Enjoying Dressage from The Driver’s Seat

Dressage from the driver’s seat – that is what Driven Dressage is all about. Even though the carriages are beautiful, and the drivers are dressed in fine attire, Driven Dressage is a showcase for well-trained, well balanced, beautifully moving horses. It may be easy to get distracted by the carriages, but Driven Dressage is still a horse show – the horse is the focus.

Linda Fairbanks (1024x683)
Linda Fairbanks, competitor and organizer for Pacific Region Driven Dressage Festival

“Instructions to the horse comes through the reins and from the voice,” explained Linda Fairbanks, a competitor and organizer for this year’s Pacific Region Driven Dressage Festival, to be held at the Paso Robles Horse Park, April 30 – May 1, 2016.  “There is a lot of voice involved, but there is more to the communication than just the voice. The horse(s) should be in-tune with the driver and the voice should be barely audible.” Horses have keen hearing and alert senses making them the perfect fit for taking instructions while pulling a carriage, cart or wagon.

Pacific Region Driven Dressage Festival

Entrance Sign (1024x768)The Pacific Region Driven Dressage Festival began 23 years ago here in SLO County at Dragontail Ranch in Arroyo Grande. The Brass Oaks Driving Society then adopted it and has been part of its continuation each year. Although originating in SLO County, the Festival has appeared in a variety of locations in California. This year it takes place at the new Paso Robles Horse Park, and the festival is recognized by the American Driving Society.

What can a spectator expect while watching Driven Dressage? Linda Fairbanks helps us understand the sport.  “The turn-out of the horse and carriage is beautiful. We strive for the same things from our horses that regular dressage riders do. A good carriage horse has balance, relaxation, bend, and purpose. Horses will display clear changes between gaits and within gaits, and work off contact.  The test patterns are easy to follow, and drivers strive for accurate circles and straight lines. We hope spectators will wonder, ‘How did they do that?’”

Deb Hilberg with 14.3HH Welsh Cob Larken Aldrydd. Photo, Mobile Digital Pics.
Deb Hilberg with 14.3HH Welsh Cob Larken Aldrydd. Photo, Mobile Digital Pics.

Most driven dressage horses are also ridden in dressage.  “Riding a horse is a very important tool in teaching the horse the movements,” Linda expressed. Driven Dressage is very popular on the East Coast and in Europe, yet here in California there is a bastion of Driven Dressage enthusiasts. “We’ll have representation of all the clubs in California at this year’s show,” Linda said, enthusiastically.

The Pacific Region Driven Dressage Festival will offer all levels approved by the American Driving Society and the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) which follow a logical progress. Training level is the first building block, with 40 meter circles and transitions between the gaits are demonstrated through the walk. Next is Preliminary where engagement, suppleness and purpose are demonstrated. Intermediate tests display collection and an increased sense of balance with focus on engagement of the hindquarter – which is harder for a horse pushing against the breastcollar. Advanced is the final level, where 15 meter circles in a collected gait are seen followed by extended gaits and movements where the driver holds both reins in the left hand.

In addition to Driven Dressage, horse/driver/carriage teams will negotiate obstacle courses. Obstacle courses such as: timed, pick-your-own-line and fault and out, will be running simultaneously with the driven dressage. Both events will be on the big grass arena at the Paso Robles Horse Park, which also offers great spectator seating on a grassy knoll above the arena.

Stephanie Szabo and her Very Fine Equine Miniature horse and carriage.
Stephanie Szabo and her Very Small Equine Miniature horse and carriage.


Spectators will be treated to quite a variety of carriages and horse combinations. Four wheel (European built and the rare antique carriage) and two wheel (Amish wooden) carriages will be pulled by a variety of horse breeds. Horses can pull singularly, in side-by-side pairs, or tandem pairs (front and back) and a few may have teams of four horses. Drivers must wear long sleeved shirts, a hat and a lap robe with an emphasis in a “classy look”. There is also a lot of interest in the Very Small Equine division (under 38 inches) with miniaturized carriages and very adorable little miniature horses.

Linda’s favorite event is the Tandem Driven Dressage. “The leader horse cannot feel or see the driver so the horse must rely on its sensitive hearing. The leader horse is full of expression doing what he understands to do. It’s a thrill to watch and to drive!”

So mark your calendars for the weekend of April 30-May 1st. Treat your friends or family to a great day at the Pacific Region Driven Dressage Festival at the Paso Robles Horse Park. Food will be available on the grounds, or pack a picnic lunch to enjoy on the grass. Admission is free and parking is free. Programs will be available for purchase to help you enjoy the festival in detail.


Cover Photo: Diane Kastama driving Spencer a Morgan X Friesian with Lisa Dines on the back as groom.

All photos, unless otherwise noted, are by Deb Hilberg.

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