Caring for Driving Horses

They might not carry riders on their backs, but they’re athletes just the same

The team of bays deftly maneuvers the water hazard, splashing through a sequence of arcs and figure eights, intermixed with hill climbs and descents back into the water. There may be four of them, but the horses turn in near synchrony with the guidance of their experienced driver and the help of the navigator leaning precariously to keep the carriage upright. Completing the hazard, they surge forward into the canter, headed toward the next challenge on course, a portrait of fitness, stamina, and agility.

Whether it’s pulling a plow or a buggy, going for a pleasure drive, participating in a parade, competing in pleasure classes in a breed show, or contending a combined driving event like the one described, driving poses health considerations both similar to and distinct from those encountered with your typical sport horse.

Basic Care

Rich Forfa, DVM, founder of Monocacy Equine Veterinary Associates, in Beallsville, Maryland, is an FEI veterinarian for combined driving and was part of the vet team for the 2010 and 2014 World Equestrian Games (WEG). Because the basic care for driving horses is similar to that of riding horses, Forfa reminds his clients to follow a wellness program that includes vaccination (with core and risk-based vaccines), deworming, dental exams, and attention to nutrition and hoof care, etc.

Thomas Daniel Jr., DVM, partner at Southern Pines Equine Associates, in North Carolina, was the team veterinarian at the 2000 World Four-in-Hand Championships, in Germany. He commonly sees combined driving clients in his area and advises them to have the vet out to assess soundness before moving into heavy training and after the ­competition season. This allows the veterinarian to see how the horse looks before embarking on a season’s worth of work, then evaluate how he handled it. They might use chiropractic techniques to help pinpoint any underlying back issues.

Daniel is also adamant about dental exams, because he tends to find more advanced dentistry problems in driving horses than in riding horses. Sometimes owners have incorrectly attributed these problems to other causes. “If you don’t maintain their mouths well, they’re going to have problems accepting bits and being able to respond to pressures on those bits,” he says.

A well-maintained mouth promotes not only bit acceptance but also efficient chewing and digestion. And it’s especially important for driving horses to be able to properly use the forages and feed they consume. Many of these are heavily muscled horses—draft horses and Warmbloods—that can be prone to equine metabolic syndrome and insulin dysregulation (abnormally high blood insulin levels), so Daniel cautions against overfeeding them.

Different driving activities require different amounts of exertion. Combined driving competitors must complete dressage tests, for instance, that are more physically demanding than the work performed by pleasure driving horses. And the explosions from trot into canter during the marathon phrase described can be hard on the hocks and stifles, says Forfa. So conditioning is crucial for preparing driving horses of any type—but especially combined driving horses—for the demands of their sport.

Daniel explains the differences he sees in high-level driving horses versus high-level performance horses under saddle: “Younger horses reach higher levels faster in driving,” he says, adding that while you don’t often see a 9-year-old horse show up in the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event, plenty of horses that age compete in the world championships in driving. “And I see older horses maintaining that same high level of athletic endeavor for much longer periods of time than you do in other disciplines.”

Common Conditions to Watch For

Forfa finds most driving horses to be quite sound, which he says is often a result of the diversification in their training, which allows their musculature to become more developed. However, certain conditions and injuries do seem to pop up more than others. The most common issues he sees are hock and stifle injuries, bone spavin (inflammation in a lower hock joint), and sore stifles.

Arthritis, which develops from repeated wear and tear, can affect the pastern and coffin joints, often with age and use and due to conformation and how the horse moves. Forfa says any horse that has been used heavily for driving could develop arthritis, typically from age 14 onward.

Forfa has also seen ringbone (arthritic changes in the coffin and pastern joints) in some driving horses that have more exaggerated movement, such as Dutch Harness horses, Saddlebreds, certain draft breeds, and some Morgans.

Daniel says heavier breeds, such as draft horses, might also be more prone to sidebone (calcification of the cartilage at the sides and rear corners of the heel), but it doesn’t usually become a lameness issue.

He says he sees more hind-end lamenesses and soft tissue injuries than forelimb in driving horses. “I think the back half of them pays for the sport a lot more than the front end does,” he says.

Back issues, which can extend from the withers all the way through the lumbar area to the haunches, can be common among driving horses for several reasons. “These carriages are somewhat heavy, and when you start pulling uphill and (aren’t) fit enough to do that, they may strain the sacroiliac (part of the pelvis) area,” says Forfa.

For this reason Daniel cautions against only considering the lower legs as a cause of lameness. In his practice he sees issues that originate at the elbow level and above the stifle into the pelvis, back, and neck.

“With your riding horse, you get on that back, and so you’re pretty acutely aware of back problems because they’re not going to be able to get away with (hiding pain),” says Daniel. “But with your driving horses, it can be quite subtle.”

He says this might be why back issues in driving horses are often advanced by the time an owner calls a veterinarian.

And while neck issues aren’t common, they can occur from the wear and tear of driving or from an injury, such as from a crash, says Forfa.

Rarely, driving horses can suffer from “sweeney shoulder,” Daniel and Forfa add. This condition occurs when the harness placement pinches the suprascapular nerve (which innervates the shoulder muscles); chronic injury of these tissues eventually causes nerve paralysis. The result is muscle atrophy (wasting) over the scapula. Forfa sees sweeney most commonly in draft horses that pull plows or carriages in Amish communities.

