A little under 5 years ago, I trained and drove a cart pony for the first time. I had never actually driven a horse/pony in draft before training my own to do this, but assumed that the basic concepts in training a riding horse would apply. I wasn’t exactly wrong in that assumption, but I wasn’t 100% correct either. There are additional considerations to training a cart animal, and the equipment wasn’t as intuitive as your basic riding equipment. If things go wrong with a riding horse, worst case scenario, you hit the dirt and your horse runs away. If things go wrong with a cart horse, not only can you hit the dirt, but your animal could be free with an extremely frightening large object chasing him that he can not get away from. That object becomes a danger to the horse, you, and anything else the two of them come in contact with.
I’ve trained four driving ponies now. Three of them are solid citizens that have driven on the open road, trails, and in parades. The fourth is living happily unemployed. His current owners did not have the experience or time to give a highly sensitive animal the consistent work he needed. In my limited training experience the most difficult thing to judge is how well you have prepared a pony to finally hitch to the cart. The methods for preparing a pony/horse for cart are varied, but usually consist of lots of ground driving, then slowly introducing items for the animal to drag, then taking a leap of faith an animal that calmly and consistently drags items will follow suit when hitched to the cart.
The leap comes, because no matter how well prepared an animal is dragging stuff on the ground, once you hitch to an object with wheels, it will continue to roll after the animal stops. There will be pressure in the shaft loops, saddle, and breeching that can’t be duplicated dragging items on the ground. On flat ground or moving at a slow walk, this isn’t an issue, but I want to know when I increase incline or speed the first time, I’m not alone with my decisions in a cart attached to an animal that is freaking out. I train alone most of the time, so I usually don’t have the luxury of someone holding the end of an emergency lead attached to my pony should $hit get real.
Because I’ve only trained small ponies, and I don’t own a heavy training cart with brakes, I have for all four ponies, hitched to the cart, and ground drove from the side rather than sitting in the seat. I have the weight and leverage to control a less than 500 pound animal from a standstill on the ground. It isn’t something I would try with a full size horse. For that, I would invest in a heavy training cart with brakes that could turn a vehicle with wheels into something very heavy to drag.
However, the pony driving snobs (usually older, less fit ladies that don’t spend much time with anything bigger than a pony), are quick to tell me my training tactics are unsafe and you should never drive from the ground when hitched. Funny, the very people telling me that also get out of their carts and drive from the ground on steep inclines and challenging terrain. I’ll admit hitching to the cart, with only a prayer that I’ve estimated my ponies’ comfort level correctly isn’t ideal. There is still the chance whether I’m in the cart or not, that the pony will freak out during that first hitch and have a wreck, ruining my good carts. Professional horse trainers with far greater skills than me have overestimated their animals’ preparation with disastrous results and demolished wagons.
So when I came across a picture of someone using a 55 gallon barrel with a rod through the center, with what appeared to be shafts made from PVC pipe, I knew I had come across a stroke of genius. I didn’t have a full picture of the apparatus, but the general concept was enough to create a pretty amazing prototype. Finally, I had the object that would put pressure into the breeching when trying to stop. It was light weight and could break apart with less chance of serious injury to anything, and because I had all of the materials lying around the farm, remnants of past farm improvement projects, it was practically free to make. I think I ended up spending $7 dollars on a few small pieces of hardware.
In under an hour, I had a barrel attached to an axel with shafts, breeching loops, and trace hooks. I had thought about rigging up a single tree, but decided against the extra design effort considering the entire thing only weighs about 20 pounds. The barrel not only solved some old problems, it also solved some new problems. I’m a big believer in using blinders while driving, but also want ponies that are cool with something following behind them without blinders. Yes, they can drag tarps or have bags tied to them that will flap for desensitization, but none of that truly duplicates a cart. I can’t think of anything scarier than a barrel as big as the pony, loudly rolling behind them. An empty plastic barrel makes a lot of noise rolling on gravel. A pony that can pull this contraption sans blinders without losing their mind is a pony that will be totally fine with a smooth quiet easy entry cart .
