4 Driving Classes You’ve Never Heard Of

Because attaching a wheeled object to a horse with only one thin set of lines to control it isn’t already illogical enough.

Top photo: Matthias Kabel/Wikimedia Commons

Driving horses is a world unto itself–once you actually get over the fact that you have only lines and your voice to control your horse(s), there’s a whole new realm of terminology, equipment, history and tradition in which to immerse yourself (and if you’re into fine harness, immerse yourself quickly before you perform some terrible faux pas that will have you blacklisted from all the finest celebratory post-show galas.)

And then when you’ve finally figured out just what exactly the market tug is, where the quarter strap goes and why a spider phaeton is not at all what it sounds like, you’ve got the prize list to contend with:

Runabout Cross Country Obstacle

What it sounds like it means: running out at cross country fences? Running away on the cross country course?

What it actually means: a runabout is a four-wheeled light carriage used for “running about” or basic errands. It lacks the bells and whistles of more formal carriages, such as fenders or heavy tops. Light enough to be managed by a single person and pulled by a single horse, it also loans itself well to cross country obstacle, a class in which competitors will navigate a course of natural and artificial obstacles. These obstacles might include open or covered bridges, water and even livestock, with competitors seeking to complete the course within an optimum time limit. Faults include breaking gait from the trot to the canter, knocking an obstacle, refusals or going off-course.

Single Horse to Gig

What it sounds like: hooking your lonely horse up with a job.

What is actually means: a gig refers to a two-wheeled cart with springs drawn by a single horse in which the driver’s seat is higher than the shafts (allowing the driver to better see the horse and the roadway ahead.) Gigs are more on the formal side and can include a variety of subcategories. Gigs are usually intended to be pulled by a single horse, though they also appear in tandem classes (where two horses are hitched in single file.) The entire class name single horse to gig usually refers to a pleasure turnout class, in which entries are judged at the walk and various speeds of trot on condition, appropriateness of cart, harness and attire and the overall impression of turnout, as well as way of going and performance.


A gig on display at a museum in Hungary.
Wikimedia Commons

Unicorn Hitch

What it sounds like: …exactly what it sounds like. Someone found a unicorn and put it to a cart.

What it actually means: the unicorn hitch refers to a three-horse setup in which a third horse (called the “leader”) is added out ahead of a pair (referred to as the “wheels” or “wheelers.”) This hitch would have been used originally when the strength of a third horse was required for pulling a particular load but the roadway was not wide enough for three horses abreast. Now it’s become almost strictly a show class, with the lead horse typically the showiest of the three–he should have action but not be dragging the wheel horses behind him, going easily but not shirking in pulling his weight.

A unicorn hitch of ponies. Xocolatl/Wikimedia Commons

A unicorn hitch of ponies.
Xocolatl/Wikimedia Commons

Ladies Wicker Phaeton Picnic Turnout

What it sounds like: A bunch of ladies drive around and go on a picnic.

What it actually means: A bunch of ladies drive around and go on a picnic.

phaeton was basically a nineteenth-century version of a sports car: slightly extravagant, usually beautifully outfitted, a symbol of material wealth and somewhat dangerous to drive due to its high center of gravity. These four-wheeled carriages would have been driven by the upper classes (Queen Elizabeth still parades in a phaeton on certain holidays.) The picnic class seems to be unique to the Walnut Hill Carriage Driving Competition held in August each year in Pittsford, New York, and calls for ladies to first drive their phaetons in the ring where they are judged on their turnout, appointments and performance, then all entries exit the ring, unhitch their horses (the horses will be taken back to the stables by grooms) and set up a picnic lunch on tables provided by show management. The picnic must include enough food for everyone that was in the carriage, and all of the food, dishes, silverware and serving tools are to be carried in the phaeton for the driving portion of the class. The judges make their rounds, noting turnout as well as picnic set up and of course a taste test of all of the food packed. (As you might imagine, the food and set-up is much more finger sandwiches and fine silver and less hot dogs and paper plates.)

A wood engraving of a phaeton. Wikimedia Commons

A wood engraving of a phaeton.
Wikimedia Commons

Go driving!

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