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Trying Tandem....
                              a novice point of view

by: Wanda Lusk

For the past several years, I've driven my matched pinto 38-inch minis as a pair. We've driven in breed shows, but it is rare in these venues that the three of us can spend much time driving together as the classes for singles tick by. Seeking the spice of a new challenge, we branched out into combined driving. This is the adventure we love, competing together all weekend long. Now the very thing that moved me toward combined driving - the challenge of adventure - has led me to try my pair as a tandem.

In tandem configuration, one horse, the "wheeler," is the main draft animal, and he is hitched between the shafts like a single. In front of him, nose to tail, is the "leader," and she is out in front with only reins and traces attaching her to the turnout. She has no "solid" attachment to the cart. It's kind of like ground driving her out in front of the driving horse and cart. If I wanted a challenge, I got it!

I've driven each of my horses singly, and I switch their positions when they drive as a pair, so they're used to variety. Each one has a distinct personality and skill set, and neither was absolutely perfect as wheeler or leader. Traditionally the larger, stronger horse is the wheeler, and the more forward, fancy-moving horse is up front.

Well, my fancy horse is also on the shy side, and my bolder horse is not necessarily the stronger puller. With some encouragement I put my fancier, more timid mare up front and my easy-going gelding in the shafts, and they were both great! They took to the new line-up like old hands. Luckily nobody told them they couldn't do it. Two horses that have driven as a pair before may tend to "drift" out of the nose-to-tail line-up of the tandem and try to find their comfortable positions shoulder to shoulder. It's funny to watch this drift as the horses get things figured out. For whatever reason, my two did not have much trouble in this regard.

Trying tandem for the first time is not something you want to rush into without help. I suggest that a knowledgeable, experienced coach be right there with you at all times in the beginning, and that you start out the first several times in a safe, enclosed arena with no other horses present.

To get started I needed to put together a set of tandem harness. I needed to figure out what parts of my harness I could convert and what I needed to buy or make. Frugal person that I am, I did not want to buy a bunch of new stuff until we were sure tandem driving suited the horses and me. For the most part, two single harnesses seem to work. In the beginning, a lot of hay rope was involved. I used it to extend the leader traces, to craft a hip strap to carry the traces, and on the wheeler bridle in place of Roger rings. I found it useful to use breast collars with buckle-in traces. I did end up buying a saddle with split terrets and Tilbury tugs for the wheeler. Any single saddle would do with the terrets replaced. The pair harness saddle worked for the leader. A purchase that was necessary right away was the leader reins. Nothing I had even came close to the length I needed - 18 feet.

In driving, we know that our three aids are whip, reins, and voice. In the tandem configuration, it's pretty hard to reach your leader with your whip without somehow getting your wheeler at the same time. (More about this in a minute.) Rein contact is very important. Your leader needs to stay on the bit or you've lost her. It helps a great deal if each horse knows his name so you can single him out for verbal cues like "Up, KC!"

Rein handling is quite the challenge! I hold four reins, two in each hand. I run the leader reins over the tops of my hands and the wheeler reins up from the bottoms of my hands. Then, by rolling wrists and hands, this way and that, rein commands can be given to either horse or both. To shorten one rein or another for a tight turn, you "take a loop" and let it out. It's kind of like fast knitting, and the horses can get knit up in what some folks call a "tandem moment," when your leader ends up looking at you with a surprised look on her face. I drive my pair often and one would think that would prepare me at least physically to manipulate four reins.

Adapting to the extra bulk was the easy part, but my wrists in the beginning grew tired with that rocking movement needed to cue the leader and wheeler independently. Add to that the requirement to have a whip in hand at all times and I am very busy keeping everything straight.

So what the heck do we do with our whip? This is an important part of communication with your horse and should not be underestimated. American Driving Society rules state that the lash needs to be long enough to reach the shoulder of the horse in front. That's a mighty long lash, so long in fact that it could get all caught up in reins and wheels and tails and even my head. It is allowed to wrap the lash around the shaft, and that makes it shorter and safer, but rather impractical to use. Here comes one of the assignments for your groom, then: have a pocketful of little stones or pinecones to throw at your leader (on your command) with dead-eye aim.

Once my horses and I were going along well, it was time to finish up the tack. I made my leader traces out of 1 inch nylon webbing as well as a short strap with ring that buckles into the wheeler breast collar to attach the leader traces to. I borrowed the hip strap with trace carriers from my fine harness and had the local harness maker sew a strap to a bridle crown piece for a couple of swivel gag hardware pieces to use as roger rings.

This shows the nylon trace at the leader from breast collar through the hip strap. The hip strap is instrumental in keeping trace from dropping too low.

The leader breast collar is not as substancial as the wheelers because the leader is not supposed to do any pulling and is out of draft most of the time.
The trace continues back to the wheeler and it snapped to a ring on his breast collar in line with the trace that is attached to the carriage.

Also shown here is a tandem turret. Leader line through the top, wheeler on the bottom.

This picture shows the strap on the bridle crown piece for a the swivel gag hardware used as roger rings. The leader line goes through here before going through the split turret at the wheeler saddle.
published in Miniature World Showcase Spring 2009
Photography by Wendi Ross Blue Ribbon Equine Photography & Tim O'Neal Action Taken Event Photography

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