Karen McCarthy and Maggie McLaughlin getting ready to drive. photo by Jodi Schneider McNamee
Karen McCarthy and Maggie McLaughlin getting ready to drive. photo by Jodi Schneider McNamee

Motor vehicles might dominate today's roads, but thousands of drivers choose single horsepower. One of the fastest growing equestrian disciplines, the sport of carriage driving is attracting a wide variety of people to this nostalgic pastime.

Driving Enthusiasts of Central Oregon (DECO) presented a four-hour clinic, "An Intro to Carriage Driving," on Saturday at the SGF Sporthorse Arena, hosted by SGF Sporthorse on Cloverdale Road in Sisters.

DECO is composed of both recreational and competitive drivers who enjoy the art of driving horses and ponies, and wish to encourage and assist those interested in safe carriage driving, by hosting clinics, practices, and recreational trail drives.

Susan Conner, DECO board member, walked her Norwegian Fjord quarter horse cross mare, Riata, into the arena, to be used in demonstrations.

"Carriage driving may look easy, but driving requires a great deal of skill to accurately guide your horse without mishap. So many people don't know how to be safe, so we want educate them about safety, and spark their interest in driving," said Conner.

Over 20 driving enthusiasts gathered at the indoor arena to learn about carriage driving as DECO president and event organizer, Karen McCarthy from Madras, demonstrated long-reining, ground-driving, hitching and basic driving techniques, with the help of DECO members Maggie McLaughlin and Susan Smith.

McCarthy emphasized safety for horse and driver by following guidelines of the American Driving Society (ADS), a national organization with regional chapters that span across the nation, and was founded in 1974.

The demonstrations and discussions for the driving enthusiasts were to achieve a basic understanding of the importance for the correct use of aids: hands, voice and whip, and horse and harness. And folks at the clinic got a chance to practice harnessing, on patient driving horses.

"You can be a horse-person for years, but when you go from riding a horse to driving a horse, you have a whole new set of controls," McCarthy said. "There's a whole lot more to driving than what you watched in 'Bonanza'."

The key to safe driving is taking the time to completely train the horse, not only to wear the harness and pull the vehicle, but to obey the driver and tolerate obstacles he'll encounter along the path.

"Some horses are simply not cut out for driving. A safe and reliable horse should be fit and calm. The driver should be able to trust the horse completely," McCarthy added.

Chris Gebert, from Crooked River Ranch, joined DECO when she checked in for the clinic.

"This is my first time learning carriage driving; I have a young Shetland and mini horse mix, named Dandy, and I already have him pulling logs. And I walk him over two miles a day to get him in shape," Gebert said.

Five experienced driving horses, owned by members, were used in the demonstrations for lunging, harnessing, ground-driving and hitching to the carriage.

Searching for a cart or carriage can be quite an adventure since there are as many styles of carts and carriages as there are makes and models of cars, from a two-wheeled wooden cart to a four-wheeled aluminum carriage.

A focus on how to find the right cart or carriage for you and your horse was discussed by Kathy Lindolm from Estacada, who has been driving for over 50 years.

"Careful drivers prevent injuries by matching horse to vehicle, and preparing the horse to handle stresses of the environment," Lindolm said. "People usually end up buying three carts before they get it right. You have to really know your horse, and what's best for him and you as a team. It also depends if you're driving for pleasure or competition, there are many factors. But no matter what type of vehicle you're driving, inspect it prior to your outing."

Any activity involving horses carries a certain amount of risk, but you can reduce those risks significantly through proper training and safe driving practices.

Those interested in learning more about driving for pleasure or competition may contact Maggie McLaughlin at maggiemc@q.com or Karen McCarthy at karenkmac@gmail.com.