Competing at Driving Trials Events

Guidelines for first-time competitors

This article is aimed at newcomers, who wish to start competing in driving events at Club level. It gives basic hints and tips on what is needed, what to do and when.

This article does not tell you how to break a horse or pony to drive or how to correctly fit a vehicle or harness. It is assumed that newcomers will already have some basic driving experience and are now ready to take the next step to competing at Driving Trials events.

There are grass-roots events and training sessions organised by many clubs at the start of the driving season, where complete beginners can gain valuable experience before entering full-blown club competitions. It is strongly recommended that beginners take advantage of these events and/or seek the advice of an instructor or an experienced competitor.

So you want to start competing ?  Read the advice for newcomers article by Jill Holah

Competition rules

The rules of Horse Driving Trials are quite complex and should be studied by the first time competitor carefully before they enter their first competition. If you are in any doubt, please seek advice form an experienced driver. If you would like assistance or be put in touch with an experienced competitor, please email

The official Driving Trials rule book is available - visit the British Carriagedriving website at to order a printed copy or download the on-line version.

The BC rules apply to National events and are based on the international FEI rules. Most club events will apply the same rules, but usually with some amendments and relaxations for newcomers.

One Day, Two Day and Three Day events

The horse driving trials event normally consists of three phases: dressage, marathon and cone driving. At a National or International level of competition, these phases will normally be run on separate days - usually Friday, Saturday and Sunday. If there is a large number of entries, the dressage may take place over two days (Thursday and Friday). The scores from all three phases are combined to give a final result. Many clubs will run 2-day events, with the dressage and cones phases on a Saturday and the marathon on a Sunday, but some events also allow competitors to drive all three phases in a single day - usually the Sunday. Indoor driving trials run all three phases in one day.

More explanation of the individual phases is given further down in this article.


An Equestrian Coaching Certificate (Driving) is issued to instructors who have completed the relevant qualification and are able to teach and coach people for driving trials competitions. For the newcomer, some professional tuition is invaluable and everyone should consider getting a few lessons in preparation to competing in their first event. Even later on, further lessons are beneficial for improving skills and techniques. There are qualified coaches all over the country. Some will teach you at home with your own pony or horse, others will operate at equestrian centres and can even supply a horse and carriage for you to learn on. Visit the BC website and look for the list of coaches and interactive map of the UK in the training section to find your nearest coaches.

Choose your event

The first thing to do is to consult a diary of events which are taking place in your area. British Carriagedriving publish a diary of Affiliated Club events on their website - just click on Events & Results in the menu index on the left hand side. Most driving clubs operate their own websites, which carry details of all the events they run during the season. The links to all the club websites are in the Web Links section on the BC website.

Get the schedules of the events you are interested in. These are available to download either from the BC or the Club's website or may be requested by post from the event organiser. The schedule will give you all the information you'll need about the event and, most importantly, the event organiser's phone number and email address. You should contact them if you have any questions about the event. Entries have to be sent in, with payment of the entry fee, by the closing date, which will be shown in the schedule and is usually a couple of weeks before the event takes place.


Most events have classes for different types of turnout and drivers of different experience. In driving trials, it is the experience of the driver, not the horse, that determines whether they compete in a newcomer or an open class. Once a newcomer has progressed to the Open class, he will remain there even when he gets a new horse or pony.

Driving pairs, tandems and teams of horses requires considerable experience and all newcomers will start in a single pony or single horse class. Some, but not all events, also have classes for small ponies (usually 12hh and under) with reduced distances and/or slower speeds in the marathon section.

Horses and ponies

Most horses or ponies will be allowed to compete at club events, providing they have had some previous driving experience and do not have a history of unpredictable or dangerous behaviour.

Drivers must ensure that their animal will be fit enough to complete the marathon, which may be a total distance of 10 kilometres or more, often over undulating and sometimes rough terrain. Consideration has to be given particularly to smaller ponies and their ability to pull the weight of a carriage plus the driver and groom over this distance. If you are in any doubt, seek advice from an experienced competitor.


