Driving team takes to the reins

Blonde Belgians, Brandy and Star, waiting for their drive with Sandy Archer and Nick Arnes. Photo by Matt Williams.
Blonde Belgians, Brandy and Star, waiting for their drive with Sandy Archer and Nick Arnes. Photo by Matt Williams.

Last weekend, eight MSU students jumped behind the reins while competing as novice drivers at the Wild West WinterFest in Bozeman.

The students, all members of the MSU Driving Team, have learned how to work horses hitched to a horse-drawn vehicle — otherwise known as driving — and demonstrated their skills during WinterFest’s 11th annual Working Horse and Driver Contest. As a team, the students won the category of reserve champion novice drivers.

The driving team has participated four times in this contest since the club’s creation in the fall of 2009, sending anywhere from two to ten students each winter, explained Andi Shockley, team coach and adjunct instructor in animal and range sciences.

The competition, held in the Gallatin County Fairground’s Indoor Arena on Feb. 17, included four events: cultivating, which simulates preparing the ground for planting; obstacle driving, which incorporates steering the horse and cart around a series of obstacles; precision pulling, which emphasizes smooth starts and stops so as to not jostle the passengers in the cart; and log skidding, which demonstrates control while mimicking a logging activity. Awards included buckles, jackets and cash prizes.

Team members volunteer to participate in the competition. “I wanted to challenge myself to do something I haven’t done before,” said driving member Nick Ames about his decision to compete. Ames joined the team at the beginning of fall semester, though he had never driven horses before.

“Everyone did wonderfully,” said senior Sandy Archer, who was pleased to place third in the log skid event. Competitors traveled from various areas of Montana and it was a “good opportunity and challenge” to partake in the contest, Ames said.

Sue Shockley, the fairgrounds manager, explained that the driving contest captures the Western theme that the WinterFest tries to highlight. “Driving was a huge part of the settling of the West. Horses were used where we now use tractors and other motorized equipment,” she said. “We try to have a good announcer that can explain how the various driving skills being demonstrated were used in the past and why.”

To foster an environment of learning, there are two divisions in the competition — open and novice — and the advanced drivers go first to allow those with less experience the opportunity to observe. This has helped to increase the number of novice drivers, Shockley said, as “one of our goals is to promote driving so it will never be lost.”

The team of about 20, typically only having access to one team of horses, has faced a challenge in providing hands-on practice time to its members. MSU has leased a set of Belgium Draft Horses named Brandy and Star, owned by Lone Mountain Ranch for four years, which the group practices with regularly. They are currently negotiating the purchase of a second team, but for the competition students borrowed a team named Snip and Tuck in addition to using Brandy and Star.

The student driving team, a subdivision of the MSU Horseman’s Club, holds practices every Tuesday at the Miller Stock Pavillion, west of campus, from 5-7 p.m. Attendance varies from a handful to almost 20, and new members are always welcome.