November 2007

“Good Hands” Made Great

Tom O'Carroll - Good Hands made great
Tom O’Carroll at a Pleasure Driving Show where he won the
“Concours de Elegance” award for the most beautiful turnout.

“Good Hands” Made Great
By Ingrid Edisen

What makes “Good Hands” great…Tom O’Carroll.  He and his partner Marlene Collins, along with their well-trained staff, operate the Good Hands Training Center in Navasota, Texas.  Originally from Ireland, Tom lived for an extended period in upstate New York before migrating to the Central Texas area.  

To anyone who ever read The Black Stallion series, Tom is the embodiment of the trainer, Henry, from the book.  The character Henry was one who helped young Alex Ramsey reclaim the stallion from the edge. Real life Tom is strong looking and tan after spending a lifetime around horses.   His arms, shoulders and broad hands speak of much use and his torso is muscled like a boxer’s.  He has earned his wisdom and fairness around horses. Even when he was a kid back in Ireland, the neighbors used to send their problem horses to him and he admits he just fell in love with driving—and training, of course. 

Tom driving in a Combined Driving Event
Tom driving in a Combined Driving Event in the Hazards with his 4-in-hand.

Notable about his facility is the wonderful display of sixty or so buggies, carts and carriages for sale, along with new and used harness, in their second business, Horse Sense Trading Co.  I was able to attend one of his many clinics recently and much to my surprise, he admitted he liked synthetic harness gear over leather goods due to its ease of upkeep and light weight.  

Tom is a stickler for cleaning tack after it has been used every time.  Otherwise, he points out, you can chaff the horse’s skin.  A horse won’t work in a harness after one time of being rubbed too much the wrong way, he explained.  A mule might take it, but not a horse, Tom noted.  He also stated that using pads under various parts of the harness was not suitable in the Texas heat.  And, if a horse got a rub, one remedy would be to rub a little salt on the area and clean it off the next morning.

His instinct about horses is dead on.  He comes from a decades-long history of hands-on experience, having seen more around horses than most of us.  One of the goals of his training program is to teach owners how to safely drive their horses so that a “wreck” won’t occur.  If a horse becomes scared while in the harness, it is extremely difficult to regain its confidence again, Tom told the group of recent clinic participants.  He went over a checklist of do’s and don’ts to emphasize safety issues.  Besides carefully looking over your tack, Tom stresses other things such as “never remove the bridle while the horse is still put to the vehicle” and to make sure the vehicle is properly balanced.

To underscore that last point, Tom guided the class outside and had several of us try to pick up the shafts of an older buggy that belonged to someone else and was not properly balanced.  The weight of the entire cart seemed pitched into your hands and it was so heavy that it felt like picking up an automobile.  Tom explained that this was the case of a cart that had been improperly balanced and it basically tortured the animal because the entire weight rested on its withers.  After handling the shafts myself, I totally understood. 

On the subject of bitting, Tom showed us many bits that are commonly used in driving.  He pointed out that if one has to “curb down” a horse (use the bottom setting of the long shanked “Liverpool bit” for instance), then the training on the horse is insufficient.  Tom adamantly explained that a top driving horse takes more than seven years to develop and should be able to be driven in a snaffle as well as a curb bit.

He also had the clinic participants use “driving boards” which were simulated rein/bit rigs that allowed us to witness exactly what our rein contact and hands did inside the horse’s mouth.  That part was fascinating.  Standard driving reins are 14 feet long and it was easy to see when one dropped the contact or what happened when we tried to turn our “horses” by pulling a bit more with one rein than the other.  

Blinkers are a necessity, he said.  While some of his clients prefer to drive their horses “open” (sans blinkers) Mr. O’Carroll recommends using blinkers to enhance safety.  Teaching a horse to have confidence in the driver is paramount.

Besides a driving equipment store, the Good Hands facility also offers a seven-kilometer marathon course and hosts competitions.  Tom accepts training horses and charges $750/month (this includes board) that is cheap insurance considering the animal’s training will be logical and sane and will produce a more confident animal.  The beauty of having a horse that can drive is that people who may not be able to ride mounted can still enjoy their horse.

Types of driving include recreational, arena, combined, long distance, farm/agriculture, commercial and hitch.  Competitive driving, also called “combined driving”, is the fast-growing equine sport in America today.  Horse/s, driver and carriage are judged in driven dressage, a cross-country marathon with obstacles (also called “hazards”), and finally a precision cones course.  Scores are based on accuracy of performance as well as time.  Competitions start at the friendly and less daunting training level and go through the very difficult advanced level.

Tom driving in a Combined Driving Event
Tom driving in a Combined Driving Event in the Hazards with his 4-in-hand.

For more information on equine driving, as well as collecting and restoring horse-drawn vehicles, visit the following websites:, and (Carriage Association of America).

To contact Tom O’Carroll’s Good Hands Training Center: (281) 731-5202: 7367 FM-2; Navasota, TX 77868.

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