2018-05-12 / Top News

Carriage Tours Readies Horses for Another Busy Season

By Stephanie Fortino


Mackinac Island Carriage Tours barn leaders Jessica Dobin (left) and Judy Bishop and horse Tonka have returned for another season on Mackinac Island. Tonka and his partner Chief pull 20-passenger carriages during the summer, like those that are lined up outside the Big Barn in the background. Mackinac Island Carriage Tours barn leaders Jessica Dobin (left) and Judy Bishop and horse Tonka have returned for another season on Mackinac Island. Tonka and his partner Chief pull 20-passenger carriages during the summer, like those that are lined up outside the Big Barn in the background. Shutters coming off buildings, streets being swept for the first time after months of winter, and the joyful reunion of friends returning for another busy season are all harbingers of springtime on Mackinac Island. But perhaps one of the most welcome and highly anticipated hallmarks of spring is the return of the hundreds of horses who live and work here.

Up the hill past Grand Hotel, the Mackinac Island Carriage Tours barns come to life this time of year. Carriages are hauled out of storage, horses return to their stalls, and drivers prepare for another season of tours. Everywhere you can find someone working, whether greasing buggy gears or shaking hay into chutes for hungry equines below.


Mackinac Island Carriage Tours horses enjoy the spring sunshine at the corral at Four Corners Thursday, May 3. Horses spend their days off in the turnout area during the season. Mackinac Island Carriage Tours horses enjoy the spring sunshine at the corral at Four Corners Thursday, May 3. Horses spend their days off in the turnout area during the season. Also returning are Judy Bishop, for her 12th year, and Jessica Dobin, for her 11th, who spend their winters in Pickford and Florida, respectively. They are barn leaders, working under barn manager Dale Peterson.

Miss Bishop oversees the Big Barn, which is farthest from the corner of Cadotte Avenue and Huron Road. Miss Dobin oversees the Middle Barn where the three-horse hitch teams reside. It is between the Big Barn and the Taxi Barn that’s on the corner. The barn leaders are in charge of overseeing much of the daily operations, from ordering hay and oats to assigning horses to drivers. They take great pride in their work, and over the last decade or so have become as protective of their horse and human charges as self-described “mama bears.”


Farrier Keith Cripps fits a shoe on Bud in the Carriages Tours shop. Spring is a busy time for farriers, who outfit each horse that returns to Mackinac Island with a full set of shoes. Farrier Keith Cripps fits a shoe on Bud in the Carriages Tours shop. Spring is a busy time for farriers, who outfit each horse that returns to Mackinac Island with a full set of shoes. The two return to the Island each April. The last week of April and first week of May this year saw a huge increase in activity for the company, as the 18 horses that live on the Island year-around were joined by about 100 horses returning for the season. Of the Island’s 500 or so horses, Carriage Tours will have about 325 this year, and horses will arrive throughout the season. Thursday, May 3, there were 112 Carriage Tours horses on the Island, with more arriving almost every day. By July, most of the horses will be situated. New horses will come over throughout the summer to be tested by the barn managers.


Nick, who spent the winter on Mackinac Island, enjoys some time off in the corral next to the Big Barn. All of the Island’s 18 winter horses get a break in the spring when off-Island horses return for the season. Nick, who spent the winter on Mackinac Island, enjoys some time off in the corral next to the Big Barn. All of the Island’s 18 winter horses get a break in the spring when off-Island horses return for the season. When the horses arrive at the Island dock, crews from Carriage Tours are there to greet them. The horses are led through town to the corral by the Big Barn. Jim Pettit, who does a little bit of everything for Carriage Tours, is in charge of giving the horses their vaccinations, trimming their hair, and fitting them with their own collar and harness. In addition to the haircuts, Miss Bishop said hours of brushing helps the horses shed their winter coats.

Mr. Pettit also takes the horses out on a test run and relays his observations to the barn managers to help them when assigning horses to drivers. Pairing the horses to the right drivers is crucial, Miss Dobin said. They like to match inexperienced drivers with experienced horses, and vice versa. Making sure the teams are assigned properly is a major component of their day, Miss Bishop said, and an important responsibility.


Barn leader Jessica Dobin gently strokes Tonka’s chin. Taking care of the Mackinac Island Carriage Tours herd is what draws Miss Dobin and fellow barn leader Judy Bishop back to the Island each year. Miss Dobin is in charge of the Middle Barn, which is seen in the distance. Barn leader Jessica Dobin gently strokes Tonka’s chin. Taking care of the Mackinac Island Carriage Tours herd is what draws Miss Dobin and fellow barn leader Judy Bishop back to the Island each year. Miss Dobin is in charge of the Middle Barn, which is seen in the distance. Barn leaders know every horse by sight, remembering distinct colorings, hair swirls, and gates. Each barn has a “Bible” of its horses, filled with notes about these unique characteristics. The book is essential for the crews when the leaders take a day off, so they know how each horse drives.

