Monday, December 7, 2009

Special Request:

"In one of your posts you asked what topics folks would like you to write about. I'd like to hear how you got into driving horses and what you did to gain skills and confidence."

A lost and confused tourist approaches a carriage driver and asks, "How do I get to Abravanel (Symphony) Hall?"

The smart ass carriage driver replies, "Practice, practice, practice."

My equine career began at the tender age of 12. I worked for a Grandpa-ish man who hauled Shetlands to picnics and birthday parties for children's pony rides. My job was to pick them up (the children, not the ponies) plant their butts in the saddle, and walk them in a circle. Occasionally I took a turn on turd patrol, with a five gallon bucket and a manure fork.

I made a dollar an hour and was in horse heaven.

When we moved to Missouri in 1995 I was temporarily employed as a mare handler on a stud farm, which was an interesting but dangerous job.

Pause for a Side Rant:

Slave Driver turns a feed bucket over and stands on it 1) to make her taller and more imposing and 2) because she doesn't own a soapbox.

Attention Broodmare Owners,

Just because you own a female horse that you have decided to turn exclusively into a broodmare for one of the following reasons—

1) She's lame but you spent a lot of money on her because she has a fabulous pedigree and now you feel compelled to do something with her.

2) She has a fabulous pedigree and you feel compelled to breed her.

3) She has the correct working reproductive organs and you feel compelled to breed her just because you can.

4) OR you want a home grown baby horse so you can raise it/train it yourself.

—Is NO excuse for never teaching your horse manners. A mare handler should never have to arm themselves with a riding crop because your bitch never learned personal space, how to walk nice in a halter, and doesn't want anything to do with the stud because although you think she's in season she's not, or your slutty mare wants to be serviced so bad she's gonna throw Mr. Stallion on the ground and have her way with him RIGHT NOW, ready or not, just to "Get 'Er Done."

Ground Manners. Every horse should have them. ESPECIALLY those about to experience a hormone induced frenzy.

End Rant.

Slave Driver kicks the feed bucket over in the corner, reinjuring the same foot that draft horse Hank stepped on last week. She then hops around, clutching the foot and swearing like a Long Shoreman for a while.

Fast forward to 2004: We moved to Utah. Putzing around reading the paper one morning I spy a job notice under the category of DRIVERS, right there with the OTR truckers and floral delivery folks. I am a little leary about applying because when I lived in a suburb of Kansas City they had two carriage companies tooling around the downtown Plaza. I checked into that job, and in Missouri you had to have a chauffeurs license, which is waaay too much work because I'm lazy like that. Plus at one point one Carriage company owner allegedly took a contract out on the other Carriage company owner. Having grown up in the Chicago area I am familiar with mob hits and had no desire to go anywhere near that shit, TYVM.

I call, go in and apply for the job, get interviewed by Ro, and begin my career as a horse drawn carriage driver on April 1, 2004. Yes, April Fool's Day. The Irony is not lost on me, believe it or not.

Anyway, I've never lacked for confidence and have always had an "I can do that" attitude (except for heights. And small spaces. I have a "No way in Hell" attitude about those.) Now whether or not do it well, that's another, purely subjective story. Glass blowing? Sure, I'd try that. Brain surgery? Possibly, but finding a willing test subject might get a little dicey.

Having ridden horses most of my life I figured driving them would be a piece of cake. And for me, it has been. But it also comes down to a set of skills:

I'm good with Spatial Concepts: ie I pilot a vehicle approximately 17 feet long, nose to boot, that "breaks" in the center and whose motor sometimes cannot grasp the reality that the caboose is wider than the engine. So you learn, as one does with riding horses, to anticipate certain reactions to stimuli. I'm also good at Tetris, so the question of "How am I going to negotiate this honkin' thing in that little space?" is easy for me to figure out and most importantly, experience. Boring, routine, driving around in the same circle, experience. (Practice, practice, practice.)

Recently I watched a show about the stuff that covers the connections we make in our brains. Now, because of years of liberal alcohol use, combined with several unexpected whacks upside the head, for the life of me I cannot remember all the technical names for the thing-a-ma-bobs but what it comes down to is this: People who excel at what they do excel because they practice.

The same stuff that the Natural Horsemanship Voodoo Priests sell (but they fancy names like "joining up", "carrot stick" or "Vulcan Mind Meld" and then slap a really high price tag on it): Repetition, repetition, repetition is what makes people proficient at what they do, because when you repeat the same double Salchow/jump shot/Chess game over and over there is a process going on in your brain that coats the connections and firms them up, making a reaction become a reflex. Automatic. Instantaneous.

This is why new employees start out with horses that essentially train the driver. Some of our horses, if they had thumbs, could practically do this job without a driver. Cletus makes sure the newbies stay on the correct route, often indicating where to turn right or left. Charlie had been known to, upon a trainee doing something stupid, turn and give the trainer an eyeroll and a look that says, "You're shitting me, right?" On at least one occasion a new driver neglected to attach the lines to the horses bit, instead having them buckled to an "O" ring on the hames, and drove Chief all the way to South Gate like that. (For you non-horsey people, imagine removing the handlebars from your bike and riding it like that, in traffic.) Now, had Chief not been the consummate professional he was, this might have ended very badly. But Chief, besides being a former circus horse, was one of those individuals that excelled at his job because of years of practice.

Repetition, repetition, repetition.

That’s the secret. No magic bullet, so New Pill that allows you to Lose Weight while you sleep and Build Skills as a Carriage Driver, (Oh, God, I only WISH!!!) just practice, practice, practice.

And, of course I have to add my regular caveat: You need to be a little bit smarter than the horse. And the carriage.

You must be smarter than Wesson to be a carriage driver.


Anonymous said...

Awww, a Wes pic! I love it! So many people fail the You Must Be Smarter Than Wesson Test too. Even some drivers that had been there forever...they totally failed and blamed it on Wes. Whatever.

I'm convinced Klein is smarter than about 90% of the people I deal with on a daily basis.

Texanne said...

Slave Driver explains it all to you. So, spill: who was your trainer (human, now) on your first night of driving? And what did you think when you first laid eyes on these king-sized horses?

Write One said...

Confession is good for the soul. I am not smarter than Wes and big horses scare the %^&%*&^ of out me.
It reminds me of what my grandaughter said last week. "I don't like that Santa. He's scary. I like the LITTLE Santa." Any one know where i can find the LITTLE Santa?

Lisa Deon said...


My first three trainers were the now departed Glenn (driving Sam, a massive Clydesdale) Belle's Personal Assistant (driving Red) and Mr Carriage Clause, and for the life of me I cannot recall the horse. And as far as the horse size- well, my horse Dreamer is small, 14.3 hands, and Sam was a giant in comparison. I, too, and "compact", so it was literally a stretch for me to brush Sam.

Eventally, with the tall ones, I resorted to using a step stool to bit them up or I accost one of the taller male workers, like Mormon Outlaw (who likes to refer to me as a "Smurfette") and beg them to do it for me. With all the winter clothes on I find it difficult to get my arms over my head. ;)

Once Upon an Equine said...

That was a fun read. I need to drive a horse like Chief for awhile, although I do know to attach the lines to the bit. What a good babysitter Chief must be!

How long before your new drivers are allowed out on their own?

Lisa Deon said...

Once upon an equine,

It all depends. Some never get cut loose, because they don't pass the "Smarter than the horse" test. Others train between 5-11 (yes, eleven days before they are considered "done".

And of course some we run off the first night because knowing keeping them around any longer is just a big fat waste of our time.

The average is 5-6 nights of training.