Andrea Pianka started riding horses when she was seven years old, starting at a hunter/jumper barn and later competing in saddle seat equitation. However, she transitioned to carriage pleasure driving after becoming quadriplegic in a car accident when she was 18.
“I’ve always liked driving, and then when I got injured, I started learning about adaptive driving with a carriage and it opened up a whole new world,” Pianka said. “I was very happy to know that I could still do something. And I like driving anyway, so with some modifications and meeting the right people who were willing to work with me on the equipment and the whole process, I was able to get into adaptive carriage driving.”
Pianka described carriage driving as “totally different” from her previous equestrian experience, especially with the accommodations she uses.
“If you're sitting behind the horse versus sitting on top, there are different aids that you're not able to use with driving. You don't have your legs, so you have the whip, which kind of takes the place of your legs to make the horse go forward,” she said. “Driving is mostly with your voice and with your hands. Mostly a lot of voice for me because my fingers don't move. When I drive, I actually drive with my wrist. I have wrist cuffs. So I rely a lot on voice, and my Morgan mare, Reba, is really well trained for that.”
In addition to adapting her driving technique, Pianka also had to find the right carriage and equipment for both her driving preferences and her disability—a process she undertook with help from her community. Pianka obtained her carriage after seeing one she liked on another woman’s Facebook page.
“I saw her on Facebook, and I saw her carriage, and thought it was really great,” Pianka said. “We connected, and she told me that there was a gentleman in Colorado. His name is Joseph Johnson of Freedom Carriages, and he's super talented. It's really a great vehicle. I couldn’t have asked for anything better. It works for me, and it works for my little Morgan mare.”
Despite the multiple adjustments she had to make while transitioning between disciplines, Pianka also found parallels between carriage driving and saddle seat equitation, noting that both disciplines require balance, posture, and pattern memorization.
“The horse has to be balanced in a way where there's impulsion from the back end. They're driving from the back, which lightens up their front end. And that's also a concept with saddle seat as well. You want the horse to be driving from their back end and being collected up front,” Pianka said. “If you're slouched over in the carriage in your posture, then the horse is kind of crooked, and so it's kind of similar that way.”
Pianka said that different disciplines interacting with each other is “a really important topic.”
“People shouldn't be so closed-minded to other disciplines. I think there are benefits that are sort of interconnected between all disciplines. Whether it's dressage or Western, I think there's something that can be kind of used for each discipline,” Pianka said.
Pianka explained that this open-minded attitude is prevalent among her colleagues at Braeburn Equestrian Center in Valatie, N.Y. She specifically mentioned working alongside Jeff Morse of Green Meads Farm and coaching Page and Amy Champion as they added carriage driving into their program (which also includes saddle seat, pleasure driving, and roadsters).
“Carriage was a little bit new to [Page and Amy], but they were willing to give it their all and give it a go,” Pianka said. “That's what we like most about being at that barn; they're not afraid to ask for outside help, and they're very open to new ideas and other ways that they can make their horses perform better. And sometimes that may come from another discipline. The disciplines can benefit from each other, and it's kind of refreshing to learn about something new.”
The three of them have also received expertise and guidance from longtime carriage driver Elsie Rodney, who also shows and drives with Pianka.
“She comes in and helps me with the carriage and the adaptive part; she actually sits next to me. She's my partner in crime. She's been a carriage driver for probably 50 years, and she's also worked in the therapeutic riding world, so she has that knowledge,” Pianka said. “And she gives Amy and Page really valuable information.”
Pianka is currently planning to compete in the New England Morgan Horse Show, taking place July 24-29, 2023.
“Hopefully the weather holds out; we've had some weird weather here in western Massachusetts,” Pianka said. “Hopefully it all works out well. It's my favorite show of the season. There’s a lot of history to it, and it's just really fun.”