Monday, August 22, 2011

Anatomy of a Carriage Accident -- What Went Wrong

Carriages play a big part in historicals, and, no surprise, so do carriage accidents. The trouble is, over and over again it’s the same old, predictable disaster scene. The horses bolt; the hero, at great risk to his own life, stops them, and the heroine is eternally grateful. After a dozen of these, what was supposed to be a thrill for the reader is just a ho-hum. And if you know anything about carriage driving, they don’t ring true.

In this blogpost, I'll guide you through some real carriage accidents (fortunately, U-tube is full of them), analyze what went wrong, and show you how you can make your driving accidents look more authentic.

Where do I get the qualifications to do this? Well, I spent 20 years working with horses, 10 of them competing in combined driving, a highly skilled and challenging form of carriage driving. I’ve trained my own horses and competed and won in competitions around the US, been the course designer for the Arizona Combined Driving Event, judged combined driving in the US and New Zealand, put together weekend workshops on driving, and been the president of a regional carriage driving association.

So let’s start with a typical accident. This is a young, inexperience pair being driven through Acadia National Park, on Mount Desert Island, Maine. The park is criss-crossed with lovely driving roads and is the venue for the American Driving Association’s weekend drive, which is what I think these drivers are.

As you can see, the horses saw something at the side of the road that frightened them and jumped sideways. The driver easily regained control over this well-mannered pair.

Spooks are the most common kind of driving mishap. Basically there are three kinds of accidents: bolts, spooks and crashes. The kinds can be combined. Horses have two instinctive reactions to a fright: flight or fight. The preferred mode is flight. A spook is a sudden action (usually sideways) in reaction to a fright.

In this accident, the consequences were minor. The horses went off the road, but fortunately, there was a level clearing that they were able to go into. No one fell out of the carriage. Imagine what would happen if there was a fence or ditch there. As a writer, this is how you can complicate your accident.

Let’s look at another incident with the same pair. At this point they are just starting their drive.

This is a typical bolt. The pair spooked first, then ran. The driver lost control of his/her horses, who ran, but then the driver was able to get control back again in a very short distance. Driving horses generally are bred for their calm, docile disposition and are extremely well-trained. They’re reliable animals, so most bolts – if they happen at all -- are very short. When the horses continue to gallop out-of-control for a long distance, then things get scary. Very scary.

I’ll show that later. Right now, let’s talk about what went wrong.

This is a young, inexperienced pair, though they have been trained well. Young horses are more likely to spook or do stupid things than older, more experienced ones, who learn to take a lot in stride. This situation, where both horses in a pair are inexperienced, is something you’ll find in the twenty-first century, but was unlikely in the age of carriage driving. Usually then, an inexperienced horse would have been paired with a steady, experienced one, who would have transmitted his confidence to the youngster.

This is how Black Beauty was trained. When I was in the foothills of the Himalayans in Yunnan province, China, where carriage transport is still used, I had a chance to drive with an old man whose “pair” consisted of the mother, who was pulling the carriage, and her yearling foal, who was tied loosely beside her. The youngster wasn’t in draft, but he learned the ways of the road and would have become a calm, steady horse by the time he was actually put to the carriage. (“Put to” is the technical term for hitching a horse to the cart.)

So… since he was driving inexperienced horses, the driver in this clip should have been the alert for trouble. I get the feeling this driver is inexperienced, too, not a good combination with an inexperienced horse. Or he may have just been distracted by all the people around him. Which is common at a carriage driving event, where your friends are driving, too. Certainly the camera person isn’t paying attention to what’s going on.

With horses, distraction can lead to disaster.

Rerun the clip and watch the horses’ heads and ears. Notice how they’re turning their heads to look at something on the side of the road. Horses will signal a spook this way. (Look at the first clip and you’ll see they’re signaling loud and clear.) At this point the driver should have done something to get their attention. Just pulling on the right rein and asking them to turn their heads to the right would have probably done it. Horses cannot hold more than one thing at a time in their minds.

Another element of the accident-waiting-to-happen is the camera person, whom I suspect was supposed to groom for this driver. The job of the groom is to help control the horses and stabilize the carriage (if necessary.) With an expensive piece of video equipment in his/her hands, my guess is the groom would have been more concerned with saving the camera than dealing with horses. Of course, there could have been others in that vehicle, which looks like a wagonette. A wagonette is a cross between a carriage and a wagon. There are seats for the driver and a passenger or groom up front, and then two seats in the back, facing each other, for additional passengers or grooms. It’s a vehicle often used in combined driving today, and can be pulled by either a pair (2 horses) or a team (4 horses, also called a 4-in-hand).

The next two clips are serious bolts, where the horses have an extended run. Look at the way the driver is bounced around in this first clip. I really have to admire this guy. Here’s a hero for your book. (Something like this happened to me once, and it was not fun, especially since I got jammed in the boot – the area where the driver puts his/her feet – and then my horse stopped and began kicking the carriage apart.)

Notice how the driver here regains control of his team, by circling them tightly. A horse cannot run flat-out in a tight circle. This works for this wagonette because it is designed for combined driving, where you have to make sharp turns. If you try to do this with a two-wheeled cart or with a traditional carriage or coach, you risk flipping the vehicle.

The driver WOULD NOT try to walk up the pole (the piece of wood between the horses), as you sometimes see in Westerns. That pole is tied very loosely to both horse and carriage. Even if it was able to support a man, his weight would twist the harness in a way that would, at the very least, add to the horses’ frights, or tangle in the horse, injuring it. Plus, as you can see from the way the driver is being bounced around IN the carriage, do you think anyone could actually stay balanced on a pole that’s not even the width of his boot?

