Combined driving is an equestrian sport that challenges the limits of equine stamina, fitness, and obedience. This discipline transforms driving, the use of horses as a form of transportation, into a competitive and intense event.

Athletes and their horses compete in three phases: driven dressage, marathon, and cones. During the three events, horses traverse nearly 20 km in distance, while performing complex maneuvers and negotiating obstacles. Athletes can compete with up to four horses or ponies at the same time.

This guide covers everything you need to know about combined driving, including the rules, competition levels, and management of driving horses.

What is Combined Driving?

Combined driving (CD) is a sporting event based on the historical use of horses as a mode of transport. In today’s modern driving events, participants compete in three different phases.

Each phase is designed to challenge different aspects of the horse’s abilities and attributes according to the ideal qualities of an equine driving partner.

History

Driving is the oldest competitive equestrian sport active on the international stage. [1] Humans have been driving horses since around 2 500 BC, based on findings in the Middle East. [2] Driven horses participated in transport, agriculture, and warfare during these early periods. [2]

The dawn of the Industrial Revolution brought steam trains, a faster and more efficient way to travel than horse-drawn carriage. [2] Although the train, and later the automobile, diminished the need for equine-based travel, driving has persisted as a sport and recreational activity throughout the modern era. [2]

In 1970, combined driving entered the Fédération Équestre Internationale’s rulebook, making it an official international equine sport. [1]

Early organizers based the rules for combined driving on eventing, which tested the stamina, obedience, and athleticism of horses over a series of three phases. [2] Combined driving’s three phases aim to test these same attributes in participating equines.

Combined Driving Sport Organizations

Combined driving events occur at a local, regional, national, and international level. Various organizations oversee the rules and regulations for CD sport at each of these levels.

FEI

The Fédération Équestre Internationale (FEI) is the official international governing body for all horse sports. As well as regulating international competition, the FEI hosts the World Championships every four years, which offers the highest caliber of combined driving competition.

Combined driving is one of seven disciplines governed by the FEI at the international level. The other FEI disciplines include:

National Organizations

The two major national organizations that regulate combined driving in North America are Equestrian Canada (EC) and the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF).

Combined Driving Phases

There are three phases in each Combined Driving Event (CDE): [3]

  • Driven dressage
  • Marathon
  • Cones

At a national level, different competition formats such as Driving Trials, Arena Trials, or Combined Tests are also available, which have fewer phases or reduced requirements compared to a full CDE. [4]

Driven Dressage

Driven dressage examines the freedom and regularity of the paces, harmony, accuracy, and obedience of driving horses. [3] During this competition, athletes guide their horses through a dressage test, a predetermined series of maneuvers. [3] Judges score each maneuver based on the quality of the performance and their general impressions. [3]

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Judging

Participants compete in a dressage arena measuring 80 x 40 m or 100 x 40 m. [3] The arena is a flat area with the judge(s) positioned around the perimeter, so that they can view the movements clearly. [3]

For each maneuver, the judge gives a score between 0 – 10. [3] A score of 10 is excellent, while a score of 1 is very bad. [3] If the athlete does not perform a maneuver, the judge gives a score of 0.

At the end of the test, the judge adds the scores together, then calculates the score as a percentage. [3] This percentage score is converted into penalties. The athlete with the lowest number of penalties at the end of driven dressage moves into first place. [3]

Presentation

A component of the driven dressage judging is the presentation of the horse(s), carriage, and drivers. [3] Before or during the driven dressage test, the judge will evaluate: [3]

  • Turnout of the horses
  • Attire of the driver, grooms, and/or passengers
  • Fit and appearance of the harnesses and rigging
  • Size, weight, and suitability of the carriage to the horse team
  • Safety of all equipment

Up to 10 penalty points can be added to the score based on presentation concerns. [3]

Movements

The movements required by the driven dressage test depend on the level of competition. At the highest levels, the test includes advanced movements that challenge the horse(s) and their driver’s skills.

