This past winter was tough, and it was especially challenging for dedicated horsemen and women who were determined to continue training toward a goal.
For Pam Kister, who owns Grey Horse Stable in the York, PA area, one goal was to prepare several of her students for the Pennsylvania Horse Expo where they’d do a carriage racing demonstration. Pam took both ponies and miniature horses for the demonstration.
Miniature horses, or minis, are the result of breeding for dwarf genes. As appealing as the little horses are, Pam says the goal is to not have more than five dwarf traits in one animal. Miniature horses must measure less than 39 inches at the withers, so crossing tiny horses with tiny horses is the norm. “In bringing them down to these tiny sizes, they’ve developed some problems,” said Pam.
In working with students, Pam likes to emphasize the importance of ground work and developing a relationship with the animal. Because of their size, most minis are never ridden. Although many are trained to drive, not all are suited for it. “Just because they’re a mini doesn’t mean they’ll drive,” she said. “They’ll let you know, and you have to find another job for them.” Other competitive activities for minis include in-hand trail classes, obstacle courses, and even agility.
Pam explains that solid training for driving is based on classical dressage — a discipline in which horses are taught to work in hand before they work under saddle. “When you’re driving, to ask for correct balance around a corner, you’re asking for shoulder-in,” she said. “It’s teaching the horse how to give, how to bend, and how to be a partner.” Pam says that an effective driver must be a much better horseman than they’d have to be than to be a rider. “You don’t have legs to use — you have to use your voice and the whip. The whip isn’t used excessively — it’s just a touch. We try to teach and promote dressage basics with driving so that drivers have balance and response from the animal.”
To help gain more interest in driving, Pam helped start the carriage obstacle event at the Pennsylvania Horse World Expo. “We wanted to show people that there is a correct way of driving,” she said. “We didn’t want to have people think that driving is just going around the ring with a cute hat on. We decided to do carriage arena racing to show people that this is something fun that can be done with driving.”
The event was based on a carriage racing derby and included obstacles, cones and gates that the driver must negotiate.
Since Pam doesn’t have an indoor arena, Pam and her students prepared for the Pennsylvania Horse World Expo outside, whenever they could — including schooling in the snow.
High school sophomore Hannah Bigler is one of the students who braved the winter to prepare for the Expo. Before learning to drive about two years ago, she was a rider, and says driving has helped her with riding. “I definitely learned more about how to use my hands,” she said. “You can’t use your legs with driving, so you have to learn how to use your voice.” She adds the most difficult part of driving is not having legs or feet for contact. “The pony or horse has to be trained to listen to voice commands.”
Hannah started to prepare Bella, a miniature horse that measures just 34 inches, for the event several months prior to the Expo. “I came out to the farm, just trotted her around at first, then increased the time each week,” said Hannah. “The month before the Expo, I set up hazards and practiced driving around those.”
For a bit of whimsy, some of the competitors created a theme and costume for themselves and their animal. Hannah came up with a bumblebee theme for Bella, and also made herself a costume. “Bella is kind of chunky and looks like a bumblebee,” she said. “I made the wings from wire coat hangers with pantyhose stretched over them.” The antennae — for both Hannah and Bella — are made from large black and yellow pipe cleaners. As Hannah and Bella negotiated the course, ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ played in the background.
Hannah and Bella took on the course each of the four days the Expo was held, and were awarded reserve champion. Hannah says she’s considering veterinary medicine as a career after high school. “I think I’d like to be a large animal veterinarian,” she said. “I’ve always done well in science, and I’d get to work with horses.”