Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Rider's Wednesday -- Driver's Safety

This past weekend, I took Nehi, my 20 year old Perfect Section C Welsh Cob out for our first Spring drive. My friend Karen and Cassandra went along for the ride. We went for a good 7 miles or so before coming home. We all thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

Nehi loves to drive. I bought him as a two year old. Back then, I was newly married, unemployed, and had a lot of free time on my hands. Nehi and I spent a lot of time together. I wanted to work him, but knew he wasn't ready to ride yet, so we spent an entire season driving. It's the first thing he learned to do, and he does it with gusto.

A few years ago, my friend, Denise, had a harness for sale that I thought might be a good replacement for my elderly, unsafe, cobbled-together, much patched piece of equipment. I took the new harness into the barn one January day and spent the better part of an hour fitting it to Nehi.

When I has ascertained that the new harness could, indeed, be adjusted to fit him, I started to take it off. Nehi, who until this point had been waiting with barely contained glee, was palpably disappointed. He pegged me with "The Look" that clearly said, "What do you mean, we're not going anywhere?" When the harness was off, he deliberately turned his back on me (something he is not in the habit of doing) and sulked in a corner of his stall.

As I said, he loves to drive. He has from day one. We drive primarily on the road, rather than in fields or in a ring. This is not without its share of risks (as my mother regularly points out). So this week, I thought a few thoughts on "Driver's Safety" tips might be in order:

* Don't go out without a good brake. The first thing Nehi learned to do with regards to the cart was "whoa." Whoa means "Stop. Now." It does not mean, "Stand still as long as I'm hauling on the reins." I know a lot of people preach "forward first." I am not one of them. I want to know that I don't have to worry about my horse running through a stop sign as we approach a busy intersection.

* On a related note, don't forget the parking brake. In addition to "whoa," Nehi also knows the word "cart." "Cart" means "Stand still, without moving a muscle, until I ask you to do something else." I usually hitch him by myself. I need to be able to have him stand quietly while I'm fiddling with the tugs and the breeching. I also need him to stand quietly while people are getting in and out of the cart, while little kids are running up to pet him, and while I'm hooking him up to things like trees and stumps that need dragging.

* When driving a cart, you are in a wheeled vehicle. That means that you drive with traffic. (As opposed to riding a horse, which makes you a pedestrian, and necessitates you riding against traffic.) In America, we drive on the right hand side of the road, and ride on the left.

* Clearly mark your driving vehicle for visibility. An orange hazard triangle and reflectors on the the back of the cart are absolutely essential. If driving on busy roads, brake lights and hazard lights are advised.

* Wear your riding helmet or a bike helmet while driving. You just NEVER KNOW what's going to happen.

* Make sure your driving horse can handle "yahoos" who find it amusing to blare their horn as they pass, who follow too closely, or who allow their barking dogs and / or screaming children to hang out the passenger side window and erupt in a frenzy within inches from your horse's face. Never understimate the value of desensitizing a driving horse to scary and distracting objects before you head out on the road.

* I loathe overchecks and sidechecks on horses that are working on the road. My feeling is, if the horse needs his head cranked up to be safe, he shouldn't be charged with my safety just yet. A tight overcheck forces the horse to hollow his back. It makes it impossible for him to use his hindquarters correctly for power or for braking. It never allows him to relax and work. As a result, the more he drives in that position, the more he becomes accustomed to moving incorrectly.

* Maintain lightness. I also find no need for constant pressure on the reins. A part of the horse knowing his job, involves knowing how to go straight, unless told otherwise. If the horse acts as if he's going to bolt and run off all the time, necessitating heavy rein contact -- again -- I don't want to be in the cart. I certainly don't want to trust my lift to him on the road. I drive with both reins in one hand about 90 percent of the time. I want my driving time to be relaxing. It wouldn't be if I were constantly worried that my horse might get away from me!