bob, and her Morgan Gizmo (After Dark Brigadier) in Oregon City, Oregon. When Barb isn't sneaking off for a drive in the countryside with Giz, she is turning out synthetic harness for competitive and recreational driving in her shop, Nearside Harness, Inc.

Photos courtesy Barb Lee.

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