Last week we had a guest post on Scotch Bottom Shoes, a… nifty… little device in the draft continent of the horse world 😉 This week we have the much anticipated tale from Mackinac Island. Enjoy!
As I was putting this post together, I did not know quite where to begin. I suppose a confession is in order and a bit of background. I worked on the Island the summer after I graduated from college for four months, before I discovered I was pregnant and returned home. There were some fun parts to working on the Island, but those were few and far between. I did not, at the time, have the energy or courage to stand up and speak with someone about what I’d seen. No one else seemed to have a problem with what was going on, it was just accepted business practice.
For those not familiar with the area, Mackinac Island is a small island sandwiched between upper and lower Michigan, a few miles from the Mackinac Bridge. Most of it is a National Historic Park, but people do live there. The unique thing about it, and why I, as a draft horse mad woman ended up working there, is that there are no cars allowed on the island aside from emergency vehicles. It is the biggest tourist trap in the area, full of fudge, expensive everything, beauty and of course, horses. Horses are the way to get around on the Island, along with bikes.
Horses pull the drays that deliver everything from food, merchandise, luggage and garbage. Horses pull the street sweeper, act as taxis, give the tours and haul everything. One of the most nut-bag things about the island, something that went against all the safety training I’ve ever had, was that not only can you rent your own saddle horse and proceed to wander about the Island, you can rent your own horse and buggy from the livery. This boggled my mind. The livery drafts were literally the oldest, most brain dead horses I have ever met. Their top speed is about one foot moving every minute or so. They have to put up with so much, from clueless tourists trying to get lost and yanking on their faces just to start with. The tour drivers used to make a joke of it: “It’s impossible to get lost with one of the livery drafts, because you aren’t really the driver, the horse is!”
I was a tour driver for Mackinac Island Carriage Tours; the big red and yellow wagons that did the same 30 minute loop about 10 times a day or more, depending on the day. Everyday I worked about 12 to 16 hours, again depending on early tours and late weddings. My roommate often worked later than I as she would finish giving tours for the day and go on a ride along with the late night taxis.
My days were thus as I lived in the company dorms downtown next to the fire station:
Around4:30am my alarm would go off or my roommates, and downstairs we would stumble to stuff ourselves with the cheapest, most fake food to be found (later, after morning sickness hit, I would breakfast on yogurt.)
We trudged up the hill to the barns after breakfast – and this was usually the best part of my day. It was a mile hike uphill, a short part of the day I was not sitting on my butt, and also the most beautiful and quiet; before the Island woke up and the fog burned off.
As soon as I arrived at the barns I had to start breathing through my mouth. The carriage tour and taxi barns are in a large complex at the top of the hill behind the golf course, put there, I believe, because most tourists don’t walk up there. The barns always stunk to high heaven. I know they were old but they were never clean – either of cobwebs, urine, poop, or just general mess. The urine smell was embedded in the boards and the concrete. The TTEAM trainer I worked for previously had always had me lay down lime after mucking out a stall to dry out the urine and make it smell nice. This never failed and lime was cheap and plentiful. When I asked why lime wasn’t used in the Island barns, I was told it was too expensive. Perhaps this is true – the four huge barns could house up to 80 draft horses each so that would have to be a lot of lime. But to me it would have been worth it to save the lungs of the horses that had to stand in it and the workers who spent all day in the barns prepping horses.
As a carriage tour driver I was only required to prep my morning team. Standard procedure was that each carriage was pulled by a team, or two drafts that worked well together. There were two teams per wagon per day, so there was a morning team that worked roughly 5 tours a day and switched out at lunch. The afternoon team could work up to 8 tours a day, plus be routed for wedding or other duties after the tour office closed. Prepping the teams meant giving them a good grooming and throwing on their harness and making sure it was perfect. In the mornings the barns would be full of barn workers, horses and tour drivers everywhere, fighting over the scarce grooming tools, lugging harnesses and cleaning their carriages for the day.
Nearly every horse that had been on the Island for any length of time had sores, usually open ones, on their neck where the collar sat. These horses were hauling around 3-4000 pound wagons full of people uphill for about a mile several times a day. Most of the collars were leather or biothane and rubbed on those open sores the whole time the horse was hitched. When I told the barn manager, my first few times, about open sores on the weight bearing portion of a horse’s or team’s neck, I was handed a tube of baby powder and told to sprinkle that on the sores and harness up the team. Over time I learned not to bother the barn manager about the horse’s neck sores, I just did what I could to make the horses as comfortable as possible.
Our assigned tour route for the two horse portion forced on us by our supervisors took no more than 30 minutes to get up the hill, drop the passengers off for the three horse section of the tour, and drive back downtown for the next load.
Anyone who has ever stood close to a draft horse is probably struck by two things: How big and strong they are, and how slow. Tour drivers were never allowed to trot, yet we always had this time limit hung over our heads. Lots of drivers pushed their horses to meet this, not resting for long enough or stopping at the designated places. I, however, was frequently talked to about how long my tours were taking.