Importance of Footing

“Footing always matters, but when you’re pulling a carriage, it matters even more,” says Daniel.

Forfa says the only tendon injuries he’s seen in driving horses have been footing-related, such as when a horse slips on the marathon course. “And it has always been related to something like coming downhill and tripping or going into an obstacle that was really, really muddy and deep,” he says. However, many combined drivers will pull out of the marathon phase if footing becomes too deep.

To best prepare driving horses for the terrain and surfaces they’ll encounter, Daniel recommends drivers find a farrier who’s familiar with driving horses, the demands of the sport, and the footing.

One such farrier is Jerry Trapani, CF, of Long Island, New York, who has shod and shown dressage and driving horses. He also shoes mounts that work on the roads, including the New York Police Department and United States Park Police horses in New York City. Trapani was a farrier at the 2010 WEG.

He says driving horses are more prone to concussive injuries from the force their legs and hooves sustain on roads and hard, packed footing.

Hoof Care and Traction

Trapani focuses on trimming to a natural angle based on the horse’s conformation. Shoes, of course, must be appropriate for the footing the horse will encounter. They should also provide proper heel support, fit the hoof properly, help balance the foot, and allow appropriate breakover, says Forfa. If driving horses are well-shod, they aren’t likely to develop foot soreness, he says.

“The biggest difference in shoeing the driving horse is giving them traction so that they feel safe on the road,” says Trapani.

One traction method is a rimmed shoe. “The rim fills up with dirt and sand, and it acts like sandpaper on the road, and then you can weld different materials onto the shoe, like borium or Drill Tech (carbraze, a mixture of tungsten and carbide),” he says.

Farriers commonly add studs or stud holes to driving horses’ shoes to improve traction and reduce slipping and sliding, especially during competition. A farrier can drill or hammer drive-in studs that stay in the horse’s shoes long-term. However, to prevent injury to himself or other horses, they only stick out a quarter of an inch, at most.

Temporary studs, such as screw-ins and snap-ins, fit into predrilled holes in the shoe as needed. Rubber, cotton, or foam plugs or blanks can prevent mud and dirt from becoming lodged in the holes and protect the threads so the studs fit well. Drivers often screw in studs just before competition, then remove them after.

Snap-in studs used by European drivers allow a driver to easily snap the stud into a predrilled hole in a matter of minutes.

Drivers should ask their farriers what type of studs—road, mud, grass, bullet, spike, etc.—would be best for their ­situations.

Leg Protection

Forfa says most drivers at least use bell boots to keep horses from grabbing a shoe or heel bulb when they overreach.

Tendon boots are also popular to protect the superficial and deep digital flexor tendons running down the back of the limb. Without protection, these delicate structures are at risk of injury in driving horses, both from leg interference and the carriage itself. So he recommends applying protection to all four legs, especially if driving multiple horses in a hitch, such as pairs and four-in-hands, because there is a chance of other horses ­overreaching, banging their legs together, or stepping on other horses in the hitch.

He cautions against applying polo wraps, though. “If they came loose, the carriage wheel could catch a piece of it that was flapping, and there could be a disaster,” he says.

Conditioning the Driving Horse

“The biggest (concern) in the care of driving horses would be getting these horses properly fit for the sport,” says Forfa, who adds that it can take four to five years to move a combined driving horse up the levels.

“You can get soft tissue damage from slipping and overexertion or if you work a horse too hard and they’re not fit,” says Trapani.  “You have to train them in an interval training situation and develop their muscles, breathing, and respiration and strengthen the tendons and ­ligaments.”

An unprepared horse—or even one that is prepared but is working in high ambient temperatures—can struggle with heat on marathon day. So during this phase, Daniel is careful to look for horses that might be overheating; he has seen body temperatures as high as 109 degrees Fahrenheit during vet checks.

You must consider the effects of the weight of the harness and carriage and the horses’ heavy muscling, as well, because at the higher levels many of these are Warmbloods. Also be careful not to overface a horse by moving him up the levels before he’s physically ready.

“When you start these young horses, they need to be trained with a lighter ­carriage first,” says Forfa, adding that often young horses will only pull a two-wheeled vehicle or a light four-wheeled vehicle initially. “And then as they get fit and more balanced, they’re able to carry the weight and pull the weight better,” he says.

Conditioning is also very important for safety, especially when going downhill. “Some carriages don’t have brakes, and then you’re using the breeching of the harness, which means the carriage goes against the rump of the horse up against the semitendinosus (hamstring) muscle,” adds Forfa. “You have to come down the hill at a pace that the horse can hold the weight back.”

Forfa recommends riding driving horses a couple of times per week to teach or remind them how to carry themselves, with energy coming from behind, and to strengthen and balance their hind ends.

Daniel adds that it’s common for experienced upper-level combined drivers to either ride their horses for conditioning or to hire a rider. “It gives them a break mentally from driving,” says Daniel. “It’s a different task and requires different movements for them … . You can work the back of the horse a lot better under tack than you can in harness.”

Take-Home Message

Get guidance and advice from a veterinarian and a seasoned driver or trainer when developing a conditioning, nutrition, and preventive health program for your driving horse. With proper care, these athletes can enjoy years in harness.