Combined driving is an exhilarating equine sport that involves a single horse or team of horses who pull their human counterpart in a carriage, referred to as a vehicle. Horse driving competitions spans three days and include three unique events: dressage, marathon, and obstacle driving. Winning teams demonstrate athletic ability, endurance, and responsiveness across all three events. If you're interested in competing in combined driving or are just curious about the sport, there are specific terminology and guidelines you should understand.
Combined Driving Basics
Combined driving is a team sport. Each team consists of the driver, called the whip, and at least one assistant, called the groom. Grooms must be available to help whips at all times. Whips and grooms ride in carriages and drive single horses, pairs of horses, or teams of four horses in three different events. One groom rides with single horses and pairs, and two grooms ride with four-in-hand teams.
The American Driving Society (ADS) is the governing body for combined driving in the United States and Canada. The Federation Equestrian International (FEI) sanctions combined driving competitions on the international level.
The sport welcomes drivers of all abilities, and many competitions have Junior age-level divisions. Children under age 16 must have grooms over age 18 accompany them on their vehicles. Adult drivers may use grooms as young as 12 years of age. New whips begin at the training level and progress through preliminary, intermediate, and advanced levels, based on the whip's skills. Experienced whips may choose to show novice horses at the training level until the horses gain experience.
Horses for Driving
Any horse or pony may compete in combined driving, as long as they are at least 6 years of age, in good health, and sound. However, some of the most popular breeds used in this sport are Koninklijk Warmbloed Paard Nederlands (KWPN), Hackneys, Morgans, and American Saddlebreds. Mares may not compete if they are more than four months pregnant or with foals at side. Horses may have their manes braided for competition, but competition rules do not require this. However, ADS prohibits the use of fake tails.
Equipment and Apparel for Combined Driving
Both horses and individuals participating in combined driving must have proper gear. This is necessary for function as well as appearance, which is an important element of the sport.
Horses wear black or russet-colored natural leather harnesses in competition. Black harnesses complement black-trimmed or iron-trimmed vehicles. Russet harnesses look best with brown or natural wood vehicles.
The ADS encourages drivers to choose vehicles that complement their horses and overall team appearance. Single horses may pull two-wheeled vehicles, while pairs and four-in-hand teams must have four-wheeled vehicles. Budget around $500 for practice vehicles, and plan on paying $5,500 or more for competition vehicles.
Drivers wear modern, conservative clothing in competitions. Men wear jackets, while women may choose dresses or tailored suits. All drivers must wear gloves, knee rugs, and hats or helmets. Protective vests are optional.
Combined driving is similar to three-day eventing; horses and whips compete for three days in one event per day.
Teams compete in dressage on the first day of competition. Horses perform patterns with up to 16 maneuvers in a 40-by-100-meter arena with letter markers around the edge. Judges base their scores on the team's overall presentation as well as their rhythm, impulsion -- measured by the horse's desire to move forward and the character of that movement -- and elasticity during their execution of the dressage pattern.
Teams must execute figure eights and circles at a walk, trot, and canter. Some patterns require horses to switch between a working trot, a collected trot, and an extended trot, especially at the upper competition levels. Halt and rein back are other elements of the dressage pattern. Whips may use voice commands without penalty, unlike single rider dressage events.
Judges give teams scores between 1 and 10. The team with the highest score wins this portion of the competition.
The second day of competition is for the marathon. Teams navigate multiple hazards over courses ranging from 6 to 13 miles. Whips must guide their horses through trees, up steep hills, and across water. Many courses combine natural features with man-made obstacles.
The marathon is a timed event, and teams earn penalties for finishing after the optimal time. Judges also penalize obstacle refusals. The winning team has the fastest time with the fewest penalties.
Obstacle driving is the final element of the combined driving competition, and it is held on the third day. This event tests a team's speed and accuracy. Whips navigate through a series of 20 cones with balancing balls on top. They must not knock any over or go off pattern. At upper competition levels, whips also guide their teams over bridges and through raised rails. The distance between cones is only a few inches wider than the vehicle's wheelbase, so drivers must negotiate the course with exact precision to avoid penalties.
Like the marathon, obstacle driving courses are timed, and teams earn penalties for going over the ideal time and circling any obstacle before attempting it. The winning team has the fastest time with the fewest penalties.
Judges combine the team's dressage, marathon, and obstacle driving scores to determine the overall winner of the competition. The winning team has the lowest penalty score from all three events.
Although any sound, healthy horse can compete in combined driving, proper training is important to ensure horse and driver safety. The ADS encourages anyone interested in the sport to contact the regional office to find local trainers and mentors. The ADS website has current trainer information for each region across the United States and Canada. On the website, begin by selecting the applicable region, then select the state to find the list. Not all states have ADS member clubs or trainers.
After contacting a trainer, expect to start driving the trainer's experienced horse. The trainer may then begin teaching the novice's own horses. Volunteering at combined driving competitions gives potential drivers the opportunity to network with judges and competitors while learning more about the sport.
Once competitors reach preliminary level competitions, they may apply for US Equestrian's Developing Driver program. This allows them to attend clinics with successful drivers and increase their skills so they can compete at the international level.
An Exciting Sport
Combined driving is an exciting sport for both competitors and spectators. Because drivers of all ages and abilities may compete, this is the ideal sport for families to showcase their horse's fitness and training together.