An experienced HorseDriver knows that not all equines are the same, and neither is the drive. Commercial carriage driving is one form of driving that opens the door to learning from many different horses through their many different lessons. Our own ambassador, Justinn Harrison, has a history in commercial carriage driving and has shared with us all some of those lessons she has learned while on the job, and some considerations for future commercial drivers.
When I answered an ad looking for horse people wanting to make extra money on weekends, I thought I would just be spending a few hours sitting in a carriage watching a horse walk around. I loved horses, after all, and I wasn’t afraid of even the biggest among them. After the fire breathing dragons I worked with in the eventing world, the placid draft horses were the change of pace my burnt-out heart was hunting for. Turns out, there’s a lot more to being a commercial carriage driver than a little bit of horse sense and the ability to steer. Through a series of trials where I was often fending for myself, I discovered quite a few more traits that seem to be essential to life behind a horse.
First off, there’s flexibility. Not so much the physical kind, though climbing up on the driver’s box of a Vis a Vis does need a bit of bendiness. Particularly when you are wearing six layers of cold weather gear. But the real stretch to our comfort is much more mental. Be ready to endure every kind of weather, from blowing snow to rain, to blistering sun. Be prepared for everything from wretched boredom to non-stop fares. And for the love of all that is holy, make sure your bladder has a certain amount of elasticity too. You won’t get a chance to relieve yourself until the job is done, typically.
Secondly, how are your acting skills? Can you smile brightly a million times as you talk to passersby, hoping one will be lured in for a ride? Can you be calm and reassuring when a stressed-out bride or tired toddler is in the middle of a meltdown? Develop a patter as cute as all the viral videos you’ve ever seen of the best flight attendants in the business. Be funny for the hayrides, be unobtrusive for the couple looking for romance, and be full of cheer for the holidays you will invariably be helping to celebrate. And for the sake of your own sanity, find a smile for the eventual soul that yells at you for abusing your horse for working with him. Arguing with them will never change their minds, but being the good example just might.
After that, I recommend you get intimately familiar with your equipment. Know exactly how to place the bridle so the gelding with a penchant for shaking it off can’t pull his usual tricks. Make your horse grateful when you notice his breeching could stand to be adjusted, be a stickler for running your hands over every strap. Do a full walk around before you climb on the box, so you know everything is correct. Yes, your safety relies upon those things, but so does your horse’s safety and the lives of every last passenger you have.
Even more seriously, be committed. Completely. Sure, the fact that you always show up on time for a job is going to make your boss love you. Your horse, or horses, will feel your commitment to the job and feed off of it. I’ve had rough nights with the wrong equipment, or unfavorable conditions, but if you are all in, your horses are more likely to be all in with you. And be one hundred percent committed to your role as the driver. When things go pear shaped (and they will, eventually) it is not just your job, but your duty, to ride your carriage into the ground if necessary. You owe it to the horses that trust us to step into the fray, and the people who trust us with their most precious moments.
Last of all, love ALL horses, particularly the one you are driving at that very moment. Sure, some are going to be more fun, simply a better match for you in personality or experience. After all, I met my heart horse while on a job, and he’s still with me, even in retirement. But when a job needs to be done and your favorite isn’t up for the task, you’ll be taking up the reins of a different horse. The client isn’t going to reschedule, the calendar won’t bend. So, open up your heart as wide as it will go, be grateful for the green horse still looking at every shiny thing he sees, for the old guy who has one speed only but will always get you there safe, and for the absolute perfection of a horse who answers your call to walk on, even when he is scared. And those times you get to drive your favorite, put your incandescent happiness into the reins. Even when you can’t feel a thing through your frozen fingers, your horse will feel it all.
Other skills will come along the way, from the ability to single handedly load a hay wagon onto a flat bed with a come along winch, to navigating the wilds of a shopping center parking lot during the holiday season while towing an extra long stock trailer. You’ll become a connoisseur of finding the right hat for every occasion and discover the simplicity of a hot drink after being frozen in place on the box for several hours. You will develop an unhealthy obsession with great socks and even better gloves. But more than any of that, you will find an ever-deepening love for the horse every time you climb down from the driver’s box and pat him for another job well done. He stood steady in a throng of children, endured the drunken staggering of a group of adults, navigated around buses, motorcycles and the occasional fire truck. Against his primal nature to flee pressure, he answered you again and again. You will know better than anyone else alive that we do not deserve their service. But you will spend the rest of your life trying to be worthy of their trust.
For more information on commercial carriage driving and how to get involved, visit CONA Commercial Carriage Operators of North America