2009-08-08 / Top News

Horse Culture Lectures Given by Candi Dunnigan and Dr. Al Sibinic

Horses on Mackinac: Then and Now
By Kerri Jo Molitor

Dr. Al Sibinic, the Island's veterinarian, passes around different designs of horseshoes before the current model was made. The shoe is steel dipped in a hard rubber meant to protect the paved streets on Mackinac Island. Dr. Sibinic gave a lecture about the difficulties of running a 19th century business in a 21st century world Saturday, July 25, at 10 a.m. at Grand Hotel during the Festival of the Horse. Dr. Al Sibinic, the Island's veterinarian, passes around different designs of horseshoes before the current model was made. The shoe is steel dipped in a hard rubber meant to protect the paved streets on Mackinac Island. Dr. Sibinic gave a lecture about the difficulties of running a 19th century business in a 21st century world Saturday, July 25, at 10 a.m. at Grand Hotel during the Festival of the Horse. The evolution of horse culture on Mackinac Island and how modern day challenges are solved using old-fashioned transportation were the subjects of lectures given by Island resident Candi Dunnigan and Island veterinarian Dr. Al Sibinic. The lectures, Friday, July 24 and Saturday, July 25, respectively, were part of a series of events in the Festival of the Horse.

"Our essence of a horse culture is primarily transportation and commerce for the masses," Mrs. Dunnigan said.

Mackinac Island has the largest working draft horse population in the United States. The draft is the most popular horse seen on the Island. Apart from the commercial use of horses, the horse can also be purely recreational. Residents who own horses don't plow fields, breed, or show their horses; they own them for recreational purposes only. Some of the horses aren't even ridden, she said.

First Horses Were

Beasts of Burden

Mackinac Island was nothing until Fort Michilmackinac was established on the mainland in the 1700s, Mrs. Dunnigan said. One of the first things the soldiers did when they established that fort was build stables, seen in the plans of the fort. This proves they had horses here as early as the 1700s, but they were working horses needed to haul logs and firewood.

At Fort Mackinac, the soldiers also used oxen, but horses were more utilitarian, Mrs. Dunnigan said, and so they were the primary beast of burden.

Mrs. Dunnigan showed slides throughout her lecture and one picture dating to about 1830 shows the beginning semblance of town. There were Native Americans bringing furs ashore, but there was also a small horse with a cart waiting for the furs. The horse was not a heavy draft horse, because they did not have those on the Island then. They had smaller horses similar to the Morgan breed that were about 14 hands high and were able to withstand winter on the Island.

Horses also hauled water from the lake up to Fort Mackinac because there wasn't another good source of drinking water for the soldiers. The roads on Mackinac Island were made by the horses, as the soldiers needed to get firewood from the forest to the fort. The forest was divided into sections and the roads led from section to section. Tourists Later Use Roads Cut

in Forest by Soldiers

Tourism started picking up in the 1850s, and then after dying down during the Civil War in the 1860s, increased again in the 1870s and 1880s, Mrs. Dunnigan said.

"There was a wonderful romanticism of America at that time," she said. "As the East Coast is getting more and more crowded and you have the area of Chicago getting built up, but you have the vast North and the West. People are exploring the Great Lakes on steamship and they are coming here because of these rocky romantic vistas. They are looking at Mackinac from a tourist aspect."

The dying fish industry on the Island was quickly transformed into a tourism industry. Tours were given by carriage around the Island and instead of sailing a boat around to see the sights, the tourists could use the roads cut by the soldiers at the Fort. At the same time, Mrs. Dunnigan pointed out, the government gave up its land on the East and West Bluffs. Summer cottagers began building homes on the bluffs, which brought a whole new dimension to the Island.

Horse stables on the Island were no longer simply a place to store horses, but were also the home of sightseeing businesses. Other hotels and boarding houses began to offer tours of the Island, as well, Mrs. Dunnigan said. Giving tours of the Island and catering to tourists was how people on the Island made a living.

Their horses stayed on the Island over the winter and it was difficult to obtain adequate amounts of hay and feed. Because of that, she said, the horses on the Island were very thin.

People Depend on Tours by Carriage for Their Livelihood

In about 1898, local residents decided to organize the Horsemen's Association, but they weren't riders as they are today. They were people whose livelihood depended on driving carriages.

Also around this time, Dr. Al Sibinic said, the horse was so established on the Island that the residents decided to ban motor vehicles. They did this for a few reasons, he said, one of them being the issue of space. Since the Island is so small, there isn't much room for cars, let alone parking space for cars. It was easier to the keep the Island as a pedestrian environment.

Another reason was the cars created a lot of noise, which stirred up the horses and disturbed the tourism industry here.

"Everyone came to ride the buggies, so what happens is then you add the car and all the horses go berserk," Dr. Sibinic said. "Those people were in charge of the Island and they wanted to protect their industry."

Saddlebreds were rented to hotel guests in the 1930s. Courses were given to teach the summer residents how to ride.

At this time everyone on the Island was using coal heat. Coal had to be brought to what is known as the Coal Dock, and then horses had to haul it to its destination. They also still hauled firewood for the winter months. Horses on the Island were still used as beasts of burden, she said.

Draft horses were introduced to the Island in 1980, Mrs. Dunnigan said.

"In order to move people like you move people now, and in order to move heavy machinery, they started bringing over the big horses, the super horses," she said.