At club level, most types of vehicle will be acceptable, providing they are safe and well maintained and fit the pony or horse that you are using. Two wheel or four wheel vehicles can be used in all phases of the competition. The marathon section especially, can put a considerable strain on a vehicle, so ensure it is in good condition. Some events may not allow vehicles with pneumatic tyres - check with the organisers if you have one of these.

As a rough guide, a vehicle is the correct size for your horse or pony if, when parked on a level surface, the driver's knees while seated are approximately at the same height as the highest point of the animal's rear end. On a two-wheel vehicle, the floor of the vehicle should be level.

If you are considering buying a vehicle, remember that four wheel vehicles, although more expensive, do have an advantage of greater manoeuvrability and stability in the marathon phase of the competition. The ability to have a groom on the back step will also give you an advantage over having one sitting beside the driver, as the groom can assist when cornering, by leaning his weight in the appropriate direction or even "bouncing" the rear end of the vehicle around obstructions.

Two wheel vehicles must be in balance when both the groom and driver are on board, whether the groom is seated beside the driver or standing on the back step. Most two wheel vehicles have an adjustment to change the balance accordingly. Out of balance vehicles are unsafe and may injure the horse or pony. If your vehicle does not balance properly, you may not be allowed to compete.

In an emergency situation, the groom on the back step of a vehicle (either 2 or 4 wheeler) can dismount and get to the horse's head more quickly and safely than one seated beside the driver.

A modern lightweight starter carriage, like this Bennington
Multi-sport is ideal for all phases of beginner's competition.

For the more advanced competitor, a purpose-built
marathon carriage will offer better performance.

The track width (also known as the wheel width or axle width) of a vehicle is important. If the vehicle is too narrow, it will be unstable when cornering and may tip over. If it is too wide, it will be harder to negotiate narrow gaps or tight turns in obstacles. The correct track width for a marathon vehicle is 125 centimetres minimum. Vehicles which are narrower may not be allowed to compete. For dressage and cones, the recommended wheel width is 138 cm minimum, although for beginners, most club events will permit marathon-width vehicles to be used in the dressage and cones. The track width of a vehicle is measured on the outside edge of the rear wheels, just above ground level. Some vehicles have adjustable axles, which can be moved in or out as required. If your vehicle is not of the standard width, you must advise the event organisers when you send in your entry form.


Most types of harness will be acceptable, whether leather, synthetic or webbing, providing the harness is in good condition and fits properly. You should spend a bit of time making sure that all adjustments are done properly. Advice from an experienced driver is invaluable here and you should be prepared to get part of your harness altered, if necessary, to get a proper fit.

Remember that the rigours of the marathon phase may cause the harness to rub and you may need to use padding if necessary. Most newcomers will use the same harness for all three phases of the competition. Synthetic, rather than leather harness, is preferred for marathon use, where it's less likely to get damaged and it easier to maintain. Full collars may be used in dressage and cones, but breast collars are normally used in the marathon. Newcomers will have one harness that is used for all three phases.

Open bridles (i.e. without blinkers) are not recommended and many events will not permit you to compete with one. Bitless bridles are not allowed. Breeching must be used, even if your vehicle has brakes fitted.


All turnouts must carry a groom in all phases of the competition. The groom must be seated during the dressage and cones, although some club events may relax this rule for complete novices. The groom must be old enough and physically fit enough to be able to render useful assistance in an emergency. BC rules stipulate that grooms should be at least 14 years of age (or 18 if the driver is under 18).

During the marathon phase of the competition, the groom may stand on the back step of a vehicle, where he can assist the driver while making turns by leaning his weight in the appropriate direction.

It is also the groom's job during the marathon phase to navigate the course and keep track of time and progress on each section, allowing the driver to concentrate on controlling the horse or pony. In the dressage and cones phases, the groom may not speak or otherwise communicate with the driver.


All turnouts should carry spares at all times. These should include a sharp knife, a lead-rope, spare trace, rein splice, leather hole-punch and string or twine. The spares should be accessible quickly and easily in an emergency. A mobile phone can be carried for emergencies, but must not be used during the competition.

Hard hats, back protectors & seat belts

All drivers and grooms must wear hard hats in all phases of the competition. If you do not, you will not be allowed to compete.

