From fast and furious to steady and sedate, there are many ways to enjoy carriage driving. Gayle has a bash at the sport with teenager Che Paton, the British Driving Society’s junior points champion for Scotland…
Trotting down quiet country tracks while perched atop a pony-drawn carriage, the soft Angus landscape takes on a fresh perspective.
I resist the urge to put on a posh voice and bestow a royal wave upon a group of tweed-clad shooters who pause to let us past, and instead, simply revel in the glory of being gawped at.
Indeed, the sight of a pony (or horse) driving a carriage is one to be gawped and gaped at because it’s not that often that folk witness such a thing in this day and age.
For pony-mad 14-year-old Che Paton, being able to indulge in the sport on a regular basis is a dream come true.
The teenager, a fourth-year pupil at Webster’s High School in Kirriemuir, was the British Driving Society’s junior points champion for Scotland last year, and she has high hopes for more big wins in 2019.
Che became hooked on driving after volunteering to help with Shetland ponies owned by Heather Gow of Pitscandly Farm near Forfar.
An accomplished carriage driver herself, Heather recognised Che’s passion, skill and commitment and guided her on her path to success.
“I’ve always been into horses and ponies but my mum’s allergic to them, so I had to beg dad to let me have a riding lesson!” Che tells me.
“I’d only been riding for two years before I started carriage driving but I learned a lot from ponies I had on loan.
“I went along to help with Heather’s ponies in October 2017. I was taught how to tack up the ponies with the carriage and what commands to use to get them to stop, walk forward, and which direction to go in.”
Che entered competitions across Scotland, taking part in three disciplines – long rein, dressage and cone timed trials.
Her dad, Ged, an ambulance driver, was happy to drive her there while Heather took the ponies.
So how does carriage driving work? In Che’s case, she uses a two-wheeled carriage connected to the pony, or ponies, via “traces” and a steering shaft.
The driver – Che – uses the reins to “steer” the pony, similar to riding on horseback.
However unlike riding, where you can use your weight and legs, you’ve only got reins and a whip which should be used to stroke and tap to speed up and steer.
Che drives two Shetlands belonging to Heather – Kinnes Mentor (Muddles) and Kerryston Ernest (Ernie) and she’s just started teaching her own pony, 13.2hh Gypsy Cob Tay of Marcus, or Tay for short, to do it.
He’s only three but he’s brave, intelligent and learning fast. He’s also very handsome and cuddly, and happily allows Che to sit beside him in the garden with a picnic while he grazes.
It’s Tay that Che is driving today, and despite the fact gunshots are being fired close by, he’s completely chilled out.
He’s so good in fact that Che suggests I take over and have a go at driving him, which is quite a big responsibility!
“I’ve had Tay since he was a year old and he’s got a great temperament – there’s not a bad bone in his body,” she beams.
“He can be quite strong but he responds well to voice commands. ‘Come’ means go right. ‘Get’ means go left. I also use ‘steady boy’. ‘woah’, ‘jog on’ and ‘stand’.”
As we venture deeper into the lush countryside, we pass fields of green, yellow and gold – just glorious.
Once Che has shown me hold to hold the reins, in just one hand – my “coaching hand” – I give it a shot.
It’s not as easy as it looks and initially, Tay veers off to one side because I’m holding the reins unevenly, but I soon get the hang of it.
Ultimately, the carriage doesn’t topple over and nobody gets hurt and I feel that with a bit of practice, I could be decent at doing this.
Che agrees, and I blush when she compliments me and says I’m a natural!
Handing her back the reins before anything bad can happen, we head back to her house, chatting about everything from ghosts, Instagram posts and favourite music to equine-related injuries, the most recent being a broken foot incurred after a pony stood on it!
Che hopes Tay will ready to compete in the Carriages at the Castle event at Glamis Castle next June.
“He only started training this year so he’s quite a way off and he hasn’t cantered with the carriage yet,” she says.
“He’s 13.2hh now but he’s still growing and I’ve no idea how big he might be!”
There are different disciplines at competitions – cones, dressage, tack and turnout and trail rides.
Che says she loves the adrenaline rush that comes with cantering round tight corners and trying not to knock cones down, but she also adores the calmness and collectedness of dressage.
She will be competing with the two Shetlands at the British Driving Society’s Central Scotland Area Show at Kilgraston in Perthshire in September.
Her talent for all things equine has been recognised beyond Scotland with equestrian learning app, Equestion, asking her to be an ambassador.
Want to learn to drive horses and ponies? It’s best to get tuition from an expert, or seek help from an established driving yard.
The British Driving Society (BDS) website is a mine of information about all things carriage driving. The BDS was formed in 1957 and aims to support and encourage people interested in carriage driving. britishdrivingsociety.co.uk