In this next clip, the team – a four-in-hand of gorgeous Friesians -- have somehow broken loose before the driver was able to mount the box seat (get up in the carriage.) Look at the chaos they create in the carriage yard. Here people on the ground are able to detach the leaders (the front pair). Modern turnouts (the term for the complete ensemble of horse, carriage, driver, grooms, livery and equipment) usually feature safety devices such as “quick-release” clips that allow grooms to quickly unfasten the horse from the carriage.

Trying to grab a running horse from the ground is dangerous in itself. Basically an 80 kilo (170 lb) man is trying to stop a frightened 500 kilo (1100 lb.) animal that can easily pull its own weight. The next clip, another display of great courage, shows what can happen. And this is only a 225 kilo (500 lb.) pony.

What happens if the horses bolt and the driver isn’t able to regain control? The last of my clips is the ultimate horse show nightmare, but it could just as easily have happened in an 1815 London street.

The other drivers in this scene have followed what is standard horse show procedure for a run-away. They’ve come to the centre of the arena, leaving the outside track clear for the running horse. The trouble is horses are herd animals. The run-away wants the safety of his kind. And he’s dragging a carriage.

The smart drivers and grooms have un-hitched. You’ll notice the ones that get into trouble are those who stay in their carts.

What went wrong here? Driver error, again. Replay this clip and you’ll see the horse even as he enters the arena is very nervous. He is an accident waiting to happen. This kind of driving class – known as a pleasure driving class -- features hot, spirited horses, but they should be well-mannered and well trained. They should be eager to go forward, but not nervous and scared. In this case, the horse is tense. He signals his fear mostly through his head – up in the air – and the way his neck is bowed, not arched (look at the other horses and compare.) He should never have been brought into the arena. The driver probably hoped he would settle down, or had the erroneous idea that fear would heighten the horses “action” (his high-stepping stride) and catch the judge’s eye. What happens here is entirely due to the driver’s bad judgment.

At the end of the clip, when they force the horse to stay on the ground, this is not cruelty but about the smartest thing they can do. First, it keeps the horse under control. Secondly, a downed horse will usually stop struggling and start to calm. Third, it gives them a chance to remove tangled equipment and also to do any necessary emergency vet work. Once the horse is calmed, they would release it and allow it to regain its feet.

In the clips I’ve analyzed, you’ve seen many crashes. There is another kind of crash known as a hang-up. Driver error usually causes that, too. The turnout is going too fast and not able to make a turn, or the driver misjudges the clearance between carriage and obstacle. This kind of crash is common in combined driving events, where part of the competition involves going through tight-tricky obstacles (know as “hazards”) as fast as you can. Usually the driver and groom are able to get the carriage un-hung-up and they continue on with the competition, merely losing time, as in this clip.

As I mentioned, driving horses are generally very calm. When there’s a hang-up like this, usually they will just stand still and wait for their driver and groom to rescue them. Occasionally they panic and start kicking and rearing. They injure themselves and also make it very difficult to free them. They can damage equipment and hurt their handlers.

U-tube is full of carriage driving accidents. If you’ve got one in your story, watch a few clips first and your writing will be richer and more authentic. You can find more clips by doing a search for “carriage driving accidents”.


  1. This is BRILLIANT! Consider it bookmarked. I just wrote an opening scene with a carriage accident caused by a rocket landing in the roof of the carriage and spooking the horses. But it was written off the hoof (sorry sorry) and I'm sure it was generally fairly inaccurate. I was also trying to hunt down images of travelling coaches c. end of 18th century. Seems to be a lot of images of sportly little phaetons and landaulets but not many of common all garden lumbering coaches. They obviously don't have the glamour!

  2. At the end of the 18th century, you had a choice of three different types of coaches: private stage line, the royal mail coach, and post chaise (the horse and carriage equivalent of a rental car.) Try googling each of those. You can find some good pictures and definitions on
    Basically, all coaches looked the same. They had U-shaped bodies, totally closed in, which could carry 4 passengers. There was capacity for 8 more passengers on top -- 4 in the front, 4 in the back. The was a box-shaped boot at the back for luggage. They were heavy and pulled by 4, sometimes 6 horses. No brakes, which meant driving them took a lot of skill. It was the horses that slowed them down, through the breeching, a strap that went across the rump and that the horses leaned back into to slow the coach.
    A rocket wouldn't have to land on the roof to spook the horses. Just the proximity of a rocket would do it. (I know. My husband's horse went ballistic one Forth of July.) But there would be space on the flat roof for a rocket to crash, if that's what you want.

  3. Vicky, this is so interesting and a fantastic resource for historical writers particularly! I owned horses for riding for many years but I've always been fascinated by carriage driving. This gives some terrific insight into the challenges.

  4. Two comments: thank you for a fabulous article - I'm in the middle of writing a carriage accident scene (note: hero doesn't climb out of carriage to haul bolting horses to a stop..... the carriage overturns on a rutted, pot-holed road)

    and - thank goodness my daughter gave up carriage driving and turned to side-saddle instead!

  5. Thank you soooooo much for this! I am writing a novel for NaNoWriMo and had an idea to start it out with an action-packed runaway carriage scene. This is perfect, and so very much what I needed to read and see. Thank you! :)