Body protectors and back protectors are increasingly more common in driving and some events may insist on them for both drivers and grooms. Please check with the event organiser before you take part in a competition. Back protectors designed for horse riders are generally not suitable to be worn by a seated carriage driver and they may restrict your movement. There are back protectors manufactured specially for carriage drivers by several companies.

Some drivers will use a seatbelt to prevent them bouncing out of the carriage or losing control when driving over rough ground. It is ABSOLUTELY VITAL that a seatbelt is not firmly attached to the carriage. In case of a carriage overturning, the driver must be able to fall clear. The normal arrangement is for the seatbelt to be attached at one end only, the other end being held by the groom/backstepper, who can let go if the carriage starts to tip. The free end must go directly to the groom's hand and must not be wrapped or tied in any way.


The main emphasis during driving trials competitions is on safety. This applies to drivers, event organisers, stewards and helpers and members of the public who may be spectating at the event. The most common causes of accidents include losing control due to driving or cornering at excessive speed or because of a part of the carriage or harness failing.

Horses, particularly if they are not used to seeing other competitors, people or vehicles are more likely to get out of control. It is important that the driver and groom work together as a team and know what action to take in various emergency scenarios.

Handy hints on keeping safe:

  • Check your vehicle and harness thoroughly before setting off.
  • Only drive at a speed at which you have proper control.
  • Do not corner sharply - plan your route to avoid tight turns.
  • Never drive a 4-wheel vehicle without someone on the back step.
  • Never drive faster than walking pace through the stabling area or access lanes.
  • Do not drive too close to other competitors or spectators.
  • Always obey the instructions of stewards and officials.

Time Keeping

At the start of the event, go to the event organiser/secretary to get your competitor number and a list of start times for all phases of the competition. Make sure that you know when and where you are supposed to be. Allow sufficient time to harness up and put to. Also allow time to warm-up your horse or pony and to get to the start of each phase of the competition. Make sure you find out where the dressage arena, cones course and start of the marathon are and how long it will take you to get there.

Most events ask that competitors are at the start of each phase or in the collecting area 10 minutes before their due time. Turning up late for any phase of the competition may result in penalty points or even disqualification.

Your groom should carry a watch showing the correct time of day. If you are in any doubt about the accuracy of your watch, synchronise it with the organiser's official clock. In addition, on the marathon phase you should carry a stop watch.  It is also a good idea to carry a second stop watch in case one fails or is stopped accidentally. Because of the rigours of the marathon course - dust, vibration, dampness - a good quality stop watch is essential and a cheap watch will quickly become unreliable and a source of frustration. There are several high quality sports watches on the market, specially designed for equestrian use.

Sometimes, start times may change because of unforeseen circumstances. Listen out for any official announcements. It is also worth while to periodically check at the event office or secretary for any last minute warnings or instructions.


The three phases of driving trials


Dressage is usually the first phase. At a one day event, it will take place in the morning and at a two day event, it will be on the first day. You must tell the organisers when sending in your entry form, when you are able to do your dressage. Depending on the type of event, you may or may not get a choice. Dressage start times are usually available a day or so before the competition, either on the club's website, or by phoning the event secretary. Knowing the start time will allow you to plan your travel to the event, making sure that you arrive in plenty of time to get ready for the dressage and be able to warm up your horse/pony.

At the newcomer level, you do not need a separate vehicle for the dressage. Most people will do the dressage using their marathon vehicle. The vehicle and harness should be clean, must fit your pony and be properly adjusted. If you are in any doubt, ask someone experienced to check it for you.

A dressage arena layout
For beginners, this will be 40 x 80 metres

Driver and groom should wear smart clothes, and for beginners, marathon colours are usually acceptable. Both driver and groom must wear gloves and hard hats. The driver must carry a whip.

The groom must be seated, either beside the driver or on the back of the carriage and may not speak or otherwise communicate with the driver, take the reins or whip during the test. The groom may not dismount during the test, except in an emergency. Penalty points will be awarded for any of the above and may result in elimination.

