Keeping Yourself Safe Carriage Driving and Dealing with an Emergency

Carriage driving is one of the most rewarding and versatile equestrian disciplines and transcends the barriers when it comes to age, sex and physical disabilites. It enables you to take part even if you can’t ride for whatever reason and therefore allows a friend or partner to enjoy it with you without the need for them to be able to ride or necessarily even being that horsey. It can also give a new job to an outgrown family pony that you can’t bear to part with.

However, there are very real dangers involved in carriage driving and it is very important to understand why and how some of these dangers can occur. The risk can never be completely erased as with any horse discipline but with good management and education they can be significantly reduced.

What are the most significant danger factors specific to carriage driving

  • Incorrectly fitted harness
  • The horse being blinkered
  • The carriage
  • Lack of training of the driver, groom and horse

Once you decide that driving is something you would like to try the first thing you should do is get in contact with an instructor, local organisation or experienced person to help and advise you. Even if you have been involved with horses for many years there are still things you need to learn to make driving safe for you.

Be realistic about what type of horse or pony is suitable for you. Our article Suitability of a horse/pony for horse driving trials may help.


Common Harnessing Dangers

If the harness is not fitted correctly to the horse or is not attached correctly to the vehicle problems may arise. Please see our article on fitting harness for a more detailed description. One of the most important things is to ensure that you, and your groom, understand the harness and how it works so that you can understand the effect of adjusting each part incorrectly and that you can communicate to each other .


Fitting Error
Result Potential Outcome
  • Breastplate too low
Difficult and uncomfortable for the horse to pull The horse may nap and refuse to go forward, it may begin to come backwards
  • Breastplate too high
Restriction of horse’s windpipe The horse may nap and refuse to go forward, it may begin to come backwards. It may be caused physical harm
  • Saddle pressing on wither
Discomfort to the horse The horse may suffer rubs and saddle sores making him unwilling in future
  • Backstrap to tight
Discomfort to the horse via the dock The horse may be rubbed under the dock and in some cases it may begin to buck or kick
  • Backstrap to loose
Saddle can be pushed forward by the tug stops If the saddle moves forward this may be uncomfortable for the horse. The additional forward and downward pressure may cause the horse to trip or be rubbed at the elbow by the bellyband. See also the breeching seat section
  • Breeching seat too high
Breeching seat may slide up and under the tail This is a serious issue as most horses would react by running, bucking or kicking or even a combination of all three. The breeching is in place to brake the carriage using the strength of the horse’s quarters. If the breeching slides up then all the weight is pushed up under the tail making it impossible for the horse to hold the carriage back and possibly even for the carriage to strike the horse from behind.
  • Breeching seat too low
Breeching seat putting pressure on a weak portion of the horse’s legs When the breeching is too low the braking of the carriage is placed on a weaker part of the leg and the horse is unlikely to be able to hold it back. This may take the horse’s legs out from under it causing it to fall or the horse may refuse to brace against the pressure and just run on. It is likely that the tug stops would also come into play causing forward pressure on the saddle.
  • Breeching too slack
Ineffective braking The breeching is designed to brake the carriage using the horse’s quarters. If it is too slack then the braking will be ineffective. This may cause the carriage to run on and strike the horse. It, more subtly, will cause the braking to be carried out by the tug stops pushing the saddle forward potentially causing the horse to trip or have his elbows rubbed by the bellyband
  • Breeching too tight
Horse discomfort If the breeching is too tight it will rub the horse around it’s quarters as well as making it very difficult for the horse to work. If you imagine that pressure against the breeching pushes the carriage back but at the same time the horse is trying to pull via his breastplate. Each end will be working against each other.
  • Traces
Ineffective pulling If the traces are too short the carriage may be too close to the horse’s quarters and the tugs will be forced forward and off the front of the saddle by the tug stops. This will cause discomfort to the horse and possible rubbing. If the traces are too long the tugs will be pulled off the back of the saddle and could potentially allow the shafts to come out of the tugs and fall to the ground.
  • Throatlash
Bridle insecure If the throatlash is too tight then it is obvious that the horse will be uncomfortable, may be reluctant to flex at the poll and may resist. However, more seriously, if the throatlash is too loose then the bridle may be shaken or rubbed off.
  • Noseband
Blinkers may gape The noseband has the additional purpose on a driving bridle of holding the cheek pieces against the pony’s face. If the noseband is not tight enough or is not interacting with the cheek pieces then the cheek pieces may gape open when a contact is taken on the bit. This allows the pony to see the vehicle behind it which may cause it to bolt.
  • Blinker Height
Horse may see vehicle If the blinkers are too high or too low then the horse may see the vehicle behind it which may cause it to panic

Common Putting To Errors

During the process of putting to (attaching the horse to the carriage/vehicle) there are many potential dangers to consider. Firstly ensure that your horse is correctly harnessed up as detailed above, it is important to note that once the bridle has been put on the horse is now blinkered and therefore reliant on you to ensure his safety. A horse must never be left unattended whilst wearing blinkers and it should under absolutely no circumstances be left unattended or tied up in any way whilst attached to the carriage.


  • Select the area for putting to so that you are on level ground and have sufficient safe space around you
  • Ensure that the horse is correctly harnessed
  • Stand the horse in a suitable area in front of the carriage and ensure that a suitable and competent groom is standing at the head facing the horse and holding it via a lead rope or the reins. A gullet safety strap may also be used and an underhalter should certainly be used.
  • Always bring the carriage to the horse and not the horse to the carriage (except in some circumstances with experienced horses and heavy vehicles that are not easily maneuvered by a person). This is to prevent the horse from catching himself on the carriage and getting a fright or snagging a piece of harness.
  • It is good practice to establish a word or command to let the horse know that the carriage is coming to him, say “cart coming” or similar

The order in which you attach the harness to the carriage is very important and a strict routine should be established to ensure that it is followed every time. It is very important to understand how the horse interacts with the harness and the carriage so that you understand the consequences of what can happen in different scenarios.