Common movements include: [3]

  • Gaits: Working, extended, and collected gaits at the walk, trot, and canter
  • Reinback: Backing the horse(s) and carriage in a straight line
  • Shoulder-in: Bending the horse(s) so they are travelling with their body on a diagonal to the direction of movement
  • Diagonal yield: The horse(s) step sideways while maintaining forward movement and a straight body position

Marathon

The marathon event tests the fitness and stamina of the horse(s). [3] The marathon has three sections: [3]

  • Section A
  • Transfer
  • Section B

Section A

Section A is the first of two stamina tests during the marathon event. During this section, athletes cover 5 – 9 km (3 – 6 mi) of distance at around 15 km/h (9 mi/h). [3] The Section has a minimum and maximum time allowed, and athletes must return within the 2 – 3 minute “window” to avoid penalties. [3]

Some competitions use a controlled warm-up for Section A instead of distance. [3] This may be preferable for events held in areas with limited land space, for example. [4] In a controlled warm-up, athletes move their horses around a large open area for 25 – 30 minutes under the supervision of a competition steward. [3]

Transfer

The Transfer section is a 5 – 10 minute halt immediately following Section A. [3] This period allows horses to catch their breath before Section B. In some cases, a veterinarian inspects the horses during this period to ensure they are safe to continue with the event. [3]

Section B

Section B is similar to Section A, however it contains 4 – 8 obstacles for the athletes to maneuver around. [3] This section covers an additional 4 – 9 km (2 – 6 mi), also at a pace of around 15 km/h (9 mi/h). [3] Athletes must complete Section B within a 2 – 3 minute time window to avoid penalties. [3]

The obstacles in the Marathon phase can include: [3]

  • Compulsory gates: Obstacles that the horse(s) and carriage must pass through in a given direction and sequence
  • Terrain: Including slopes, ditches, and water obstacles
  • Other hazards: Trees, rocks, shrubs, etc. that athletes may need to maneuver around during the course

Athletes can also incur penalties for deviating from the course, incorrectly performing an obstacle, stopping, or if their carriage or harness is damaged. [3] The penalties incurred during Marathon are added to the penalties from Driven Dressage, and the lowest scoring athlete moves into first place going into Cones. [3]

Some competitions combine Section B with the Cones section, in an event called Combined Marathon. [3] In this format, the obstacles during Section B are Cone obstacles, rather than the solid-type obstacles traditionally used during Marathon. [3]

After Combined Marathon, the athletes are ranked based on penalties, and the athlete with the lowest number of penalties wins. [3]

Cones

Cones tests the obedience of the horse(s) as well as their fitness, since this event follows the grueling Marathon as an additional stamina challenge. [3] During this event, the athlete maneuvers their horse(s) through moveable obstacles, requiring precision and accuracy to accomplish successfully. [3]

Obstacles

The cones course consists of up to 15 – 20 obstacles, covering 500 – 800 m (545 – 875 yd). [3]

The show committee constructs the course out of special pylons (or cones) that have a ball sitting on the peak of the cone. [3] When a horse or carriage hits the cone, the ball dislodges and indicates to the judges that there was interference with the obstacle. [3]

There are several different cone configurations that the show committee can use as obstacles: [3]

  • Single: A single pair of cones that the horse(s) and carriage must pass through
  • Oxer: Two pairs of cones, immediately after one another, that the horse(s) and carriage must pass through
  • Serpentine: Single cones in a straight line that the horse(s) and carriage must weave between
  • Zig-zag: Pairs of cones offset from each other, so that the carriage must zig-zag between them
  • Wave: Pairs of cones set at 90º from each other, so that the carriage travels in a wave shape as it maneuvers through them

Poles sitting on small blocks can also be used to make obstacles. [3] Similar to the cones, these obstacles move when bumped by a horse or carriage, indicating to the judges that there was interference. [3]

Example pole obstacles include: [3]

  • Single L: Poles in an L shape, requiring a 90º turn
  • Double L: Poles in an L shape immediately backing onto another L shape, requiring two 90º turns
  • Single U: Poles in a U shape, requiring a 180º turn
  • Double U: Poles in a U shape backing onto another U shape, requiring two 180º turns
  • Box: Poles in a square with an entrance and exit on opposing sides, and a pole in the middle preventing the horse(s) and carriage from going straight through
  • Double box: Two boxes adjacent to each other, requiring the horse(s) and carriage to maneuver around two dividing poles

