Trying a different discipline, even temporarily, can open your eyes to new possibilities. That’s what 17-year-old eventer Heather Kottwitz is finding since she started taking combined driving lessons in addition to her dressage, stadium, and cross-country riding.
Kottwitz, from Ashland, Mo., isn’t planning to hang up her saddle; she competes her Morgan gelding Sidney at Training level and loves it. But her recent foray into combined driving has helped her learn a different language between horse and human—something she feels will benefit her horsemanship overall, whether she’s in a saddle or a carriage.
Combined driving is modeled on the mounted discipline of eventing, testing each equestrian’s ability and the horses’ obedience, speed, and athleticism in three demanding phases. In eventing, horses and riders compete in dressage, cross-country, and show jumping. In combined driving, the equivalent phases are driven dressage, marathon, and cones. To learn more about combined driving, visit the American Driving Society, US Equestrian’s combined driving page, and our Learning Center video introduction to the sport. To learn more about three-day eventing, visit the United States Eventing Association or US Equestrian’s eventing page.
Kottwitz, who is based at Greystone Equestrian Center in Hartsburg, Mo., for eventing, but for the last six months she’s also been learning to drive with Edna Oakley’s half-Arabian mare, Kitty.
“I love the idea of combined training, in general, because it forces you to learn proper flatwork and learn the basics of having a horse carry weight, whether it’s you on their back in a saddle or sitting behind them in a carriage,” explained Kottwitz. “And for both eventing and driving, dressage improves everything. I think it also helps with soundness, because they learn how to really use their bodies, like how to rock back on their hind ends when they jump out of a gallop across country in eventing.
“I’m still learning about the marathon concepts in combined driving. At training level and preliminary level, you have to trot through the whole marathon, except that in prelim combined driving, when you get in the hazards you can canter through them—but you can’t canter between them. So that trot work is about 90% of what they’re doing, and that fitness from the trot work and from their learning how to use their body correctly, how to properly pull that weight forward over a period of time, that’s so profoundly important.”
Trying a different discipline has opened a new world and new ways of thinking, Kottwitz says. “I think I have an amazingly different perspective and a real respect for the driving horses, the drivers, and the handlers,” she said. “When you see a four-in-hand go through hazards and they’re cantering and it’s tight, that is amazing! I navigated for a driver at a show with a single pony, and that was crazy, just so cool! I just think what they do is incredible. It’s given me so much respect.”
A New Language with Horses
Kottwitz’s introduction to driving was serendipitous. Oakley, Sidney’s prior owner, had bought the gelding as a driving prospect, “which is hilarious, because he hates it!” Kottwitz said.
So not only did Kottwitz get a nice equine partner in Sidney, she also got a connection into driving—a sport that had always intrigued her.
“I’ve always thought driving was really cool, but there are only one or two people in our area who do it,” she said. “I love the community in both eventing and combined driving. They’re very similar. The driving community is very close-knit and like a family, and I love that.”
When Kottwitz first took up the reins to drive Kitty, she already had a good relationship with the 14-year-old mare. At Oakley’s request, she had been schooling Kitty under saddle in dressage.
“I’ve been riding her in dressage for quite a while, so I had that basic knowledge, but I really just need to work on the carriage part!” said Kottwitz. “For example, with turns between the cones—or, in the marathon, the hazards—you can’t just turn when your horse is ready to turn. You have to make sure to wait until the carriage is clear, and then you can turn. The back wheels are behind your peripheral vision, so until you get a feel for where the wheels are, you have to look back to check that you’re clear. There are other things, too.
“I’m definitely not an expert! I’m still figuring so much out!” she added.
The differences in how an equestrian communicates with a horse in each discipline interests Kottwitz. “When I’m in the saddle, my horse can feel when I shove my heel down,” Kottwitz said. “He can feel my seat bones changing to a different angle, he can feel me suck in my core, and he knows what all of that means. At this stage, I’m still figuring out how those things translate to driving. I think a lot of it has to do with discipline, a lot of work at home building trust, and voice commands, too. Those are relevant to all equestrian sports, but maybe even more so in driving.”
Has her relatively new experience of driving influenced her eventing? It’s certainly given her a valuable new perspective, Kottwitz says.
“I think it has made me change the way I prepare for eventing,” she said. “Like eventing horses, the driving horses know when they’re going to go cross-country or when they’re going to go do cones for their stadium round. My event horse is so ready to go and can get ridiculous. You can see some driving horses are that ready, too, but they find it within themselves to be still and really focus and listen to the driver. It helps me understand how much a horse, whether it’s an event horse or a driving horse, is really able to contain themselves and be what their rider or driver needs them to be in that moment. And I appreciate how long it can take, and how much training it takes, to get to that point. Those upper-level horses in both eventing and combined driving have been through so much training and so many steps to get there. I think I’m still working on taking that part of what I’m learning from combined driving and carrying it over into eventing.”
So if you’re thinking of adding a different discipline to your repertoire, even temporarily, why not go for it? Chances are you’ll learn something, says Kottwitz.
“Being exposed to different disciplines gives you so much insight into horses,” she said, adding that training techniques and tips from different communities give an equestrian more training tools to draw on, whatever their sport. “It opens your mind up to why horses act certain ways or why they’re trained to do particular things. As far as driving, it opens a completely different door for a rider and gives you a whole different view on these amazing animals, what they can do, and what they’re willing to do for us.”
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