One of the many great things about carriage driving is the fact that the experience can be shared with a friend or member of your family who isn’t a rider and perhaps isn’t necessarily a horse person. This can in some cases also be a stumbling block for new carriage drivers because it really isn’t safe to drive without a groom or backstepper and it isn’t always easy to find someone. This can be problematic and something unique to carriage driving within the equestrian world. If you are willing to act as a groom for a driver you are sure to be snapped up and you can make this known to local driving clubs who may help match you up with a driver.
What is the Role of the Groom or Backstepper?
This depends quite a bit on the level of the driver and what they intend to do, are you helping a pleasure driver or a highly competitive combined driver?
The very basic role of a backstep is to help when required, ie. when putting to and taking out of the carriage, when something unexpected occurs which could become a danger or in the case of combined driving to help with the stability of the carriage.
“Best when performed with the driver on board and horse attached to the vehicle but practice is never a bad thing.”
The role of the groom or backstep on a leisure turnout is to stand at the horse’s head whenever required, certainly during the process of putting to and taking out. This is the most dangerous time during driving as there is potential for things to go wrong and the driver is not yet on board and the horse may be only partially secured. Please refer to our article below for more in-depth information about this.
The role of the backstep during a combined driving event is much more extensive.
- Firstly, you have to get on really well with your driver. Don’t underestimate this, you may be living in close quarters with this person and during times of fatigue and stress so they have to be compatible with your personality. I have been very lucky to have had backsteps who help to make me feel calm and relaxed and positive. This is something I value more highly than anything else.
- During the dressage, and in fact the cones phase of the event, the backstep has a subdued role during the actual competition phase. You are not allowed to talk to the driver during dressage or indicate to them whilst taking part in this phase. It is helpful if you have an understanding of the rules so that you know what is expected of you and in fact what is allowed. You should both be dressed in a manner which compliments your turnout as a whole and it really helps if you can sit neatly on the carriage and smile!! It’s amazing the difference it makes to the appearance of the entire turnout when the groom is sitting upright, not slouching, and doesn’t look bored or terrified.
- Outwith the arena the backstep can help the driver to get ready, so good plaiting and grooming skills are a huge bonus! You can also pull out the dressage test during the warm-up to help iron out those last minute wobbles where the brain turns to mush and the driver suddenly can’t remember which way to turn at C, we all have those moments. It is helpful though if you don’t chit-chat during warm up when the driver is trying to concentrate on what is coming. It’s a fine balance and one that you can work out between you as you grow into a team.
- The marathon phase is when the backstep really comes into their own. The extent of assistance required of the backstep depends greatly on the level of experience of the driver and the level of the competition. All drivers have their own preferences as to what is most helpful to them. The key functions beyond standing at the head for putting to etc are
- Timekeeper – Each section of the marathon has set minimum and maximum times so the backstep is very helpful for keeping track of how well the driver is doing to land between those two times. Usually, prior to the marathon, the times are calculated for each Kilometer, every driver/backstep team finds their own way of doing this to suit them. Throughout the sections, each time you reach a Kilometer marker you can check the time against the pre-calculated times to indicate to the driver if they are running too slow or too fast. This allows adjustments to be made to ensure that penalties are not picked up for being too early or too late at the end of the section.
- Navigator – During the sections, the backstep can look out for directional arrows on the course to help ensure the driver stays on the correct route. This is particularly helpful in section B where the driver may be concentrating very hard on the obstacles to come and therefore could easily miss a compulsory turning flag or directional arrow. Within the obstacles, the backstep can help to navigate the driver through the predecided route to ensure that all gates are completed in the correct order and in the correct direction. It may also be helpful to check your notes to reassure a driver between obstacles of a turn they are struggling to remember within the next obstacle. It’s amazing how this information evaporates from your brain despite having walked the obstacles so many times you’ve hit 30,000 steps on your Fitbit!
- Ballast – One of the primary functions during the marathon, particularly within the obstacles, is to act as ballast on the carriage to prevent tipping up. This is done by putting weight over the side of the carriage on the inside of the turn or on the high side of a camber on the ground. The degree to which this is required depends on a number of factors such as the experience or speed of the driver, the terrain and the natural stability of the carriage. This is something that develops with experience so it is best to start with a driver who is not likely to travel too fast and building experience from there.
- Carriage mover – at times it may be necessary to bounce the carriage to prevent the back wheels from striking a post. No matter how experienced the driver there are times when the back wheels get too close to a post and a good backstep can help by “bouncing” the carriage away from the post. This is actually not as difficult as it sounds whilst you are in motion. If you make a small jump whilst holding the carriage and slightly shift your weight away from the object the momentum will do the rest. It is almost always the inside of the turn that causes a problem so the carriage will naturally want to kick out once the weight is removed from the back by you jumping or hopping up. This is particularly useful when a rail has a knockdown element which incurs additional penalties. You can practice this when the carriage is sitting in the yard or lorry park but bear in mind it is much easier when you have the help of momentum to move it.
- In case of an incident – there are times when things don’t go quite to plan and an incident occurs. This could be broken harness, a snarl-up in an obstacle or heaven forbid a tip up. It is always wise to discuss with the driver a plan of action if something goes wrong. Familiarise yourself with the spares on board so that harness can be quickly repaired on the course. In the case of an accident, you and the driver need to be able to communicate with each other calmly to quickly deal with the problem as efficiently as possible. A working knowledge of the correct names for the parts of the harness is very helpful to quickly deal with an incident.
- Lastly, and I feel most importantly, you must have a sense of humour. Driving is a very sociable and enjoyable sport. Yes, you will get muddy!! Yes, you will probably get soaked!! Without a doubt, you will have the time of your life!!
If you are interested in getting involved as a backstepper or groom please try contacting your local driving club who may be able to put you in touch with a driver in need of your help.