How to know when your green horse is "confident"

Hi everyone!
I have been working with my gelding for a few months on ground driving, he is also a ridden horse that does trails, etc. He’s overall a very brave boy.

We recently hitched him to the sleigh and he loved it. There was some confusion with pulling in deep snow when “stuck” but he would only back up or not move. He handles pressure well. This is the third horse I have broke to drive.

He’s been hitched three times and seems very confident and to handle things well; he spooked once and handled it very well. He also had a big spook last time (his third hitching) and listened to my whoa and stand despite a very reckless kid. I have never seen him that worked up and he listened great, and we drove after the spook. He’s been driving (with caution on my part) on our treed driveway and in an open type area with ample room to stop if anything came up. He has walked and trotted, is always controllable, and will stop and stand all day.

However, we have been doing this in an open bridle, so I will be starting again with blinders as I just realized how disastrous an open bridle could be, even for a brave ridden horse.

I will add I am a very cautious driver and am very careful of reassuring and keeping my horse under threshold.

My question is… how do I know when this horse is safe to drive out and about and “confident” in harness? I already thought he was (I am of course aware he is green and that I need to be very cautious and strict) but someone just told me he is way too green to even be trotting in harness, so now I am worried about how we are “progressing”.

Do you have any trainer help?

Three times of anything is not enough. I’d want a couple of months with no spooks or setbacks, start recount each time you have a setback. Lots of horses are “good” first few times at something because they are so puzzled or even a bit frozen.


I have help, but nothing hands on as we live in a very remote area.

He has been put under pressure and always listens to me well. Definitely not “frozen” as he hasn’t been perfect and has responded good to any confusion he has had.

Don’t take any risks until he is not confused. Don’t do anything “out in the world” that counts as pressure in the arena or safe space or field you are schooling in.

Yes as I mentioned, we are not taking any risks and being very careful.

That is helpful. Until there is no confusion, we will avoid going out. We are going back to basics to introduce the blinders so that will also give me a chance to reevaluate my training.

The big spook that happened was a pure fluke outside of my control so we are desensitizing a bit more on Monday. We did not have an accident thankfully.

That is my only concern.

1 Like

I trained my daughter’s pony to drive. He was in his late teens at the time and had been ridden all his life as far as I knew. He seemed to understand each step quickly, which implied that maybe he’d driven before. I had no way to know as he was a rescue. So I assumed this was all new to him and didn’t rush things, especially not rushing going outside of our pasture fence. I don’t remember exactly how many times I drove him in the pasture before taking him off the property, but it was a lot more than three. He never blew up in harness while driving in the pasture, and I think my caution in progressing him slowly contributed to his steadiness out on the road when we finally got there. Or, as I said above, maybe he’d done it all before.



Yeah, but this is exactly vwhat happens Outside on roads or trails.
Once you leave your property (& sometimes even on it) it’s all Flukes waiting to happen.
You need to know - as much as you can ever expect to - that he will listen & WHOA in these unexpected situations.
Or have a Plan B that will get you safely out of trouble:
Drive into a field or ditch that will slow a runaway
Have a passenger that can get out & head for you
Or ???

I sympathize, as I too live where Driving roads is iffy & I’m by myself, so waiting for a Header means I don’t drive.
What I do to help myself is hitch my mini facing a fence or trailer. That way when I finally have to get in the cart, his first step will always be backward, so no chance of him bolting forward.
And if I haven’t driven for a while, I start with a Test Drive in my fenced drylot or small pasture.
If he does get away that at least minimizes him getting on the road and (hopefully) any damage to my cart.

Where is your “help” if not hands on?
I’d stick to fenced areas until you feel 1000% confident he’ll listen to you in the event of another unexpected Scary Thing.

Hope things work out for you & your horse.

Experienced sleigh drivers tell me the trick to getting unstuck is to ask for a step sideways to free runners in deep snow.



Thank you, yes he certainly listened to my whoa which was impressive given how worked up he was. However, I will go back to basics and reteach with blinders just because had I been alone, being able to turn his head away from the scary kid would have been a large asset- and we will go back and do some desensitizing with noises and vehicles in the yard where he is comfortable.

Once we’ve done that, then I think we will be OK. Both of us just need to build our confidence a little more but fortunately, he has always been controllable! I think that is a good sign.

And yes! The step sideways is super helpful.

1 Like

Another thing to consider is his physical fitness/readiness for driving. In the beginning, especially if you haven’t done extensive drag work, it’s very easy to get the horse too sore in the traces, it’s a new group of muscles working and there’s always a period where they get ouchy, especially if you just go from ground driving to driving for more than a few minutes.

It’s also really important that you, as the driver, keep him out of deep pull situations. If he’s too sore and/or overwhelmed by the resistance, that’s very frustrating and scary for a green horse. Driving, moreso than riding, will shut down the forward if this happens and it’s a really hard lesson to unlearn once they figure it out. You want them to be happy and always want to be in the line of draft, even standing, not back off of it.