Another springtime task is fitting the horses with new shoes. Three full-time farriers work at Carriage Tours and rotate through the shop. Most of the horses from the Pickford winter pastures come over to the Island “barefoot,” Miss Bishop said, and the farriers clean, trim, and shape the hooves, then fit shoes on their feet. Each farrier does six or seven horses a day during the spring, giving each one a full set of new shoes. On a typical day in the summer, the farriers do maintenance on about two horses a day.


A row of 20-passenger buggies ready to be tuned up for the season at the Carriage Tours Big Barn. A row of 20-passenger buggies ready to be tuned up for the season at the Carriage Tours Big Barn. Springtime is a mixed bag for the barn leaders, as they have an array of tasks to prepare for summer. Misses Bishop and Dobin began Thursday on their routine at the barn, but then broke to give tours to a group of early visiting elementary students who had timed their visit for the opening of Fort Mackinac. After the tours they returned to the barns to continue their routine and make sure the rest of the crew was on task.


Joslyn Papineau, who is in her second year working for Carriage Tours, shakes hay down a chute giving the horses an “all-you-caneat hay buffet,” said Big Barn Leader Judy Bishop. Joslyn Papineau, who is in her second year working for Carriage Tours, shakes hay down a chute giving the horses an “all-you-caneat hay buffet,” said Big Barn Leader Judy Bishop. During the season, the horses are washed twice a day. The morning bath prepares them for a day of work and the evening bath washes off the sweat and fly spray accumulated throughout the day. As a memento from winter, the wash rack in early May was still filled with snow.

The barns are used to store carriages in the winter. They are packed in carefully and protected by shutters. Thursday, Mr. Peterson, puffing away on a cigar, used a small tractor to pull the green and white threehorse hitch buggies from the Middle Barn and parked them in a line outside. A couple of barn workers cleaned them of bird droppings and dust, checked the bearings, and greased the chassis. The carriages get the same maintenance as a car does, Miss Bishop said, and there’s at least a flat tire a day during the season.


Tonka the horse enjoys a belly rub from Judy Bishop, a barn leader for Mackinac Island Carriage Tours. Horses enjoy being groomed, Miss Bishop said, and will often try to reciprocate by nibbling on the person petting them. Tonka the horse enjoys a belly rub from Judy Bishop, a barn leader for Mackinac Island Carriage Tours. Horses enjoy being groomed, Miss Bishop said, and will often try to reciprocate by nibbling on the person petting them. Once the carriages are ready to go, the barn leaders make sure they’re stocked with working microphones, headsets, and batteries.

To prepare the barns for the horses, the plumbing is turned back on and stalls and fixtures around the barns are repaired.

When the drivers arrive, they can be found helping out in the barns doing the spring cleaning and sweeping up horse hair and manure until business picks up downtown.

Training the new drivers is another important task. Monday, May 7, the first “school bus” trips began, and trainer Joe Hersher drove a packed 20-passenger carriage to teach the rookies the routes and narratives they’ll give to hundreds of tourists this summer.


On her first day working for Mackinac Island Carriage Tours, Olivia Schwiebert (from right) cleans stalls with Abby Martin and Faith Rousse. Before business picks up downtown, the drivers pitch in with spring cleaning at the barns this time of year. On her first day working for Mackinac Island Carriage Tours, Olivia Schwiebert (from right) cleans stalls with Abby Martin and Faith Rousse. Before business picks up downtown, the drivers pitch in with spring cleaning at the barns this time of year. From this crop of new drivers, a couple, hopefully, will be interested in working in the barns. The work requires a dedicated and skilled person, said Miss Bishop, who started working in the barn her first year. Not every driver is inclined to do the hard and labor-intensive work, Miss Dobin agreed, noting she has recorded up to 28,000 steps in a single work day. But the two do it to ensure the comfort and health of the horses.

Working for Carriage Tours is like being part of another family, Miss Dobin said, noting she and Miss Bishop have lived and worked together for 11 years.


Second-year Carriage Tours driver Sierra Todd loads hay into a chute for hungry horses (at right). Second-year Carriage Tours driver Sierra Todd loads hay into a chute for hungry horses (at right). And while the crew may bicker at times, “We’re like sisters and brothers,” she said.

“I love horses,” said Miss Bishop, who grew up on a farm in Pickford. “I love this herd of horses. I want to be here and take care of them.”



After the rainy spring day the day before, some horses enjoy the sun in the corral next to the Big Barn. Horses that return to the Island spend time in the corral while they wait to be fitted with a new set of shoes. After the rainy spring day the day before, some horses enjoy the sun in the corral next to the Big Barn. Horses that return to the Island spend time in the corral while they wait to be fitted with a new set of shoes.

Pete the horse gets a new shoe on a hind leg from farrier Jacob Maze, who cleans and reshapes his hoof. Pete the horse gets a new shoe on a hind leg from farrier Jacob Maze, who cleans and reshapes his hoof.

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