Place the shafts through the tugs (in the case of closed loops you should now do up the quick release tugs)

Using Zilco Quick Release Tugs

Firstly attach the traces on both sides, from this point the horse is attached to the carriage via the correct pulling means so if he walks or runs forward the carriage will move with him relatively safely. If you have closed loops on your shafts you are actually attached firmly to the vehicle at that point, however if the horse were to move off the carriage is being pulled by the saddle not the breastplate. This could result in the saddle being pulled back along the body which could cause the horse to buck or kick so the traces should be attached as soon as possible.


Once the traces are correctly fitted you should then do up the breeching straps. It is vital that both traces are attached before doing this as if the horse were to run forward with only breeching straps attached the carriage would not move with the horse initially and the shafts could come back and out of the tugs and fall to the ground. The horse would then be pulling a carriage with shafts on the ground and being dragged by the breeching straps.


The use of parrot clips on breeching straps


Finally do up the bellyband


    Taking Out of the carriage should be done in the exact reverse to putting to, so first slacken the bellyband, then undo the breeching straps and finally disconnect the traces. A very common mistake made at the end of the drive is for an inexperienced groom to remove the bridle while the horse is still attached to the vehicle. This is much more easily done than you might think as you both chat after a pleasant drive and loose concentration, it’s a surprisingly natural thing to do but with potentially catastrophic results.


    The Carriage

    The carriage should be checked regularly for any damage or weaknesses. Modern vehicles are usually made of metal with welded joints which can become fatigued and break. Inspect your carriage regularly for any cracks where joints are welded and ensure all bolts are tight. Wheel bearings should also be checked and changed regularly. To test the wheel bearing raise the carriage up so the wheels are not weight bearing and then try to move the wheel back and forth, if there is more than very slight movement then the bearings need to be checked. Make sure that the carriage is appropriate for the horse and harness you are putting it to. If you are unsure about the correct fitting then consult a more experienced driver or instructor for advice. Although all bolts on the carriage should be checked regularly there is one bolt in particular that is critical, this is the bolt which attaches the swingle tree to the vehicle. This bolt must allow free movement in the swingle tree but must be fitted with a locking nut to ensure it cannot unscrew through constant vibrations in the carriage. The bolt must always be fitted down the way so that if the nut were to come off it would not immediately fall out. Just imagine the consequence of the swingle tree becoming detached from your vehicle, the vehicle would no longer be pulled by the breastplate and the shafts would in all likelyhood fall back out of the tugs and to the ground. The horse would still be attached to the carriage by the breeching at this point. If that is not enough to make you regularly check this bolt I don’t know what is!



    One of the delightful things about carriage driving is that you can take someone with you that is not necessarily experienced in driving or even with horses. However, there are some basic things that you should run through before ever using someone as a groom to go for a drive.

    • They must be able to control the horse and hold it securely for you.
    • They should have a basic understanding of how the harness attaches and works.
    • They should know the names of some of the most significant pieces of the harness
    • They must be given clear instructions throughout the process of putting to and taking out as well as when out on a drive

    It’s great when you find someone to drive out with you on a regular basis and you can build up a relationship and understanding as well as a way of communicating what you need them to do. However, most of us are reliant on grabbing anyone they can muster and this may mean that many different people are used and of varying abilities. You will need to decide yourself on what level of competence you need based on your own experience and the experience and temperament of the horse. You should learn how to clearly convey instructions to whoever is helping you, this is particularly important when things aren’t going quite according to plan when you must remain calm and give clear instructions. It’s well worth running through the basics with them before hand and discuss things that you may be likely to come across. Can you imagine trying to give instructions to someone about how to help you get your horse out of the carriage following a tip up for instance, without them having any knowledge of the names of the harness parts? It’s worth spending a few minutes discussing this before it is required.


    When things go Wrong

    We all hope it will never happen but you should not ignore the possibilities of an accident, incident or tip up. Would you know what to do? You must know your harness and how it works. How can you possibly expect to quickly get your horse out of the carriage when it is lying on it’s side in a ditch if you don’t know what to undo and in what order to prevent further problems. This is where it is also important that your groom knows what the harness parts are so that you can instruct them what to do. If your horse has gone down it is best to try and prevent it from getting back up until it has been disconnected. The act of getting up and the shock of what has happened may in all likelyhood cause it to run so if it stays down you are more likely to keep things under control. It is surprisingly easy to keep a horse down as they must lift their head prior to getting up so if you place your entire body weight over the head the horse should not be able to get up.


    In these situations quick release systems are also a God send. There are many options you can add to your harness to make it easier to remove in an accident. Starting at the traces you can get quick release shackles to fit any type of swingle tree connection. If you can’t easily access the rear of the carriage, perhaps the horse is kicking or thrashing, then you can undo the traces at the breastplate. The use of parrot clips on the back strap to saddle connection and on the breeching straps to breeching seat connection are an incredibly simple solution for removing the breeching from play. You can actually disconnect the entire breeching simply by unclipping a parrot clip on your back strap to saddle connection. You should always carry a knife when driving so that you can cut straps if necessary. It would also be sensible to wear a medical armband containing emergency contact details in case you are hurt or unconscious. Above all try to remain calm as you will then be better placed to think clearly and act correctly giving clear instructions.


    Download a summary Here

    Harness Class Handout


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    1 comment

    • Micheen Bradley

      Thank you for the article on harnessing and safety. It is most helpful. Alto I have been driving for many years, self taught! It is really helpful to see these points written down, now I will be more conscious of the hassards of not doing things in order and correct harnessing.

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