International-level rider and driver Sara Schmitt explains how the very different sports of dressage and driving have more in common than one might think
By Jennifer M. Keeler
At first glance, the equestrian sports of dressage and driving couldn’t be more different. One has a rider using rein, leg, and seat aids to direct the movements of the horse; the other involves a driver sitting behind the animal in a carriage with long reins as the only direct line of communication. Competing in ridden dressage is confined to an arena; combined driving is typically a three-phase competition which involves not only a dressage test, but also adds elements of speed and precision in its marathon and cones phases.
But for all the differences, there are more similarities between these sports than may first appear, and Sara Schmitt of Tewksbury, N.J. has made a career out of bridging that gap. As a licensed official since 1994, Schmitt has been a United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) “S” judge in dressage for more than a decade, and also has held an American Driving Society (ADS) “r” judge’s card since 2002.
Schmitt doesn’t just appreciate each discipline from the judge’s box – she’s also an accomplished athlete in both sports. In ridden dressage, Schmitt has earned her USDF Bronze, Silver, and Gold medals; competes as a professional rider and trainer up and down the East Coast as well as in the Wellington, FL, winter circuit each season; and has decades-worth of top placings to her credit from Training Level to Grand Prix, including a multitude of Great American Insurance Group/USDF Regional Dressage Championship victories. Not to be outdone, in driving Schmitt has claimed numerous national championships and drove for the U.S. Team in World Championship competition three times, finishing as high as sixth in the world.
“I was a rider long before I took up driving. But I’m also an adrenaline junkie, and even though eventing was out because jumping isn’t my thing, combined driving fulfilled that ‘need for speed,’” Schmitt laughed. “I carry my dressage into all of my driving, and I look for similar things from the horse whether under saddle or pulling a carriage. The training pyramid is the same, and whether wearing a saddle or a harness, the horse still needs to be bending correctly, in the bridle, somewhat connected and collected.”
Currently in Schmitt’s 30-horse barn, the focus is primarily on ridden dressage but she does have horses and ponies that also drive. “I’m always looking for a horse that can do both, but it can be tough to find one that does both really well,” Schmitt noted. She now has a nine-year-old U.S.-bred KWPN gelding named Goldwine of TVF that actively competes in both sports. In March, he placed second in the Intermediate division at Live Oak International in the driving discipline, while under saddle he most recently competed at this fall’s Region 8 Championships at both Second and Third Level.
Perhaps her best multi-tasker to date was Kaboom, a German Riding Pony that was imported to the U.S. to become part of a driving pair. But when he grew over pony height, “Boomer” came to Schmitt to be sold.
“I discovered that he had become pretty sour on driving so I started riding him, and we wound up at the Regional Championships that year. We did so well that I fell in love with him and bought him for myself,” Schmitt explained. “After a couple of years of riding Boomer, on a whim I said, ‘why don’t we try to hitch him again?’ and he seemed to have a whole new outlook on driving. He loved it again, and I think it was because the dressage made the driving make more sense to him. Boomer had had a bit of a thoroughness problem in his back, and at first he couldn’t figure out how to pull the carriage properly. But after all that time doing ridden dressage work, physically he was in a better place to do the driving.”
With a fresh new attitude, Schmitt and Boomer qualified for the 2012 World Championships in driving and traveled to Europe with the U.S. Team, but an unfortunate last-minute accident derailed their plans. Returning home, the pair promptly drove to the Region 1 Championships and won the Open Prix St. Georges title. “Not long after, I sold him as a Grand Prix horse at 10 years old, and he’s still competing at that level with great scores at 17,” Schmitt noted.
So how do dressage and driving match up?
- The principles are universal. “The horse needs to be ridden or driven the same,” said Schmitt. “Even though obviously in driving you don’t have leg or seat aids (you have a whip and voice aids instead), I try to merge my riding into my driving and teach them the same principles no matter what they’re doing, just in a different way. For instance, I do a lot of work off of the outside rein and in many cases that replaces the outside leg for driving.”
- Does this create confusion for the horse? “Not if you take the time in your training, because they adapt. The only problem I have ever had is that once Boomer learned to passage for ridden dressage, he liked to do it with the carriage even though it’s not a required movement,” Schmitt laughed.
- What are some of the differences? “I do think that collection is much more difficult for a horse pulling a carriage than carrying a rider, simply because they’re pulling weight,” Schmitt explained. “I’m not sure it’s prioritized as much in driving, as it seems the emphasis is on being a little more forward. I think the carriage can actually be advantageous in the extended work because the weight helps balance the horse’s forward thrust, so it helps him ‘lift’ even more.
“Everyone loves a fabulous mover; and while some degree of ‘flash’ is rewarded in today’s dressage world, I see a little more of it in driving,” Schmitt continued. “I also believe that accuracy in a test is of a higher priority in driving. Sometimes it’s a challenge in judging a driving test in that occasionally the carriage can block some of our view, depending on where we’re sitting around the arena.”
- Schmitt outlined how ridden dressage work has directly contributed to her success in driving, but do the benefits work in reverse? “Absolutely, especially from a strength and fitness standpoint. When Boomer was doing both disciplines, he could do two FEI tests in a row and never have to catch his breath. I think that generally driving is less wear and tear on the horses since we spend the majority of our time trotting. Driving also seems to develop similar musculature that’s needed for ridden dressage, especially in regards to physical strength to perform at their best, not to mention the mental benefits of giving the horse a different activity to do.”
- Despite the many advantages, Schmitt is quick to caution that not every horse will drive. “You have to let them find their own path. Some horses just mentally can’t handle the confines of the carriage and the fact that something is always chasing them,” said Schmitt. “But it also works in reverse. I have had driving horses that we also tried to ride, and they just didn’t like it. As with any sport, you have to listen to the horse. I never try to push a square peg in a round hole and force a horse to do something it isn’t meant to do or enjoy.”
- What about those fancy Dutch Harness Horses that are all the rage? “Certainly the DHH’s are very popular in combined driving, and then you see the success of top dressage horses like Verdades who has harness bloodlines, so we’re now seeing lots of crossover from driving to dressage,” Schmitt noted. “I prefer the ones with a little lower neck set – if their necks are set up too much and their backs are too long, it’s just too hard to get them engaged and over the back, whether you’re riding or driving. But they are great movers, have plenty of flash, are certainly bred to perform, and often can be found at a reasonable price.”
- What about for the human athlete? There’s no question that riding dressage is a demanding physical activity, but Schmitt notes that driving isn’t as easy as it looks. “Driving is so hard! You’d think it’s a piece of cake to just sit there in the carriage and steer, but more often than not when I’ve finished a driving show I feel like I’ve been put through the wringer. The carriages are built for performance, not necessarily for comfort. It can also be very mentally taxing. But it’s also just as refreshing for the rider/driver to do something different as it is for the horses.”
When considering a horse’s full potential, whether in dressage or driving, it can sometimes be beneficial to both horse and rider to train in both disciplines for a change of pace and enhance performance. To learn more about driving, visit the American Driving Society website.