Someone posted videos of their “trainer” leading a Shetland in a normal nylon halter (no blinders) pulling an easy entry cart in one of my social media driving groups. I was impressed, because none of the usual trolls jumped on the post to complain that the “trainer” wasn’t sitting in the cart. I use quotations to describe the person in the video, because I have no idea whether this is a professional with hundreds of trained ponies under her belt, or just someone like me that discovered they aren’t half bad at producing solid/safe driving ponies with limited professional knowledge. Personally, I loved the training method, but wasn’t willing to sacrifice any of my carts for this training step, but I would happily offer up the barrel for this training experiment.
So on Thursday night, I decided Tater Tot was ready for the barrel. She’s been driving great, totally fine with the travois. I rolled it around her, threw some harness on and hitched her up while she stood there wearing only a halter. And then…..nothing. It was almost anti-climatic. Tater just walked off. She dropped her head to graze and could care less that something was attached to her. We walked then trotted down the drive way, barrel half bouncing, half rolling on the gravel. There wasn’t much to do at that point besides switch to the bridle and blinders. Once again no issue other than Tater wanting to graze every time we stopped in the grass.
Maybe Tater was an anomaly. We have treated her more like a dog than a horse for most of her life. Not much phases her. She spent most of her early life living in our back yard, with Offspring running around her screaming and just doing kid things. I decided it was time to test Summer Cloud. Summer has a good 100 pounds on Tater. She wasn’t raised by us, was rarely handled by her previous owners, and was on the back burner as far as training due to pregnancy. So while I’ve done a fair amount of work with her over the past month or so, she just isn’t as laid back as Tater. Summer is skeptical of all new experiences where Tater views them as an opportunity to get more treats. I have ground driven Summer wearing a bridle/blinders with the travois and using a field drag. She was good with both, just struggles to stand for longer than a few minutes.
I went through the exact same initial process with Summer as Tater. Rolled the barrel around her a bit, harnessed her, and started hitching her up while she stood tied in a halter. Then I untied her and attempted to lead her. I say attempted because three steps in she bolted. I pulled her onto a circle, and thought if I just gave her a few minutes of spook, she would understand the concept. I pulled her to a stop after several revolutions at a gallop, and gave her a chance to calm down and think. Then I asked her to walk again. Once again Summer bolted, but this time she decide bucking might be better. She broke in half like miniature rough stock. Summer and the barrel went hopping in a circle. I pulled her back down to a stop. Third time’s a charm…Off she went bucking and this time she popped an elbow off the PVC axel and the barrel detached from the shafts.
The training barrel was busted until the PVC pipe glue could set, so I decided to have her drag a tarp for a while. We ended the night in semi-success. By the end of our session she was calmly dragging a tarp. The next day I hooked Summer up to the repaired barrel again. I did have the luxury of a helper, that helped stabilize the barrel by looping a rope around the axel frame so that if Summer bolted the barrel would bounce less. We had good and bad moments. Several times Summer attempted to bolt, buck, and run me over. However, each time I brought her back down, gave her a few moments to think and then started again. By the end, she walked several large circles in both directions on a loose lead.
With repetition, Summer will become more and more comfortable with the barrel. She’s also learning to stop and think. If she can calmly pull the barrel around with no anxiety while only wearing a halter, I’ll know she’s 100% ready for the cart in a full bridle and blinders. I plan to have both Tater and Summer do at least two full weeks of driving with the barrel, on the road, in the pasture with other horses, and up/down ditches before moving them to the cart. I had initially given myself a goal of having them both driving by the middle of September as part of another virtual challenge. We’re on schedule to make that date. Tater is probably ready now, but repetition with the barrel won’t hurt. Summer will take a little longer, but she’s well on her way to becoming a decent cart pony.
The Training Barrel is the true rock star of this story though. Not only did it work great, it took a hit, was easily/inexpensively repaired, and back in action the next day. I will have so much more confidence in my ponies’ preparation for the cart when my butt does eventually hit the seat after using the barrel.