Somerset Levels RDA Carriage Driving Group is one of the largest of its type in Britain. Primarily set up to provide carriage driving experiences for disabled riders, anyone, of any age, can join in.
By Julie Andrews with photos by Nigel Andrews
Whether you are looking for a trot along picturesque country lanes, showing, or other forms of competitive driving, no matter what your riding ambition, staff at Somerset Levels will bring out the best in you.
As a child, I adored my weekly horse riding sessions and loved nothing more than cantering through the woods on a Sunday afternoon.
Thankfully, a chance meeting with warm-hearted Yolanda, Chairwoman of the Somerset Levels group, gave me an opportunity to relive those good times. Inviting me to meet her ponies, I was to discover an altogether different way of riding.
Sharing a picnic lunch with volunteers that balmy afternoon, I was regaled with enthusiastic stories of ponies and their riders. Volunteers are needed all year round for stabling tasks, exercising and pony care. It is clear, that working here, is highly rewarding and under the caring guidance of Yolanda, enthusiasm for the club shines brightly.
Shining even more brilliantly, was the smile of the ﬁrst rider of the afternoon; an older chap who communicates mostly through a series of grunts and murmurs, returning from his weekly ride. Carers rarely hear him speak a word, but when his carriage ride ends, his smile is broad, the words “I am happy”, said as plain as day.
Next up was Dorothy, a lovely lady, frustrated by the restrictions of her MS and feeling that her body is letting her down. However, seated in her wheelchair, she took the reins, headed out of the stables, composed and knowing that liberty was hers once more.
Firmly on four wheels
Then came my turn. With the carriage lowered, staff pushed me up the ramp, thoroughly securing my wheels to the ﬂoor. How wild could one carriage ride be, I wondered?
All strapped in and ready to roll, Angie handed me the reins! I was immensely excited and listened intently to the introductory training. I am, however, embarrassed to admit, that my ﬁrst instruction to my horse, Millie, was a childish ‘giddy-up’ followed by enthusiastic up and down ﬂicking of the reins.
“We aren’t in the Wild West now you know”, admonished Angie, adding: “A ‘walk on’ and gentle rein direction is sufﬁcient to get Millie moving.” Completely mortiﬁed, from that moment on, I left behind the outdated commands of my childhood and acted only on Angie’s instruction.
Rolling along the country lane, with head held high, it felt unbelievably special being at the reins of a carriage, with my pony parading in front of me. However, things were about to change.
There I was, absorbed in the most serene activity of my life, when Angie gave the command for Millie to ‘trot on’. As I am seriously ‘balance-challenged’ at the best of times, the rapid up and down motion made me feel like a rag doll on a skateboard. Digging deep, I determinedly worked through the rigorous motion and held my breath.
Thankfully, oncoming trafﬁc, forced us to slow Millie back to a walk, giving me time to adjust my legs and seated position. I was grateful for the gentler pace but it wasn’t long before it was necessary to speed up once more.
Now given full charge of Millie, I gave the command to trot on. Although my position was more secure this time, it was a real workout, getting in rhythm, holding the reins and negotiating my pony around a car. With patience and the great instruction of Angie, I did it.
Soon, with every clip-clop of Millie’s hooves, conﬁdence replaced uncertainty. Millie looked over her shoulder from time to time, appearing to offer nods of encouragement. She was a wonderfully steady girl, absolutely in her element, trotting in front of us.
With my conﬁdence and skills in their infancy, Angie did need to rein both myself and Millie in a couple of times. Nevertheless, I felt very safe and knew that even after a short time, Millie was responding to me well.
Carriage-driving ponies don’t discriminate, they listen intently and respond to their driver, no matter what riding abilities they have. This was just as well. On the return journey, I was so ﬁlled up, with the re-kindling of my inner horsewoman, I could barely speak. Sitting atop my carriage, ﬁnally able to negotiate the rhythm of the trot, I proudly and conﬁdently guided my horse back down the winding lane. I felt completely blessed to have been given this opportunity and knew instinctively, that carriage driving was something I would return to very soon.
In a quiet moment with Millie afterwards, I gave her a grateful stroke of the nose and in return, received a neck nuzzle that was the loveliest ‘well done’ I have ever received.
Before leaving, I stayed to watch young David’s carriage driving session. Angie was getting him competition-ready in the arena, with David’s mum looking on with pride. Directed to take a fast trot around a marked course, David delivered with great enthusiasm, handling Millie like a pro. The wide smile on David’s face as he completed the task could barely ﬁt inside his hat. His mum and I, speedily turned our heads, to disguise our tears of joy.
This is a wondrous place, where great and small marvels happen, every single day.
Rolling along the country lane, with head held high, it felt unbelievably special being at the reins of a carriage, with my pony parading in front of me.
If you, or someone you know, is looking to ride, become a carriage driver, or has a longing to volunteer or work with ponies, contact Somerset Levels Carriage Driving Group where horses really can change lives.
Carriage driving takes place every Tuesday and Thursday from April to October.
Tel: 07938 563190
Tel: 01278 760621