The Driver’s Role in Self Carriage of the Horse
Updated: Feb 4, 2022
Today, I was reading about the rider’s role in self carriage of the horse on Dressage Today and realized in carriage driving, our roles in creating self carriage of the horse are quite different.
In riding you have your reins, arms, and passive aids (like a following hand at the walk), just like in driving, but you also have legs and seat.
In driving, we have the whip and voice to replace the legs and seat in riding.
So how do we attain self carriage in our driving horses and what is self carriage anyway??
To see a video of my horse, Savannah, showing self carriage as I drive her one handed (so my second hand can video) through turns (with bend) and straight away and also through 3 different trots, click here:
(She is a little rushed in her extended trot as she’s out of shape and my 1 handed extended trot is needing some more work!)
Above: my Friesian/Saddlebred mare, Abacus Savannah, showing a perfect example of self carriage: uphill movement, impulsion, suspension, roundness over the entire topline, and most importantly, she is carrying this frame and body position with a bounce in the reins.
First, let’s define what self carriage is in a driving horse:
As I did a little reading for putting together this blog post, I realized there’s no really solid definition of self carriage in any rule books or dictionaries. For this, I will personally define it as a horse’s ability to stay balanced while also pulling the weight of a carriage. Self carriage makes the horse’s movements predictable. When you’re horse has self carriage as he drives in front of you, the feeling is of lightness in the reins, a forward feeling to the movement of the carriage (I refer to having power like an engine ready to rev, not just a carriage rolling forward), and a feeling that with only the littlest change of your hand, body, or breath your horse will follow and know where to place his feet next. It feels like you, you’re carriage, and your horse are one solid unit.
What is my role in creating self carriage?
The most important role you have in creating self carriage is your position. Just like in riding. You must sit tall, proud, and feel elasticity in all your joints, just as when you sit on a horse. Your horse can feel your position in the carriage and knows if you’re shoulders are open, elbows relaxed, and fingers are closed on the reins.
The whip should be held in a relaxed manner and when used as a replacement for leg aide, both reins should be placed in the left hand and the whip should be manipulated with the right hand. Using your whip with your rein in your hand causes confusion as you manipulate the rein while also manipulating your whip. (Way to send mixed signals!!!!) Your legs should be relaxed from your hip and feet should be forward and down. You want to imagine that if the carriage stopped suddenly your feet would keep you from tipping forward and out. Achieving self carriage will take a lot longer and will never truly come, if your position is not the core of your driving.
The horse’s ability to perform on a light rein contact is the hallmark of self carriage. The horse should maintain straightness, bend, and cadence with only a light bounce to the reins.
What steps can I take right now to begin making steps towards self carriage in my horse?
1) Make your position on point
2) Use lots of transitions between gaits. Walk-trot-walk transitions that are responsive require a horse to engage his core and that will help him to carry himself. Your transitions should be responsive enough that only a light voice half halt and command can achieve the upward and downward transition and the contact of the reins remains light. 3) Circles. Lots of circles. Driving your transitions and maintaining 40m ish sized circles allows your horses to concentrate on what’s going on, feel his outside rein, and find his balance in straightness and bend. (don’t worry if your horse starts circles with a bend to the outside and doesn’t know how to trot around a circle…. The longer you work those circles, doing transitions, and keeping as even and light contact as you can through transitions, your horse will naturally become straighter and lighter in time)
4) Do not rush self carriage. It requires a tremendous amount of abdominal muscles, back muscles, and brain power. It isn’t achieved over night. But you definitely want to aspire for self carriage. Below: Savannah maintaining her self carriage through an extended trot (notice she’s driving on the snaffle rein)