Our Obstacle Driving Mistakes
Obstacle Driving

Our Obstacle Driving Mistakes

It's been a while since I released a post in the series of "We've Made All the Mistakes So You Don't Have To".  This one is a little different.  In this case, if you compete, you eventually WILL make a mistake.  

The first time a new competitive driver makes a major mistake in an obstacle class that either drops them in the placings or eliminates them altogether from the class, they tend to beat themselves up over it. In looking for sympathy or to just talk through it, they share their thoughts with more experienced drivers, and they quickly find out a “known secret” about competitive driving…we’ve all done it. If you compete long enough, it’s not IF you get “The Big E” but WHEN. Here are a few of mine.

My first almost obstacle driving mistake was one of the first years I drove in a carriage show as a Novice Driver. I remember approaching the course and for some reason rationalizing that the markers were “white on right”. It almost rhymes, right? I yelled back to my mom and sister, “WHITE ON RIGHT?” I heard them scream back to me, “NO, RED ON RIGHT!” I knew there was some way to remember it, but it wasn’t a rhyme, it was the letter R. Fortunately, since I hadn’t yet gone through the Start markers, it wasn’t Outside Assistance, which is against the rules. Yea!

One of my first major Eliminations was at the 2008 Villa Louis Carriage Classic. It was the 2nd year I showed my black VSE gelding there, and while he was a little experienced, he was still quite green. We had done the Cross Country course the year before, and Alax pretty much just picked his way through the course, which is what we want for a first-year horse. We just want to make it easy and pleasant the first year for a new horse at a show. The 2nd year, he tried to make more decisions than a driving horse should (that’s a completely different article). We got out onto the course, and Alax seemed to just realize that he had done this before. He dug into high gear, got very strong, and before I knew it, he had broken into a canter. In Pleasure Driving, cantering is not allowed in any class. I think I had gotten him down to a trot before the canter penalty took effect (three full strides at the time) or maybe I didn’t…I don’t remember. What I do remember is that he had broken my concentration, and while we were cantering, we went through a gate, but for the life of me, I couldn’t remember what number gate it was. There was a circling rule in effect at the time so I couldn’t just drive back and check, or I would have been off course. All of this happened in the time frame of just a few moments. I was so frustrated and “lost” that I figured I was already eliminated, so I found the nearest gate that was on my course, and just started driving again. Now this was a pace class, so the closest to ideal time, without acquiring course faults, wins. I decided that since I was already dinked, I might as well see how fast we could actually drive the course (at a trot). My gelding is now well-known for being quite fast…he has actually done 13.6 KPH (8.54 MPH) when the requirement for VSEs in a CDE is 9 KPH (5.59 MPH)! I don’t know how fast we drove that course, but we came in right on the heals of the competitor in front of us. That competitor is a friend of ours and knew that something wasn’t right; that I was way too early. I was super frustrated, but it was a rush driving that course that fast! The next year, I took our son with me so that he could count gates (this is a House Rule at Villa Louis that the groom or passenger can quietly give directions). We placed 2nd that next year. Knock on wood, I don’t think I’ve Eliminated in Cross Country course at Villa since.  I've not placed, but I haven't Eliminated.


Alax and I just out of the water hazard at the 2010 Villa Louis.  We won VSE Cross Country that year.

Another year, I was in a Gambler’s Choice Obstacle class at a different show, and one of the obstacles required (kind of…you are not required to do all the obstacles) you to use your whip to knock tennis balls off of three cones in a row for a point factor per ball. I had missed one of the balls, so without leaving the obstacle, I turned around and got the third ball. The judge came up to me afterward and told me that the third ball didn’t count because it was a 2nd attempt at the same obstacle without leaving the obstacle to do another. (You gotta know the rules!) It wasn’t an elimination, but it was a mistake that cost me time and points. I would have won had I got that ball (the first time). I got 2nd. We practiced knocking stuff off of cones after that…balls, water bottles, beer bottles, whatever would balance on cones.   (Hint, you need a warm body to keep picking up the stuff you knock off the cones. Don’t get out of your cart to do it yourself. Or have plenty of stuff to knock off that you don’t need to put back on to do it again.)  (My husband once won an entire division by one 15 point beer bottle!  )

I drove a "hot" American Shetland pony at one smaller show in 2008.  Summer was fun to drive, but always on the inch of exploding.  When he was "on", he was awesome...fluid, stretchy, fun.  He could be really fast in obstacle courses...but, he was just a bit flighty.  (I found out why later...)  We were in a Cross Country course and he was on edge.  There was a lot of stuff around that he had to go through, and he wasn't sure it was a good idea.  My plan was to make my approaches wide so that he could see through the obstacle to the other side.  That worked fine until we approached an obstacle through which neither he nor I could see.  It was an "arc" of plastic flamingos.  Summer lost his mind.  He sat into the breeching as he doubled back. I got him stopped and tried again, and again he wasn't having any part of it.  After the third time, I got the whistle and the Technical Delegate approached.  While Ed Young was coming towards me, I saw that one of the breeching dees had popped out of the breeching, so one split of the hip strap was dangling with the dee attached.  Ed told me that I was eliminated, but asked if I wanted him to lead the pony through the flamingos and then I could continue the course for fun.  That would have been great, except for my broken harness.  Ed pulled a piece of baler twine out of his pocket for just such occasions, tied my harness back together, and Summer and I walked back up the really long hill back to the trailer.  I figured out the next week when I moved a bucket from its normal spot in the barn that poor Summer was having sight issues.  If he wasn't already a late teenager, I might have tried to get him to adjust to his eyesight to continue to drive him, but I don't think I ever drove him again.  