Make sure you know your test. This is usually specified in the event schedule. There are different tests for different classes and if you are in any doubt about which test you are expected to drive, ask the organisers. Unlike ridden dressage, it is not normally permitted to have the test read out to you - it must be driven from memory. Dressage test sheets and diagrams are available on the BC website at

The dressage arena used for driving trials is 40m wide and 80m long (for single pony and horse classes).

Make sure you turn up for your test in plenty of time and let the arena steward know that you are there. While warming up, do not drive too close to the arena or disturb the competitors doing their test.

You should salute the judge at the start and finish of your test and thank the steward as you enter and leave the arena.

It is a good idea, if at all possible, to get someone to video your test for you so that you can watch and discuss it with an experienced driver later.





Cone driving
(officially this phase is called "Obstacle cone driving")

Often (but not always) this is the second phase of an event and, in the case of a two day event, may be driven on the first day. It is frequently driven immediately after the dressage, using the same turnout (i.e. vehicle, harness, clothes etc.). You should make your way from the dressage arena to the cones course without delay and let the steward know when you get there.


The width between the cones is usually set to be 20 or 30 cm greater than the width of the vehicle (i.e. a clearance of 10 to 15 cm on each side). If the track width of your vehicle is not 138 cm, you must inform the organisers. This is normally done when you send in your entry form.

The driver should walk the cones course before they do their dressage. The event organisers will announce when the course is open for walking. The groom is not permitted to walk the course. Once the cones competition has started, it is not normally permitted to walk the course.

The stewards will indicate when they are ready for you to start. The clock will start when you cross between the start flags and stops when you cross the finish - often the one set of flags is both the start and finish, in opposite directions.

The distance of the entire cones course is measured and a "time allowed" is calculated. If you exceed this time, you will incur "time penalties". You will also incur 3 penalties for each ball dislodged, which will be added to your final score. If you can drive the course in less than the allocated time and not dislodge any balls, you will incur no penalties and get a "double-clear".

The most common mistake beginners make is trying to drive the cones too fast. It is much better to keep to a steady trot, making sure you can control your horse accurately. Once you gain experience, you will be able to build up speed. The cone course may include a slalom, a box or other elements, as well as ordinary cone gates. It is a good idea to practice at home (using traffic cones) before your first competition. Some events may have a designated practice area with a couple of cones where drivers can warm-up before competition.

As mentioned earlier, both driver and groom must wear gloves and hard hats. The driver must carry a whip. The groom must be seated and may not speak or otherwise indicate the course to the driver.

Remember to thank the steward and timekeeper once you finish the course.



The marathon

The marathon is divided into sections, each driven at a different pace and speed. Most events will run a three section marathon and newcomers and small ponies often driving only the final section, section B. All events vary and organisers can reduce the distances or increase the times allowed on the marathon according to terrain and conditions. Figures given here should only be treated as a rough guide.

Section A should be driven in trot at a speed of 14 km/h for ponies and 15 km/h for horses. This section can be up to 10km in length, but often may be shorter. Using the speed and distance figures, the organisers will calculate the "time allowed" on this section. If you exceed this, you will incur penalties for each second over the time allowed. There is also a "minimum time" which is 2 minutes less than the time allowed.  Finishing under minimum time will also incur penalties. You therefore have a 2 minute "window" and finishing the section within this time window will not incur any penalties.

After section A there is a Transfer section and a rest of about 10 minutes before the start of the final section. Often, water is available here to refresh the horses. Sometimes, an event official or a vet may check over the horses to make sure they are fit to continue.

Section B is the final section, which can be driven at any pace, with the exception of the final 500 metres, which must be at a trot. This section can be up to 10 km in distance and contains a number of obstacles (sometimes called "hazards") which the driver must negotiate. The speed of section E is slightly slower than section A - 13 km/h for ponies and 14 km/h for horses. This section can be at any pace and is normally driven at a trot. There is 3 minute time "window" for section E and finishing outside this will incur penalties.

As mentioned earlier, in some competitions, sections A and/or B can be omitted or shortened, depending on classes, experience of competitors and prevailing conditions.

Marathon timekeeping

Prepare early for the marathon. Make sure you know where and when you are starting and how long it will take you to get to the start. Most event organisers require competitors to be at the start 10 minutes before their due start time. Being late at the start will result in penalties or even elimination.

