July 8, 2009
Pleasure driving is a fast-growing event in the Quarter Horse realm.
One of the draws of pleasure driving is that almost anyone can participate. You can drive if you don’t like to ride. You can drive if you have health problems that don’t allow you to ride. You can drive if you’re 30. You can drive if you’re 90. That’s the beauty of it. In AQHA classes, any amateur or adult open contender who is comfortable, safe and sufficient as a driver may show in the sport.
The Old and the New
Pleasure-driving classes are reminders of pre-auto days, when necessity led families to hook up their horses and take leisurely drives, most likely when the whole gang was dressed up for church on Sunday.
“They’d take a slow trot through the park with a nice little park gait,” explains AQHA Professional Horseman and world champion driver Kevin Dukes of Weatherford, Texas. “The family would take in the sights, maybe cruise through the park, then pick up the pace to the road gait to get on home.”
Today, the premise of the class is more regimented than those distant Sunday drives through the park, but the fun and leisure still live. Think you’re ready? Before you hook up to the cart for the first time, be certain you and your horse are prepared. Driving can be a dangerous pastime if everything isn’t in order, and professional help is always, always, always a good idea — even if you’re a seasoned rider.
Driving around the arena at home is a different ball game than driving in an arena full of other drivers. In the show environment, noises and movement can be distracting and spooky for some horses, and as a driver, you must be comfortable negotiating between other horses and carts. For that reason, the AQHA World Championship Show limits the arena to 12 horses and carts at any time.
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“Safety is a big thing with me,” Kevin says. “If I feel like my amateurs aren’t ready to show, then I won’t let them enter the class. Also, if I feel there’s another exhibitor in the class who doesn’t seem in control, I won’t let my amateur show.”
Kevin adds that great amateur pleasure-driving horses should be nearly spook-proof, which is all part of his plan to defer as many potential accidents as possible, and make showing the best, most fun experience for everyone.
“Safety is important, but I always tell my clients, ‘When this isn’t fun, we aren’t doing it any more,’ ” he says. “We all started showing for the love of horses, and that’s why we’ll keep doing it. Winning is fun, but it’s not everything.”
From Gate to Gait
Even though the walk isn’t the most dramatic movement to watch in a pleasure driving class, it’s still a judged gait. It should be an efficient, working walk, while elegant and relaxed. Don’t be guilty of walking too slowly.
“When horses go too slowly at the walk, they almost sway from side to side, which isn’t good,” Kevin says. “It’s actually harder for the horse to pull the cart as it goes slower.”
After horses are judged on the rail at the walk, they are asked to move into park gait, which is similar to a gentle jog through the park. A simple clucking sound, followed by gentle encouragement via slapping of the reins, is the cue for most horses to pick up the pace.
“This should be a slow trot, but not as slow as a western jog,” Kevin says. “Some horses can carry a park gait a little slower; others need to have more forward motion in order to look their best.”
Lastly, the road gait — the gait reserved for the smooth drive home on the boulevard. Here, the extended trot is showcased, and the horse is asked to step out and strut its stuff. Be careful not to get too much speed, though.
Throughout your drive, your horse should obey immediately, maintain a level topline and appear pleasant. Expression is a big attribute that can make or break a driving horse’s chance for the blue ribbon.
“Expression is important,” Kevin says. “I’ve got one horse that is awesome, but his expression hurts him sometimes when he doesn’t put his ears forward. That can be the difference between first place and second place. The first-place horse just looks happier. Our horses should look as if they enjoy their jobs.”
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Pleasure-Driving Safety Tips
- Know your horse. Be sure your horse is ready for competition and is totally comfortable and confident pulling a cart.
- Be sure your equipment is in good working order. Check tires, leather and all attachments.
- Make sure the horse is harnessed and hooked correctly to the cart. Have your header, someone standing at the horse’s head, double-check before you enter the arena.
- Always have a header holding the bridle as you enter or leave the cart.
- Never lead a horse into the barn or stall with blinders on because the horse can’t see on either side and can easily catch a hip on a door.
- Troubleshoot before your class. Be sure your horse has been in the arena, and know what might bother him — and drive accordingly. Know your competition. Note whether those drivers are in control of their horses.
- Never leave your horse and cart unattended.
- Never stand in the cart while driving. It’s too easy to fall out.
- Always show courtesy to other drivers. Don’t cut too close. If another driver is having trouble with his or her horse, give extra room.
- When in doubt, don’t.