Dennis Huber’s first experience driving horses was as a 10-year-old logger on his family’s farm.
It was all part of growing up in the bush at 93 Mile. Fast forward a few decades, and Huber found himself back behind the reins: this time as a carriage driver for sport in the Fraser Valley.
Now living in 70 Mile House, Huber, 72, has returned closer to his roots, and is a driving force behind the South Cariboo’s poker rides and carriage-driving competitions, the latter of which has been running on his farm for the past 20-odd years. The poker rides have been offered for the past two years.
“I like to see the horses I’ve been involved with excel and the people I’ve been involved with excel,” says Huber, vice-president of the B.C. Carriage Driving Society and head of the Cariboo Country Carriage Club.
The organization was hamstrung last year in holding its annual competitions because of COVID-19. With 35 volunteers needed to put on the event, the Carriage Club found itself running clinics instead.
“That was all we could do because we had to have so many feet between people and only so many people on the property,” Huber says.
However, he’s hoping to get back on track this year. A two-day carriage-driving competition set for the May long weekend had to be cancelled, but other poker rides — in which riders or drivers collect a poker hand along the 18 kilometre route and collect winnings for the highest hand — are scheduled for June and October, and carriage-driving competitions are planned for July, August and September.
“There’s good interest in it and we’ve already got people calling and say we’re coming,” Huber said. “It goes over really well with people.”
Past events have drawn people from Barriere and Vernon, but most are from the South Cariboo. The age range usually includes children or people over 60, Huber says, because the people in the middle age group are too busy raising their families or making money. He’d love to see a more diverse group, noting that “the more people we can get out to the sport the better.”
The society offers one-on-one clinics and has some harnesses and carts available for those who want to learn. Huber can also help people find the equipment, as well as coaches and trainers, if they want to get more involved in the sport and compete with their ponies or horses.
Huber, who was involved in writing up the rule book and was among the first coaches and trainers for the sport in B.C., says a good driving horse is more affordable than a horse used in the riding arena. “It’s got some price to it, but not as bad as some of the ridden sports are.”
Huber adds that it does take a lot of commitment to become a carriage driver, however, noting the main things people need are “patience and a horse that is patient. You can’t have horses that are spooky at all in a carriage. It just does not work. Someone is going to get hurt somewhere.”
Both horses and drivers are started on the ground before hooking up the cart or carriage. Some pick it up in a matter of hours, while others take years. The hardest part is learning how to hold the reins.
“When you’re on a saddle horse, you’re right there and everything is close,” he says. “On a carriage horse, you have six to 12 feet of reins. You have to learn to control that and hold it firm but not too firm.”
The competitions offer various categories depending on whether it’s horse-and-rider or carriage-driver and what type of horses are being used in the event. Vets are onsite and do a check in the middle of the route to ensure the horses and ponies are still good to continue.
“We want everybody to come and have fun and compete and finish and have a healthy horse when they’re done,” says Huber.
Those interested can pursue the world championship, from a single hitch to tandem, pairs, and four horses, as well as world championship for ponies. The competitions usually include three stages: dressage, field marathon, and the cones course, where carriage drivers have to navigate a series of cones because “you can’t jump with a horse and buggy.”
Huber, who was shortlisted for the Canadian championship, hasn’t competed in the past eight years after one of his team broke its leg and had to be put down. The remaining pony, Koko, is 29 now and living out his life on the Huber farm.
“They’re our kids, they really are.,” he says. “My nieces and nephews come out and take him for a ride and he loves it.”
More information can be found on the Cariboo Country Carriage Club Facebook page.