As soon as I stepped out of my car onto Michelle Dvoracek’s gravel driveway, I was immediately greeted by Dallas, the family’s Aussie welcome wagon. It was another crisp Dakota spring morning, and Michelle was already outside by the barn, doing chores. Excited to meet her horses, Jake and Big Sam, I headed toward the barn. Jake is an eight year old Gypsy Vanner from Minnesota who stands about fifteen hands tall. Sam is seven, and a Gypsy Vanner/Shire cross. Initially, Michelle had purchased Jake for riding, but due to his wider-than-average girth and his love of pulling, she found that he was perfect for carriage driving.

The Gypsy Vanner breed hails from the British Isles, and it was first exported to the United States in 1996. The name originates from the nomadic Roma peoples that used this breed to pull their caravans. These domestic draft horses were renowned for their strength, intelligence, reliability, and gentle temperament, which makes them ideal for families. Some of Gypsy Vanners’ traditional features are their long, flowing manes and tails, and long hair on the legs, which is called feathering. Jake and Sam are both piebald in coloring, meaning they have a mix of black and white pigmentation on their coats.

Michelle resides with her husband of thirty years, Gary Dvoracek, in Springfield, South Dakota. She works at the Springfield post office, and has been training in basic carriage driving and competed in eighteen shows with her sister, Jen Torsney, and Jake for the past six years. She utilizes both two and four wheel carriages, but actually prefers the two wheeled one, because it’s more challenging and has fancier attributes.

Jen lives in Tyndall with her husband Dr. James Torsney and their three children, Elyse, Tarynn, and Ian. When not working with her husband in their optometry office in town or helping Michelle, Jen works with the volunteer horse project. She has been the leader for the Tyndall, SD 4-H Club the past three years. Sharing her knowledge of horse training with the group of ten youths has been a great source of pride, and a lot of fun. In addition to her 4-H work, Jen also trains and participates in dressage and jumping competitions as a solo competitor.

The sisters had their first experience with equines as children, when their oldest sister Deb wanted a small white pony named King. Michelle recalled, “That pony was kind of ornery, and we all learned to ride him. It was hang on or you’re going off.” When I asked Michelle

if she had ever been injured while working with horses, she chuckled and confessed, “Oh yeah, about four years ago, but that was Jenny’s fault. I had a new horse, and Jen rode up on her horse from behind us real quick and spooked my horse. He threw me off and I cracked a rib and punctured a lung. We don’t have that horse anymore. That was the worst I’ve ever been hurt.”


Not long after the arrival of that first pony, the other sisters followed Deb’s trail and wanted horses of their own. As kids, they enjoyed many of the horse events offered through 4-H and participated in show competitions. Deb and Jen’s children continued the family tradition. While Michelle’s three kids, McKenzie, Derrik and Garrett, were heavily into athletics instead of 4-H, she always had at least one horse in the stable. Once her team grew up and moved on in their lives, she was able to jump back in the saddle for training and competing. Michelle and Jen go to about three competitions per year. These are usually held on weekends, and require some travelling to other states. Both sisters are blessed with supportive families and encouraging spouses.

After talking to Michelle, I requested a visit to snap a couple of pictures of her carriage and Jake, and when Michelle invited me to go for an unexpected ride, I was delighted. I was surprised to learn that carriages had special vinyl covers, customized to fit them, just like barbeque grills and air conditioners. Michelle revealed that if she were to start carriage driving over again, she’d probably get a smaller horse, because the larger the horse, the larger the carriage needs to be. Carriages and equipment get pretty heavy as they go up in size. Michelle actually had to have Jake’s carriage and some of his tack custom made.

While Michelle was attaching the carriage to Jake from behind, she asked me to keep a hold of him. I was a little nervous, because if this 1,300 pound horse decided to take off, there was nothing I’d be able to do to stop him. Jake was the perfect gentleman and not only stood patiently still, but allowed me to pet his lovely coat. All the while, Big Sam had his head hanging over the stall rail wanting attention, knocking his feed bowl about and tonguing the bridles hanging nearby.