A few years later, I was driving a different pony (Welsh Section C) at Villa, and it was super hot that weekend. I didn’t want to have to go to the bathroom in the middle of my classes, so I didn’t drink as much water as I should have (duh!). On Saturday, I had my Gambler’s Choice go in the afternoon. I told my husband (a fellow driver) to be ready to get in the vehicle and take the reins as soon as I was done driving that course because I didn’t feel good. After what I felt was slaughtering the course (we somehow got 215 points and placed 3rd out of 8 competitors), Chad got in the cart and I proceeded to take off as many clothes as I could and still be presentable while he drove Angel back to the trailer. We were parked next to some friends and Chad hollered for them as we approached. The husband helped me out of the cart and laid me down while the wife got a fan and covered me in ice. I’m sure they probably also got some water for me, but that’s not nearly as memorable as being laden with ice! The next day after a good night’s sleep I felt a little better. My Cones course go was in the morning. While I was leaving the arena, I heard the announcer state my super fast time and I was super excited! However, Chad proceeded to ask me why I didn’t drive those three cones sets which were in the corner of the arena. I was still so messed up by the heat issues I had the day before, I had completely forgot about them. I ended up Reserve Champion in that division, and that mistake had cost me the Championship. It literally took me two weeks to recover from the heat stress. I now tend to drink more water and always go to the bathroom (or little blue porta-potty…whichever is closer ) before I put my pony to the vehicle.


The next year I was driving the same pony at a different show, and the course designer had actually used the same cone placement for both Pick Your Route on Saturday (which are unmarked cones), and Fault and Out on Sunday (which are numbered cones). I was in the middle of my Fault and Out course when I mentally reverted back to the Pick Your Route course I had chosen, and drove, the day before. As I approached a set of cones, I realized that I had gone the wrong way, but it was too late. I shook my head as we flew through the wrong set and cringed as I heard the expected whistle. As I left the course, the judge (Jessica Axelsson) said that she almost hated blowing the whistle as she knew it was “salt in a wound” since I already knew what I had done wrong. Truly, obstacle driving is as much of a mental game as it is a strategic, skill, and speed game.


So what can we learn from this? First, and again, we’ve all done it. We’ve driven cones backwards, out of order, missed sets, cantered when we weren’t supposed to, plowed over cones, plowed over course markers, not finished required maneuvers, forgot to go through the finish, and even forgot to go through the start! How can we reduce the chance of making a mistake? First, know the rules for each class in which you will drive. If you have a question, ask the Technical Delegate at the show. You can ask fellow competitors, and certain ones will more than likely have the correct answer. I get asked quite often about rules for certain obstacle classes, and I always have the current rule book with me at the show. However, there is always that chance that the fellow competitor is wrong, and the TD gets paid to know the right answer. If there is a question as to how you drove the course, the judge and the TD will be the ones to determine if you were right or wrong, not the fellow competitor.

Second, WALK YOUR COURSE! And then do it again. (And maybe again, and maybe again…) Use some visually imagery to think about where your horse might react to a certain part of the course and how you are going to deal with it. It is not uncommon for me to be “driving my horse” on the course when I am walking the course on foot. I am holding my arms/hands in position and “talking” to my horse to think about where I am going to tell him to speed up and where I am going to apply half halts. (More obstacle strategies are reserved for my actual students…so if you want to know, you will have to schedule a lesson. )


Third, if/when you make a mistake, your mistake may not be as bad as you think. Depending on the rules for an individual obstacle class, you may have only created a fault, but not a full-fledged Elimination. This may just drop you down in the placings but not eliminate you from the class. While that can still feel rotten, it's not nearly as frustrating as The Big E.

Overall, obstacle driving is supposed to be fun and challenging. If it was easy, everyone would all drive exactly the same. Obstacle driving can “separate” and “equalize”. It can separate those who can only drive “round and round” from those who can actually drive “through and over”. However, it can also equalize the playing field for those who may not have the greatest turnouts to do super well in the judged ring. I’ve seen plenty of drivers who don’t have magnificent turnouts actually dominate the obstacle driving classes. It’s their place to shine. Ideally, a fantastic driver is good at both judged arena driving and challenging obstacle driving…and that fantastic driver is still going to make a mistake at some point!

1 comment

Jun 09, 2023
Melany Moore

What a well written article on “How to” and “Don’ts” Thank you for writing and posting this.

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