Combined Driving For Miniature Horses

02 Mar

I entered my first Combined Driving Event in the fall of 2009, so while I’m far from being an expert on the subject, I wanted to share what I have learned, in the hopes that it will encourage more people to come and try it out!

In combined driving Miniature Horses compete in the Very Small Equine (VSE) division, which is open to horses (or ponies or donkeys or mules) 39” and under at the withers. Horses do not need to be registered, and you can compete with a single, pair, tandem or four-in-hand. You also enter for your level: Training, Preliminary or Intermediate. You choose what level you enter, and you can stay at Training level until you’re comfortable moving on. Some of the competitions in Alberta run under the new AEF rules where you enter  Level 1 through 6 based on the experience of the driver and/or horse.

There are three phases to each Combined Driving competition, whether a full three day Combined Driving Event (CDE) or a one day Driving Trial.


Driven dressage is a series of compulsory figures performed from memory.

Before anyone says, “But I’ll never remember!”, you can find all the tests on the American Driving Society webpage, and the test you’ll be asked to perform for your level will be listed in the prizelist, so you’ll have lots of time to practice at home. Also, at Training level, you are allowed to have someone call your test, so that you won’t get lost. And if you DO get lost? The judge will blow his whistle, you drive over to him (or her), and they will help you out and tell you where they’d like you to restart from. You’ll get some extra penalty points, but it’s not the end of the world. You can get lost three times before you’re eliminated, and even then you still get to play in the rest of the phases.

For the VSE (Very Small Equine) division, the dressage ring will be either 30 meters by 60 meters, or 20 meters by 40 meters, and the size will also be listed in the prizelist, so you’ll know what size circles you need to be practicing.

When you print off the dressage test, it will also show you exactly what they’re looking for when they judge each movement. Depending on the show, there are anywhere from 1 to 3 judges, and you’ll get a completed score sheet from each of them. This is a valuable learning tool! Not only is each and every movement scored out of ten, but you’ll also get notes on what the judge liked in each movement and what they think you need to work on.

In most of the smaller shows, Presentation is judged “on the move” during your dressage test, but at bigger shows you report for Presentation judging shortly before your dressage test. There is a ton of information out there on presentation and turnout, but here are the basics. Everything (horse, cart, harness and human!) needs to be very clean, well fitted and tidy. You should have brown reins, at least the portion that you hold on to, as well as brown gloves. You must wear an apron/lap rope and a suitable hat or helmet. You should wear a jacket or blazer, and nothing too sparkly. In general, the guideline is that you should dress as though you were going to work in a bank. Maybe more accurate would be in a bank 50 years ago? Think a bit conservative.

You are required to carry a spares kit at all times and it will be checked at Presentation and during any Safety checks. You’ll find a complete list of required and recommended spares in the prize list or rule book, but the basic required spares for a single are: a halter and lead, a leather punch, a spare trace or trace splice and a spare rein or rein splice.

You’re given a start time for your dressage test, and you need to give yourself time to warm up, report for presentation judging or a safety check (as required) and be at the ring ready to go at your appointed time. One of the bonus’ of this kind of driving is that you’re never waiting around for your class!  The judge will blow the whistle, and you have 60 seconds to enter the ring and begin your test. Often a competitor decides to use this time to make a loop around the outside of the ring in order to let his horse have a look at the fence.


This is the fun part! Well, it’s all fun, but the marathon is when you get to go on a nice long drive with your horse!
At larger shows, the Marathon consists of 3 sections. Section A, which is distance over cross country, Section D, which is a walk only section, and Section E, which is where you find the Marathon Obstacles or Hazards. At most of the shows you’ll find they only do Section E, so we’ll just worry about that one.

The distance of a Section E Marathon varies depending on your level of competition, but generally it’s from 3 to 10km and includes between 3 and 6 Obstacles/Hazards. (Marathon Obstacles used to be called Hazards, but were changed because “hazard” sounded too hazardous. You’ll find that most people still call them Hazards anyway.)

At some point, usually the evening before the start of the event, there will be a marathon course walk. You’ll take your maps, pile onto trucks or ATVs, and be taken around the course. Each level goes together, and there is someone with you (a judge, or technical delegate) who can answer questions. This will help you to not get lost, and to see how well marked the course is so that you are less afraid of getting lost. The course is marked with Compulsory Turning Flags, which may be on your map as CTF or just as ‘gates’. You can be eliminated if you miss a gate, so just make sure to go in numerical order and actually go THROUGH each gate. Since each level goes a different distance, be sure to find out what shape/colour numbers you’re watching for and disregard all the rest.