Allow extra time for harnessing up and putting to. Check your harness and vehicle carefully for any signs of damage or weaknesses. Make sure you have your spares on board. Driver and groom should both wear gloves and hard hats. Remember you stopwatch. Check your horse or pony, paying particular attention to their feet and shoes. Use protective boots and bandages.

At the start of the first marathon section, you will be given a card, sometimes called the "green card". This will have your competitor number on it. Take the card with you and hand it to the time-keeper at the start and finish of each section, where they will record your time and sign the card. At the finish of the marathon, your card will be retained and used to calculate your final score.

White flag: you must drive to the right


Red flag: you must drive to the left


On the marathon, the groom is responsible for timekeeping, ensuring that you finish within the allocated time window. At the start of each section, you will be counted down to zero as you set off. The groom should start their stop-watch at zero. The marathon route is marked with direction arrows as well as distance markers at every kilometre. Using the times and distances supplied by the organisers, work out when you should be passing each kilometre marker. This will give you an indication whether you need to speed up or slow down, to reach the finish at the correct time.

As well as timekeeping, the groom must look out for direction markers to ensure that you follow the correct route.  You may come across a number of compulsory flags, which are used make the distance of the section correct. These flags are either white or red (or they form a gate using both). You must always pass to the left of a red flag and/or to the right of a white flag (or drive between them if both are used). Failure to do so will incur elimination.


In section B of the marathon, there are a number of obstacles (sometimes also called "Hazards"). Depending on the event, there may be anywhere between 4 and 8 separate obstacles. They use a  combination of man-made elements and natural terrain to form a series of gates, which the competitor must drive through in the correct sequence and at the fastest possible speed.

Each obstacle has entrance/exit flags and 0.2 penalties are awarded by the timekeeper for every second the competitor spends in the obstacle.

Depending on their design, there may be between 3 and 6 gates within the obstacle. They are flagged with red on the right and white on the left and labelled A, B, C ... etc. The gates have to be driven in the correct sequence and direction.

Once a gate has been driven correctly, it becomes "dead" and can be passed through in any direction at will.

Some gates in an obstacle may contain "knock-downs" - dislodgeable elements that fall easily if the obstacle is hit by the horse or carriage. Penalties are added for each knock down.

Some obstacles may contain a water crossing or a bridge to test the driver's ability to cope with these hazards.

The object of obstacle driving is to find the fastest route through all the gates in the correct sequence. There may be several routes, some longer but easier to drive and others faster but more difficult. The driver and groom should walk the obstacles before the marathon starts, choosing and memorising their preferred routes.

As well as time penalties for the length of time spent in each obstacle and for knock-downs, further penalties will be awarded for errors of course, the groom dismounting and other infringements.


All driving trials scores are shown as penalties. This means that the competitor with the lowest final score wins.

In the dressage phase, marks out of 10 are awarded for each movement. At the end of the test, they are added together and subtracted from a maximum possible score to convert them to penalties, which are shown on the master score sheet. If there are 16 movements in the test, the maximum score will be 160, so a driver who got a total of 110 points will be awarded a dressage score of 50 penalties. Further penalties may be added for infringements like errors of course or dismounting of grooms etc.

In the cones driving phase, 3 penalties are awarded for each ball that is dislodged. In addition, time penalties are also added for every second in excess of the time allowed.

In the marathon, time penalties will be given for exceeding the time allowed in sections A, D or E or for finishing under the minimum time in sections A and E. In addition, time penalties are also given for every second spent in each obstacle. On top of this, other infringements, like knock-downs, errors of course, putting down the groom etc. also incur penalties, which will be added to the marathon score.

At the end of the competition, scores from all three phases are added together to determine the final score. Normally, all the scores are displayed on the master score sheet as the competition progresses.

At the end of the competition, while the scores from all classes are being calculated, drivers get an opportunity to get their horses unharnessed and attended to. Usually about 30 minutes later, all drivers (without horses), grooms and helpers are invited to attend a presentation of prizes before setting off for home.

So you want to start competing ?

Read the advice for newcomers by Jill Holah