So part of your basics should be thinking about fitting up the horse gradually so his job is fun not ouchy because a frustrated and/or ouchy horse can be a more reactive horse to other external stimuli and it’s certainly LESS responsive to any training he’s had! You probably also want to ground drive (with a drag if possible) as a quick refresher before every hitch for a few weeks or even a month. If you go from only ground driving to only hitched work, you are cheating both of you out of a valuable transition phase where you get to figure out where your horse is, mentally and your horse gets to ease into the idea of driving before you get to the point of no return (aka hitched horse without a lot of extra experienced hands).


I am going to ask if you have a 2-wheel cart to drive him in? This is much safer to start with than a sleigh! Cart follows his motion, forward, backing, easy to turn.

While sleighs of the cutter type are light, you CANNOT back them if horse gets dancing in front of you! Horse has to learn to push shafts for turns. He may have gotten the basics of pushing in ground work dragging poles. Wheeled cart makes pushing shafts easy for turns. Does he understand stepping sideways, pushing into resistant shaft, WITHOUT also moving forward? He needs to learn this, you will use it often, especially driving sleighs.

As explained to us, sleighs run on a layer of water caused by friction of the runner on snow. When you stop moving, the water layer refreezes FAST. So sleigh horse is always stepped one to the right, two steps to the left, to break the frozen runners free. Then asked for forward motion. This needs doing EVERY time you stop the sleigh! Even very experienced carriage driving horses can get startled when sleigh doesn’t move easily or at all, with frozen runners. I have seen horses rear, spook, kick, thinking SOMETHING had a hold of them!!

That stepping sideways and pushing shafts weight is a LOT to ask of a beginner horse, unfamiliar with ANY vehicle behind him!

DMK gave good advice about dragging things to get him fit, used to load resistance behind him. We drag tires with our young horses. Bigger horses, so a dually pickup tire is our choice. You are looking at resistance against the dirt, not a big, heavy load to move. He gains confidence he can ALWAYS move his load, starting while on the long lines. Funny how you have to teach them that confidence, starting small and building weight over time. You never allow him to fail by overloading him. They truly do notice weight changes! Flat side of tire smoothes the ground, maybe swings out on circle to change pull feel of traces on his haunches or shoulder. All good things! Tire can clear off-flatten snow depth in the ring to drive on with the cart. Our front barnyard is always really nice when training the young horse with the tire!

Do everything using blinders, that he already knows in the open bridle. Do not allow horse to “help” you by starting before asked, try to vary any routine in working so he is not anticipating the next step. Blinders are not to prevent seeing scary things behind him! Blinders prevent horse from reading your body language, seeing whip movement for anticipating or doing things you don’t want done…YET.

Whoa means instant stop, this is your “emergency brakes!” We use a prepatory word for slowing, change gait down trot to walk, walk to halt. That prep word is HUP. So I would say HUP, WALK, to slow from a trot. HUP WHOA to stop. For a faster stop it is HUP, HUP, WHOA. Horse should be stopping on the second step. He learned this doing ground work, hearing and rein signaled EVERY time. Horse WILL help you when you give him the preparation words! This is where routine use is your friend. HUP is a gait change, not a slower trot or walk word, we use EASY for that. Use any words you like, just use them consistently the same way. Horses responding as asked to words, has saved our hash more than once in situations!!


I do, but it is frozen under 3 feet of snow.

He has loved the sleigh so far and has learned to push into the shalves, mine is also easy to turn and back up. While it does freeze as any sleigh does, I have kept him on easy-to-pull snow (i.e., plowed areas) so he only has to go forward and it does not get stuck, just makes a small noise.

A tire definitely wouldn’t clear off any amount of snow here… we get 4-5 feet of snow during winters.

We are reviewing the basics now with blinders, and he is catching on well. Doing a lot of desensitization work before we reintroduce the sleigh with blinders this time, just to save our butts a little better for the next time there is a reckless kid.

His whoa and stand are extremely good- I use these all the time, under saddle or on the ground, so we practise, practise, practise! (And he did listen even during his spook on the 3rd hitching which was very impressive)

What did the scary kid do?

Scary kid came tobogganing past (which was very unexpected as we live on private property). Which apparently FREAKS my horse out (the noise) even though he has pulled a toboggan, carried one, I’ve even taken him tobogganing… but something about the noise in front of him or by his shoulders (in that direction) really bugs him. So, I am enlisting some help to desensitize him to that!

It’s interesting, and such a quirky thing, the sleigh noise has never bothered him… skidoos can drive past us very fast and LOUD, but this, this is scary. Lol.

1 Like

Horses can be weird. I had a mare that nothing bothered - except a bike. She was fine with semis, motorcycles, cars, tractors, but did not like bicycles. Go figure.