Aside – At some point during every single marathon I’ve ever been in I’ve been sure that I was lost. I never have been. They generally are really well marked!

While I’m on the course walk, I like to write down each gate, kilometer marker and obstacle in the order that I’ll come to it. I’m not good at reading maps (see aside above) and I’m much more comfortable working my way through a list. Lists are my friend. I also make notes of anywhere that the terrain is rough (ie – “slow down, big drop”) or where I think I might need more clarification (ie – “hard right after 11).

You are given an optimal time to finish the Marathon, and you have a 3 minute window to finish penalty free, not too fast or too slow. You can carry a stop watch to keep track of your time, and I have a chart that tells me what elapsed time I should be at when I reach each kilometer marker, so I know if I need to speed up or slow down. The speed for VSE’s is 9km an hour, which is an easy jog for most reasonably fit Miniature Horses.

1 km 6:40

2 km 13:20

3 km 20:00

4 km 26:40

5 km 33:20

6 km 40:00

On the course walk, you won’t be able to stop and walk hazards, but you will be given maps so you can walk them on your own, as many times and as often as you’d like to until the first horse starts on course.

Each hazard (sorry, Marathon Obstacle) is made up of a series of gates that must be navigated in alphabetical order. They are clearly marked, and each hazard usually includes gates A to E. In Training level, you’ll most likely just have to worry about gates A to C and you can just pretend that D and E (and possibly F) don’t even exist. Gates must be negotiated in the correct order and from the correct direction. Just remember RED ON RIGHT; each gate is marked with a white letter on the left and a red letter on the right. I screwed up the first gate in the first hazard at my first event, and now I say to myself RED ON RIGHT every time I go through a gate and that, along with Hawk‘s good “whoa“ and “back“, has saved my butt a few times.

You choose your own path through the hazard. So long as you negotiate the gates in the correct order, it doesn’t matter where you go. In Training level, all that matters is that you go through the gates. You’ll probably be timed, since the timers are there to time the higher levels anyway, but your time doesn’t matter. Once you move up to Preliminary and beyond, you get penalty points for every second you spend in a hazard, so that’s why you see the pictures of horses racing though with navigators hanging off the back of the carriage for balance around corners.

Oh yeah, navigators!  Single VSE’s are not required to carry a navigator, but they are the only exception on Marathon, so VSE pairs and teams need to have a spare person with them.

For marathon, you’ll need to have your spares kit, a helmet, and possibly a slow moving vehicle sign, if any of the marathon takes place on or near a public road (again, this info will be in your prizelist).  You’ll also want to have some way to hold your times, maps and green card (which is the timer/score sheet you’ll be given at the start line). I use a number holder (the pocket kind) velcroed to the singletree in front of me, and I see drivers that tape some of the info right to their legs for easy access.
As with Dressage, you’ll be given a start time. You’ll need to report about 10 minutes early for a safety check, and probably will have to hand in a safety checklist that you’ve filled out and signed. At the start gate they’ll give you a 3 minute, 2 minute, 1 minute, 30 second warning, and then count you down from 10 before telling you to go. And also, good luck and have fun!  When you reach each hazard, it’s a good idea to call your number out to the timers/judges, and offer a thank you when you leave. There are a huge number of volunteers needed in this sport, it’s nice to let them know that you appreciate their time!
I know the marathon seems overwhelming. So many things to remember! But it’s not as complicated as it sounds, I promise!  Also, when I was eliminated at my very first CDE, a very wise friend of mine told me that there were two kinds of CDEers: those who had eliminated and those who hadn’t yet.


The third phase is Cones, which is sometimes also called Obstacles, just to keep it interesting. In smaller shows, Cones usually takes place immediately after Dressage, but in a full, three day CDE, Cones takes place on the third day.

Twenty pairs of cones are set up, each numbered in the order you are to go through them. Again, you’ll get a map in your package, and you can walk the course as many times as you’d like.

At some point, probably during a safety check, your wheels will have been measured, and prior to your turn to run the cones course, volunteers will reset each and every pair of cones to the correct clearance for your level. Training Single VSE has 35cm of clearance. On top of each cone is a ball, and the goal is to make it through all twenty sets of cones with every ball still in place.