As we rode down the driveway, a sudden loud bellow, which sounded like a man roaring, came from behind us. Startled, I exclaimed, “What the heck was that?!” Michelle chortled. “Oh that was just Sam. He gets a little mad whenever he’s left behind.” Jake started out onto the family acreage and I held onto my hat as we cleared some low tree branches. Soon we were off onto asphalt, with Dallas running happily alongside the whole time. I inquired of Michelle if Jake preferred pulling on grass or concrete, but she replied, “I don’t think

he cares.” The way Jake responded to Michelle’s verbal commands, and how little she needed to use the reigns was impressive.

Basic carriage driving is judged in three phases of presentation, which includes dressage, marathon, and obstacle cone driving. One of the historical aspects of carriage driving involves fashion. In the past, when people went out for an afternoon ride to socialize, it was expected that they dress up and look proper. This meant that for women, they always wore gloves, a nice hat, jacket, and apron. In carriage riding competitions, this is part of the presentation judging, what’s called their turnout. Michelle shared that, “The fancier the carriage, the fancier the clothes should be. It’s good if the accessories of the driver match those of the horse’s equipment and the carriage, too.” For example, if there are silver embellishments on the horse’s tack, then it’s preferred that the carriage has matching silver accents, too.

The driver should ideally have good posture and barely move their hands while holding the reigns, making the drive look effortless. Another part of turnout judging is how well the driver is able to control their horse using only their voice, reins, and whip. Not only is the appearance of the driver and groom judged, but also the cleanliness and health of the horse, and the carriage too. The carriage needs to be in good working condition and appropriately sized for the horse that’s pulling it. The best turnout in the presentation phase of judging should be a harmonious combination of all the elements.

Dressage basically means training, and it is the part of the competition where the driver can showcase their ability to communicate with the horse. In basic carriage driving, there is no cantering or galloping, but instead uses more controlled movements like the walk, slow trot, working trot, and extended trot. Michelle tells me that “The judges look for very specific things. For example, they will expect the horse to stop and stand quietly for five seconds and then to back up three steps. This is followed by advancing three steps. There is a pattern competitors follow, and they change the types of trots at different predetermined markers.”

Michelle recollected how a little girl at a competition had asked someone, “Why are you whipping your horse?” It was explained to the child that the whip was used to touch or tap the horse, which means different things when it touches in different places, such as to tell him which way to go. The longer the horse, the longer the whip needs to be, so it can reach up to the horse’s shoulders. One of the things about carriage driving that especially appeals to Michelle is how it’s much harder than it looks.

She pointed out, “A lot of people don’t really understand, they think you just drive your horse around a ring and whoever looks the prettiest wins. It’s actually a lot more complicated, especially in the obstacles and cones classes.” In this part of the competition, the driver and horse work together to maneuver the carriage around an arduous course, trying to stay within orange traffic cones topped with tennis balls. If the cone is knocked over, or a tennis ball falls, points are deducted. This is a timed event that requires speed and accuracy.

A strict requirement in carriage driving competitions is the need for a groom that essentially acts as the pit crew for the driver. The groom is an invaluable source of safety. They stay with the horse while they are hitched, unhitched or hooked onto the carriage. The groom also helps if there’s any equipment malfunctions or difficulties with the horse. They are not allowed to talk to the driver during the competition however. No one is allowed to compete in carriage driving without a groom.

Both sisters emphasized the importance of regular training, not only for the horse but for the human as well. As the weather gets warmer, a minimum of three or more days a week is ideal.

Jen recommends that a rider be in decent physical shape. Having a strong core, feet, and legs is important, because “riding a horse is all about feel.” A rider uses almost their whole body when on horseback, and a lot of that use is to communicate with the horse. After talking to both sisters individually, it was endearing Michelle & Jake to find how much they resembled each other in mannerisms, laugh and lingo.

After my discussions with Michelle and Jen, I came away with a huge appreciation for horses, the sport’s aspects, and the sisters’ devotion to them. Being a child of big-city-suburbia, I didn’t have many opportunities to experience horses up close. When I got home from my visit with Michelle, I raved about my ride in the carriage with Jake. While my husband was extremely relieved I wouldn’t be begging to buy a pony, I didn’t divulge I’d be willing to muck stalls anywhere for some more horse time.