During the day I had to deal with occasionally fussy passengers, but that was the easiest part. The hard part was handling a team in the mess of downtown. There were people on bicycles who hadn’t ridden one in years and didn’t know the protocol for parking and so you had to dodge people on bikes and badly parked bikes. There were people and their dogs and kids everywhere, and because there were no cars people seldom watched where they were going or looked before crossing the street. There were the taxis and private carriages which were allowed to trot, drays and luggage and hay wagons to manoeuvre around, and everywhere people. On top of that, due to the fact that I had quite a bit more experience with drafts and with driving then 90% of the tour drivers (scary fact: as listed on the carriage tour website there is no horse experience necessary for any position with the company. The training provided is two days of watching tours and a week of driving instruction before you start giving tours on your own). I was given the rankest, rawest horses to drive. I drove the ones that were bought at one of the Midwest Auctions two days before and shipped up to the Island. I had the honor of testing and driving them to see how they dealt with everything the Island could throw at them; all the while giving regular tours. But draft horses are used on the Island not just for their size and strength but for their calm, I (fortunately) never once had an incident with any of the new horses, although the potential, as with all equine pursuits, was always there.
Case in point: On one of my rare days off when I actually took a ferry and left the island there was an accident. My roommate and three other drivers lost control of their teams, a few with wagons full of people, and the horses took off onto the Grand Hotel Gulf Course. As far as I know, no people were hurt though a few of the horses had to be sent off the Island due to their sprains and other injuries.
The only incident I ever had with one of my teams was the day I was taking a wedding party from downtown all the way out to the west side of the Island. One of the most beautiful, steadiest mares, who I loved, a Belgian/Percheron cross, went nuts just up the hill from the Grand Hotel. This hill is quite steep and I had a wagon full of already half-drunk wedding guests, and one of my horses was rearing, bucking, and trying to bolt. My hands still ache when I think of what it took to keep her from bolting, carriage and all. I managed to keep the team at a trot up the hill, while trying to calm the passengers who were understandably worried. I finally got the mare to halt at the barns where I was told that I had to take the wedding guest to their destination, which was a 3 mile round trip from the barn, before I could switch out teams. I needed my job so I didn’t argue. When I spoke with the vet the next day, I was told the mare had gotten a bee sting right under the birchen, the piece of leather that loops around a horses hindquarters, and the birchen kept rubbing on the sting which is why the mare freaked out.
When a tour was dropped off up at the Carriage Museum past the barns for the second, three horse hitch part of their tour through the state park, we would take in people whose tour was done and either drop them off at the Grand Hotel or back downtown. Depending on how busy the day was, tour carriages would line up in the center of the main street downtown to wait for the next carriage to fill up at the ticket office. This was nerve wracking until you got used to it, and then it was still bad. We were right in the thickest part of traffic, we had other wagons squeezing by us and bumping us if we hadn’t pulled perfectly to the center of the road, bikes being knocked over by careless people and tourists and their kids begging to pet your horses. This was not allowed, though I always hated telling some little kid, “Sorry you can’t pet the horsey” because I hoped that by being allowed to interact with the horses those kids would grow up to be horse lovers, or at least not indifferent to them.
I would give tours from about 8am, sometimes earlier if there was a big group, until after 5pm when the ticket office closed. After that I either had to wait to ferry people back from the last tours of the day, give a wedding party a ride, or be let go for the evening – never any earlier than 6pm. In the evening we unhitched our afternoon team, unharnessed, gave them a hose bath and then the carriage drivers were done for the day, usually around 7pm if it was an early day.
Life in the barns themselves had a different flow. I did work in the barns on the few days I didn’t feel well enough to give tours and I always regretted it. The urine smell would give me a headache in no time and prepping more than just one team made me want to cry from seeing the sores the animals had to put up with. The barns only had standing tie stalls and in a few the wooden floor was cracked or broken. Most of the stalls had automatic waters that mostly worked but all of them had some form of mold growing in them, and a few even had small patches of grass growing in them!
The barn routine started earlier and ended later than a carriage driver’s. The barn workers caught horses from the small dirt paddock they spent the night in and brought them in to the standing stalls and fed breakfast. We helped the drivers get their teams clean and harnessed up in the mornings, and then worked to get everyone hitched to their carriage and out of the barn. Stall ‘cleaning’ generally happened about this time. I say ‘cleaning’ because the stalls were never clean, or dry, or even vaguely healthy. A few times I went above and beyond and scattered some hay on the stall floors to try to soak up the urine. I was then talked to about wasting precious hay. There were no shavings, which is why I was using hay. Sometime in the middle of the morning chaos a driver was sent up to the dump with a wagon full of yesterday’s dirty manure and “bedding”. This was a job I jumped at doing. It was just one driver and one team, all alone in the quietest part of the Island in the cool morning.
After everyone was hitched and out of the barn and the stalls were ‘clean’, the barn people started grooming and harnessing the afternoon teams. About the time that was done, it was time to switch out teams, a feat that looked like a NASCAR tire change due to the precision and control it took. The driver’s job was to keep a carriage full of paying customers entertained for the few minutes it took the barn people to unhitch and lead away one team and hitch up the next team to the carriage. All told there would be up to 30, 2 horse carriages out for the day, and around 15, 3 horse hitch carriages out, not counting taxis or private carriages.
One of my favourite parts of working on the Island was talking about the horses with the passengers. I always made time in my tours to talk quite a bit about them and answer questions, and most people were genuinely interested and surprised at some of the facts I shared. My least favourite parts were dealing with the other drivers, most of whom could care less about the horses and not being able to do anything about those neck sores. At the end of the summer I was quite happy to go home to our two drafts and spoil them outrageously and fuss over every little scratch and bit of dirt on them.