Draft horses today are the most recognizable horses on the Island, because they are seen pulling drays in town, the large carriages for tours, and anything else heavy that needs to go from one place to another.

Overcoming Flies, Mud,

Manure Still Among


The challenges of keeping horses as the primary mode of transportation are many, especially in this modern-day world, Dr. Sibinic pointed out.

"My grandma told me about going to Chicago in 1918," he said. "She said it was one of the messiest places she had ever seen. There were flies, mud, horse manure, and a huge collection of people and animals. How do we deal with those issues so that you're still taken care of in the way that you're used to in the culture you come from?"

Horses are really sensitive creatures, Dr. Sibinic explained. Their touch is a thousand times more sensitive than a human's touch, so everything they come in contact with is of great concern to them. They are also a prey animal, an idea foreign to humans, who are predator animals. Horses are worried about their safety and their biggest defense against a threat is to run away. There are many things a horse can be frightened of on Mackinac Island, including umbrellas, noisy children , and people simply not paying attention.

The Island is small, which makes housing the horses a big challenge, Dr. Sibinic said. They are mostly kept in tie stalls, small stalls with food on one end and room for the horses to relieve themselves. There is only room for the horses to stand, but horses are comfortable standing and have a mechanism that allows them to lock their front legs and hook their femur over their kneecap. They adapted to sleeping while standing because of their status as a prey animal.

Another challenge is feeding the horses. There is no agriculture on the Island, Dr. Sibinic pointed out, because there isn't room for it, but that means everything has to be shipped to the main boat docks, then put on the boats, and then hauled by dray to arrive at the barn. Horses are fed hay, which comes to the Island in big round bales that weigh about 1,500 pounds. The bales can feed 50 to 100 horses at a time. They also eat grain, or oats, which is a high carbohydrate food and gives the horses high energy. One horse can eat 10 to 20 pounds of high energy pellets a day.

Manure disposal is an issue on the Island, but it is shoveled up and hauled on a dray wagon to a composting facility in the middle of the Island. Sixty percent of solid waste on Mackinac Island is horse manure, Dr. Sibinic said, which would be way too expensive to ship off the Island. After about six months at the composting facility, it is used as topsoil for gardens.

Rubber Shoes Developed on

Island Help Save Roads

With about 300 commercial horses on the Island this summer, he said, about 1,200 hooves need to have shoes. Shoes are important on a horse, to protect the horse's feet, but also to protect the paved roads on the Island. A rubber shoe was developed, after many failed attempts, for the front feet of the horse. The shoe is a hard rubber, so it isn't much of a cushion for the horses, but that's okay, Dr. Sibinic said. Horses have a natural shock absorber, he said, so people don't need to worry too much about their comfort.

"The rubber shoe was developed on the Island to save paved roads so we wouldn't be knee deep in mud, like in Chicago in 1918," he said.

Horses can become ill with viruses and can also contract worms, since horses eat off the ground, which is where they also relieve themselves.

Disease doesn't pose as much of a challenge for Island horses as tfor traveling horses.

"This is a fairly isolated population," Dr. Sibinic said. "These horses are kept in groups here and they go back in groups on the mainland."

Dr. Sibinic also treats cuts, bruises, and bellyaches, and even tumors on horses.

"Most of them don't have as invasive of cancers as people, but that's probably because they don't drink, they don't smoke, and they don't do all that stuff we seem to entertain ourselves with," he said.

Flies are also a concern on the Island and the sprays don't work as well anymore, Dr. Sibinic said. Ergonomic predators, tiny wasps that lay eggs and feed on the developing fly larvae, are now used. Horses that are not irritated are more likely to remain calm when something startles them, such as an umbrella opening on the street.

"We want to make the horses as comfortable as possible and at ease," he said.

Horses have a lot of equipment, called their tack. They all have harnesses, bits, and the saddlebred horses also have saddles. There are two or three teams per buggy, which have to be wiped down and cared for. Taking care of a horse and its equipment is very labor-intensive, Dr. Sibinic said.

"I think that's why Henry Ford became so popular," he said, "because it was so easy to give up all this work. You can just turn a key, where otherwise you have to brush your horse, get out all this harness, get it on, hook it up to the buggy, and usually wipe down the buggy."

Expenses of keeping horses on the Island are huge, Dr. Sibinic said.

"Everything on the Island that you do, that you eat, that you buy, has been brought here by a horse," he said. "Think about that. But before it got to the horse, it had to be trucked to the mainland docks; it had to be put on the boats, as do the horses."

It costs $22 each way to ship the horses, which is about double what it costs to bring people. Shipping feed is also costly.

Transporting the manure has a cost, as well. It is $60 to haul the wagon, which holds 10 yards, to the composting facility and there is an extra $4.75 per yard paid to the city to pay for the composting. A full wagon could cost $100 or more. The private horse owners do that once a week, Dr. Sibinic said, but the commercial businesses do that once a day.

It is far too expensive to keep the horses on the Island throughout the winter. The horses go to farms in the Upper Peninsula where they rest in the winter months.

"They look forward to coming back," he said. "They have fun in the corral, but then they hang around at the gate, ready to work. The like to get out and they like to do something. They are such generous creatures to let us control that."

Return to top

Click here for digital edition
2009-08-08 digital edition