There is a maximum time for cones, and if you pass it you will get some penalty points, but they add up a lot slower than if you knock down a ball, so go for accuracy over speed. In other words, do what I say, not what I do … I can’t resist tearing through a cones course.

Just like in a hazard, remember to keep RED ON RIGHT as you go through the cones.

If you do carry a navigator, while they’re expected to “tell you where to go” during the Marathon, in Dressage and Cones they are only allowed to sit there and look pretty.

One of the best things about Combined Driving is that it appeals to drivers of all levels. From the driver who just wants to get out and have fun with their horse and doesn’t worry about their marathon time, to the competitor who wants to move up the levels and try their skill against others, Combined Driving is fun for everyone!  Even when I end up in a division by myself (there aren’t too many Prelim VSE’s in Alberta – yet!) I still get to compete against my previous best dressage score, or try to shave another few seconds off my hazard times.

There are a couple equipment changes to make, in order to cross over from breed show driving to combined driving. You will need to accustom your horse to wearing breeching, as it is required with good reason … far from going around a flat show ring, now there are hills, and brakes are important! While side checks are acceptable at Training Level only, an over check is never allowed. Other than that it’s the things I mentioned earlier – apron, brown gloves, helmet, spares kit. If you decide to move beyond Training Level, pneumatic tires are no longer permitted and you’ll have to switch to solid wheels.

More excellent resources for information!

Local Driving Clubs In Western Canada – 2011 Shows & Events will be listed
If you don’t feel comfortable jumping in and competing, but would like to learn more about combined driving, consider volunteering at an event. What better way to learn the ropes!

Photos by Jennifer Jacula, David Morton, & Tamara Chmilar.

You can read about Hawk’s adventures at


Posted by on March 2, 2011 in horses


Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

8 responses to “Combined Driving For Miniature Horses

  1. Debbie Gardner

    January 19, 2012 at 12:11 pm

    Hi Kendra Loved reading all about your combined driving! I am adding this to my Combined Driving Binder as I really like how you explained everything! My friend and I have started combined driving with our senior minis… My lad is 2o and hers is 19 , we have been driving for quite some time and went in our first competions last year. Had a blast ! We did not do the marathon at one event as it was 10 km long and we thought for our first time it maybe a bit much for our senior lads and our senior memories! Ha HA.We are looking forward to a fun driving 2012 year! Thanks for a very informative and fun read! May you always drive a great horse…..especially a SMALL one! Take care Deb Gardner from Armstrong B.C

    • Kendra Gale

      January 19, 2012 at 10:47 pm

      Hi Deb! Thanks for your reply, I’m so glad you enjoyed the article. I tried to include everything I wished I’d known before my first competition. If you’re interested, you can read more about Hawk’s events over at though my last seasons shows aren’t there – I did compete with a different horse, but the blogging sort of fell by the wayside. Have fun with the driving, maybe we’ll see you down the road this summer!

      • Deb Gardner

        July 10, 2012 at 3:02 pm

        Hi Kendra I am back reading over your articles and getting inspired…. as we get ready to head up to 70 mile for the CDE this weekend! ( this is the one we went to last year but did not do the marathon portion) this year we are entered in the 10 km marathon . As you may already know we are experiancing a heat wave 30 to 35 daily. So we will see what happens this weekend. I have been keeping a close watch on our workouts as he is 21 this year! After our long drives he gets a complete bath and a nice refreshing rinse with Absorbine mixed with water. Shorty loves that!
        I took notes and made up a points chart from your comments so I can review them when I am up there. I really liked your suggestion to make a list of the course and to write down comments like rough area ,and such, .I can sure see how that would be much easier to check as you can just read down the list rather than looking at the whole map , especially as we do not have the help of a groom! I have sent your link to a gal that is interested in driving as I think it is one of the best ones I have read ! I love the photos as well!!!Since my last e-mail to you we have attended several driving clinics, a 2 day Pritchard( only did the dressage and cones there) , An event up at 70 mile heritage driving classes, Dressage, Cones and a 3.5 km marathon course that was too fun !!!!!!!! Also went to the Seniors Games last year and we came home with 2 golds and 2 silvers! Dressage silver, Cones silver, Obstacle gold, Overall gold, it was our first taste of Arena driving trials, it was another great and fun few days spent with our horses !!!!!!!!
        So thanks again for a great read and loads of great information!!!!!!!
        Deb |Gardner from Armstrong, BC

      • Kendra Gale

        July 16, 2012 at 4:46 pm

        I hope you had a great time at 70 Mile, Deb!!

