EVER THOUGHT ABOUT HAVING A GO AT CARRIAGE DRIVING? - From happy hacker to eventer, there is something for everyone to enjoy

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Have you ever thought about having a go at carriage driving? There are carriage driving equivalents of happy hacking, showing, dressage and eventing so there really is something for everyone to enjoy. We talked to the carriage driving and carriage building experts, Bennington, to find out all about it.

Bennigngton 2_driversBennington Carriages is a family owned business. Founded in 1962 by Michael Mart, Bennington originally specialised in the production of horseboxes and trailers. The arrival of two Shetland ponies marked the starting point for today's Bennington Carriages. Dusty and Fusty were bought for Michael's children, but the ponies showed little interest in being ridden and so using his engineering expertise, he developed a carriage that would allow the ponies to be safely driven. It wasn't long before they started taking part in the then new competitive sport of Driving Trials.

During these competitions, Michael observed that the traditional carriages being used were highly unstable and unsuitable for competitive driving. With this in mind, Michael started designing the Bennington range of carriages. During the 1970's the Bennington Carriage soon became synonymous with innovative design, exceptional quality and outstanding customer service. The patron of the sport HRH the Duke of Edinburgh awarded Bennington the Royal Warrant in 1979, and the company proudly retains it today.

bennigton carriage_i_n_waterUnderpinning the excellence of the Bennington carriage is the continued focus on innovation. Many features on today's carriages are the result of Bennington's ongoing commitment to pioneering design. Examples include the back step that allows the groom to stand behind the driver to aid stability, the aluminium wheel that is lighter and stronger than wood and Bennington's renowned delayed steering. Bennington also pioneered carriage powder coating which delivers great improvement in paint finish and durability.

Over the last 50 years, Bennington has manufactured carriages for the British monarchy, The Sultan of Brunei, The Disney Corporation as well as to driving enthusiasts the world over. Sue Mart, daughter of Michael, has now taken up the business reins and makes sure Bennington remains true to its roots, remaining family owned and employing 15 highly skilled local craftspeople who design, manufacture and support these very fine carriages.

Together with Sister Wendy, Sue has been competing since an early age. Team Bennington competes in the Horse Driving Trials Advanced Single Pony class and has represented Great Britain on more than one occasion. At the 2009 FEI World Combined Pony Championships in Greven, Germany, Sue and Wendy achieved 7th place overall and were the highest placed British competitors. So they know their stuff when it comes to driving and manufacturing carriages. Does it give them an added advantage?

Only up to a point, says Sue with a smile.It certainly helps in the design and development of carriages to be competitors, because we know what we want and need the carriage to achieve to get that edge. We also know our carriages inside out, which helps when we're competing. However, we still have a third member of the driving team (the pony) who has a mind of his own and we are up against other competitors who are driving our carriages too. So we really don't have that much advantage - we still have to be very, very good at our sport!‚ Training other drivers to be good at the sport is also a significant element of the Bennington business. Sue has trained to be a UKCC Level 3 coach in Driving and the Bennington Driving Academy offers a wide range of carriage driving experiences for all levels and disciplines - from novice to advanced and from pleasure to competition.  
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Try Driving days are a fun and inexpensive introduction to the sport. During the two-hour one to one session, Sue teaches the essentials of driving. First timers learn how to harness the pony and perform some basic safety checks on the harness. You get to drive one of Bennington's well trained ponies in the Bennington Fun Bug and learn how to use subtle body movements to steer and control the pony through cones and round corners. You also learn how to accelerate and slow down. If the weather is inclement, Bennington has a fibre-sand indoor arena to drive in. On fine days students can make the most of the Academy's big open fields, dressage arena and cones course.  Whether outdoor or indoor, Sue ensures that your first time 'behind the reins' is thoroughly enjoyable and safe.
As well as tailor-made one to one coaching for drivers of all levels, the Academy runs a series of master classes throughout the year. Over the last 12 months the classes have included a cones master class with Barry Hunter, a driven dressage master class with James Rooney and carriage maintenance classes so drivers can learn how to keep their carriages in tip-top condition.
It's great to see drivers of all levels attending these events and learning from the wealth of experience that our invited experts can offer, Sue tells us.On Barry's master class, for example, we learnt how cones course designers are looking to design courses that will challenge drivers and ensure that success on the course requires a careful mix of tactics and strategy. It was a master class in how to mentally disassemble and reassemble a cones course to determine the optimum route and achieve the best result.

Our driven dressage master class with James Rooney, a British Dressage List 3A judge, showed us what the judge is looking for and what the judge can and cannot see. James's approach is to focus on a strong partnership between horse and rider, building trust and understanding to present a picture of perfect harmony in the dressage arena.

Bennington tacking_up_horse Would you know how to change a wheel bearing or your brake pads or even bleed your brakes? DO you even know where these things are? That's what the carriage maintenance master class is for. The skilled craftsmen that make the Bennington carriages teach you how to perform these basic maintenance tasks and provide lots of other essential hints and tips.
Bennington academy_logoThe Academy has a range of facilities for drivers wanting to improve their skills including a 100m x 40m outdoor dressage arena, obstacle course and water splash, cones course, grass fitness track and the indoor 47m x 13m fibre-sand training arena. There's ample hard standing parking, refreshment facilities, toilets and wash down facilities for both carriages and horses.

There are even day boxes for hire so your horse can enjoy a little comfort while visiting the Academy. And if you want someone to train your horse to harness, experienced trainer, David Veasey, is on hand to provide that service. 
So whether you are an absolute beginner wanting to try something new or a competitive driver wanting to skill up to improve your placing, the Bennington Driving Academy has it covered.

A Try Driving day also makes a great present; There is always someone you find it hard to buy for. Not now! 

Bennington shop
For lots more information about the carriages, the Academy and course dates avaialble for 2014 visit www.benningtoncarriages.co.uk 
Address - Bennington Carriages Moor Lane Long Bennington Newark Nottinghamshire NG23 5GA Tel:   01400 281280 E-mail  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.