Bridges and water obstacles are also permissible for the cones event. [3]

Athletes receive penalties for knocking over obstacles, exceeding the time allowed, going off course, or damage to the harness or carriage. [3] These penalties are added to the athlete’s total score. [3] After all of the athletes complete the cones event, the athlete with the lowest total score wins the competition. [3]

Combined Driving Levels

There are several levels of driving competition at the national level, with each national organization having its own divisions. [3] For the United States Equestrian Federation, the national levels are: [5]

  • Beginner
  • Training
  • Preliminary
  • Intermediate
  • Novice Advanced
  • Open Advanced

At the international level, the FEI ranks competitions using the Star System. [3] 1* events are the lowest level of difficulty, while 4* events have the highest difficulty. [3] Athletes must successfully compete in each Star level at least twice before moving up to the next level. [3]

Within each level, there are also divisions based on the number of horses or ponies pulling the carriage. [3] Divisions include: [3]

  • Single: One horse or pony pulling the carriage
  • Pair: Two horses or ponies pulling the carriage
  • Four-in-hand: Four horses or ponies pulling the carriage

Combined Driving Equipment

Driving requires extensive equipment due to the number of horses and athletes in each “turnout” (horse and carriage unit). Typically, each turnout has 1-4 horses, a driver, and a groom. [3]

Horse Equipment

The horse equipment in combined driving consists of the carriage and the rigging, the equipment used to attach the horse(s) to the carriage.

The carriage must be suitable for the horse(s) pulling it, so athletes must consider the weight, length, and other factors when choosing their competition carriage. [3] Most carriages have 4 wheels, however carriages used for the Single event may have 2 wheels. [3]

The rigging for combined driving includes the harness, yokes, poles, and other equipment attached to the horse. [3] The harness must fit well to avoid rubs, irritation, or other injuries. [3]

Yokes and poles must allow freedom of movement and should not interfere with the horse(s) as they travel. [3] Some horses may wear additional equipment, such as blinkers, if the athlete deems it necessary. [3]

Rider Attire

Drivers and grooms must wear traditional garments during the driven dressage and cones phases of the event. [3] This includes a jacket, driving apron, hat, and gloves for the driver, while the groom wears a hat, gloves, and a jacket. [3] During cones, both driver and groom must also wear protective headgear. [3]

During marathon, athletes can wear less formal dress. [3] They must wear protective headgear, and in some cases, show committees may require a back/body protector as well. [3]

Combined Driving Horses

Combined driving competitors can compete between one and four horses at the same time. [3] They can also have one replacement horse registered at large events. [3] Therefore, many combined driving athletes have a large group of horses to select from when registering a competitive team for an event. [3]

Combined Driving Breeds

Combined driving equines can be horses or ponies, so a variety of breeds appear in the international rankings for this sport. Most horses at the top levels of combined driving are Warmblood breeds, such as Dutch Warmblood, Hanoverian, and Oldenburg. [6]

Managing Combined Driving Horses

Combined driving athletes prioritize their horse’s mental and physical health. Athletes must consider their horse’s veterinary care, farrier care, exercise program, and other management aspects to ensure peak performance during events. Many athletes rely on a qualified team of professionals to help keep their horses feeling and performing their best.

From a nutritional standpoint, combined driving horses have high energy demands due to the intense nature of the Marathon phase. Additionally, each horse has different needs depending on their individual metabolism, making nutritional planning for large combined driving teams a challenge.

Working with an equine nutritionist is critical to maintaining the health and well being of these high-performance horses.

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References

  1. Main – Driving. FEI. 2011.
  2. From Romans to Royals: A History of Driving. FEI.org. 2019.
  3. FEI Driving Rules 2024. Fédération Équestre Internationale. 2024.
  4. CDE Organizing Handbook. American Driving Society. 2022.
  5. USEF Combined Driving Division. United States Equestrian Federation. 2024.
  6. Rankings and Standings Page – Driving. FEI. 2024.