        We were at the Calgary Stampede this past week, I know the heat and humidity sure took a toll on us there (though our horses didn’t seem affected!), hopefully it wasn’t too bad for you and Shorty at the CDE. I hope doing your marathon “list” like I do was a help, not a hindrance – it sure helps me to do it that way, I don’t think “I’m lost!” nearly as often. 😉

        Congratulations on you accomplishments, especially at the Seniors Games, that sounds like a lot of fun!

        I’m having a blast with my “antique” horse this year, looking forward to hearing how you and Shorty did at 70 Mile!

  2. Jane Lowell

    May 4, 2012 at 10:49 am

    Hi Kendra. I am a 69 year old driving a 25 year old VSE. Although I’m not new to driving, I have been reluctant to do more than an occasional dressage test and cones course. My mare is quite fit and very forward. Your article and my daughter (who did combined training and now wants to drive) have convinced me to forget whether I win or not and enjoy the process. Thanks!

    • Kendra Gale

      May 4, 2012 at 12:06 pm

      Hi Jane!

      I’m so glad you are going to give it a try! I’m in a similar boat this year, planning to drive my “retired” 22 year old. I’ll enter training level and we’ll do whatever he feels comfortable with and concentrate on having a great time! He’s a career roadster horse, bending is a foreign concept … our dressage tests should be entertaining, if not accurate! 😉

      Good luck to you and your mare – she sounds like a fun horse to drive, I love the forward ones!

      • Jane Lowell

        May 4, 2012 at 1:22 pm

        Thanks. Good luck to you, too. I

  3. Deb Gardner

    July 20, 2012 at 6:09 am

    Hi Kendra, Just to let you know How Shorty and I did at the 70 mile house CDE!
    It was FUN FUN and did I say FUN!The dressage and cones were first and Shorty won the top dressage score for VSE with an average score of 42.59 ( there were 2 judges) we received a lovely horsey tapestry blanket donated by Twin Acres Farms. The cones we cleared time and course!
    As you know the Marathon Portion was the part that I was worried about….. 10 kms….. we have had very hot days….. well much to our surprise it rained the night before cooling everything down and we were out on the course at 10:38…… had a great run , no stress on my SENIOR and he vetted out great…. not a lick of sweat after the first 3.6 km and 1 km walk section, the vet was very impressed at what great shape he was in… even more so when he heard how old he was!!!!!!!! The last section was fun as the obstacles are in that part… went clear ……, came back in to the vet check and to check green card times…..well I was 10 mins OVER time in the first section… Oh dear says I how can that be I had to circle around and around for almost 10 mins before going thru the gate as I was so early…… Judge looks at the times I had written down ( on my chart attached to my cart)and says maybe its her math….. TD comes over and looks and then THE LIGHT BULB goes off…. I had written down the PRELIM times ( they do an extra 2 kms and a faster speed 10 kms per hour instead of 9 kms per hour) hense the longer time window…. Oh no says I, I am so sorry!
    The dear judge says to me “Oh No I am sorry for you , don’t feel bad I made mistakes on my first time out too……”….So if I had read the posted times correctly (meaning read and wrote down the training level times) we would have been in on time and had the overall for single training level VSE! But on a good note my best friend Heather won first place and it was her first time out too!
    I did make the notes like you suggested on the truck drive, which I found really helpful… important to know where the hills and rough spots were. The course was wonderfully marked so no worries about getting lost. Having done arena trials before, was a big help as very comfortable doing .the obstacle portion of that section.
    So as I always say… “OUT of a Negative there is always a Positive”….. I was disappointed I had recorded the wrong times ,… but I really felt bad so for my dear Shorty as I am sure he was wondering WHY on earth we were going around an around in circles!!!!
    BUT on the positive side, I now know to double check the times ( make sure it is training level LOL)
    Check each km for times on the chart I made up ( that really worked) and the most important POSITIVE….. My horse was able to do the 10 Kms , vetted out great and the only sweat mark on him was the part under his saddle pad! We both had a great time and as we have no trees or big rocks here on the hay farm, it was a real EYE opener for Shorty ( he was sure those rocks were sleeping bears!!!) The greatest part of the whole weekend was the fact that even though he was unsure of a few things he listened and had faith in me just as I had faith in him!!!
    Thanks again for all the support and as I said in may last letter inspiration !!!
    Deb and Shorty from Armstrong B.C.


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