2006-09-09 / Columnists

Island Saying Goodbye To Golden Summer Riding Season

HORSE TA ES by Candice C. Dunnigan

"But they must go, the time

draws on,

And those white-favor'd horses wait

They rise,

but linger; it is late

Farewell, we kiss, and they are gone"

-Alfred Lord


Last Saturday a group of 20 Island riders and their guests said farewell to each other as they passed Grand Hotel. In truth they said goodbye not only to fellow horsemen and their steeds, they said goodbye to summer riding and a season; those golden, short months of warmth, greenery, endless blues of water and skies, all highlighted by light and sun. For many of those who partook in the ride, it indeed was their one last time to share with fellow riders the kind of camaraderie living here and having a horse to ride can bring.

For anyone curious about our Island and its equines, the first full week of September is one of the busiest times to assemble horses and begin the seasonal move off of Mackinac. While cottagers worry about coordinating boat schedules with trailer pick-ups,

Mackinac Island Carriage Tours, along with Jack's and Cindy's Riding Stables (run by the Gough family), are already well into the game. It's a serious undertaking, even if you have just one saddle horse, let alone 20 or 400 drafts.

The tour buggies have been neatly lined up, all in order. From afar, they resemble children's toys or a miniature perfect little theatrical set, ready and awaiting one more summer day. The tour buggies have been neatly lined up, all in order. From afar, they resemble children's toys or a miniature perfect little theatrical set, ready and awaiting one more summer day. Actually horses move off and on the Island every month. By the end of August, the Tours begin to downsize according to hotel and visitor volume. They also move sick or injured horses off. Arrowhead Livery, though considerably smaller, follows similar suit. By the first full week after Labor Day, boats may run as many as three trips a day loaded with horses from Mackinac Island going into St. Ignace harbors. There are often more than 30 horses going across at one time.

Yet what really brings a wave of nostalgia over me, is when I happen to be by the "Big Barns" (of Carriage Tours) on the hill behind Grand Hotel early in the morning during the last few days of August into September. Everything seems to be...waiting, but still holding on. Dawn comes closer to seven in the morning now, and heavy dew falls all over the yard. By this time of year everyone and everything seems to know their place, horses, harnesses men, drivers, even the ducks, sparrows, and wrens that frequent the water holes. The green and white stripes and canopied threehorse hitch wagons, the yellow and red taxis, the tour buggies have been neatly lined up, all in order. From afar, they resemble a children's toys or a miniature perfect little theatrical set, ready and awaiting one more summer day.

I suppose, for many a visitor, that is what Mackinac must look like in total: a perfect picture. Indeed, at the Tours yard, there is a picturesque precision to behold and partake. However, that sleepy yard at Tours' soon shakes and awakes as teams and wagons roll out and others roll in. By September, "closing up shop" starts to set in. There is an annual plan that begins to develop, and you can feel it. Very little of what you see is left outside for winter.

When the last of the Island businesses close by the end of October, Mackinac Island Carriage Tours has at least 80 percent of its working equine force off of the Island. Their barns and shops are closed, like many cottagers' are, only magnified a hundred times or so by complications and size. All of the company's rolling stock is literally rolled in the barns and room is made where horses stood a month or so ago.

The mounds of harnesses and horse collars are cleaned, rubbed, and oiled. Carriage Tours harnesses, once entirely made of leather, over the years have gradually been replaced by reliable neoprene-rubber and nylon component harnesses that are durable and make upkeep easier. Tours still uses many collars that are leather, and those they have to treat. This off-season is also the time to work on carriages. Metal flooring and supports are redone. The boxes (body) of these carriages are painted and interiors and seats spruced up.

Horse shoes are counted, assessed, and reordered. These include the rubber shoes, the composite shoes, and the steel. By September, the pile of old and worn-out shoes are piled high against the shop door. Sometimes it can be more than five feet in height. The metalmachine shops take inventory for winter projects, and the barn manager and assistants pay particular attention to the amount of grain and hay still needed for the fall season as well as what needs to be on hand for the winter, as well as how much human and equine power they need to have on hand. The numbers actually vary dependent on late fall and winter construction projects and day traffic.

Uniforms are counted and cleaned; the same holds true for seasonal housing. Horses seem to sense a change in the air. September often means a change of pace, slow and earlyending days coupled by busy hectic and bustling weekends. But, as the days grow shorter, the horses tend to centralize in both turn-out and barn. Barn doors slide shut and some close down for good until May. They keep the now empty wagons dry. Taxi service teams also decrease, and the same follows suit at the Chambers barn in town on Market and Cadotte avenues. Fancy carriages and the wedding wagons go to sleep. Probably the least affected by September's calendar are the drays of the Mackinac Island Service Company. Usually fall is the time for marked deceleration and improvements all over the Island. The drays and those horses assigned to them usually hold their own until winter really arrives. When it does, the horses grow very thick and shaggy coats that makes them look sometimes twice their bulk, and the wheels on the dray are replaced by skis for sledges.

It makes for quite an operation to coordinate and control. Business aside, the seasonal shutting down and shuttering up makes all those toasts and good-byes (I think) really and

truly mean something. Time does not stand still here, nor do the days of summer. I say that because most of us who are here, are here because we love it. We especially hold dear working and being among the horses who share our lives and give Mackinac so many of our memories, as well as the people here, an integral part of the microcosm.

Candice Dunnigan is an active member of the American Equestrian Association, the Waterloo Hunt, and the Mackinac Horsemen's Association. Seasonally she resides at Easterly Cottage.

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