2018-10-06 / Columnists


Henry, the Haflinger: One of the Best Horses and a Best Man

Every year, every season, there are weddings on Mackinac. They are a huge part of the place. The Island abounds with so much history and natural beauty. Weddings take place just about everywhere. As far as wedding ceremonies go on Mackinac, many are elaborate, marked by months, even years in planning and detail. Others are simple, straightforward affairs. Usually all of them involve a horse or two. The specialty of a carriage ride through town or along the bluffs can be a lovely thing for a newly married couple to savor, but how many of them have a local little horse as their best man?

This past September, Gretchen Colman and Bruce Johnson jointly decided that Henry, the Haflinger, would be part of their wedding. The couple was married as the sun was setting Wednesday, September 12. Their location was literally a stone’s throw from where Henry lives in the Mission district on the Island. He is an original member of the equine crew at the Little Barn. In fact, the ceremony took place near what has been called “The Beaver Pond” (located off of the State Park walking and bicycle trail). The shoreline of the Straits served as a fitting backdrop.

Pastor Seth Weeldreyer, Bruce Johnson, Gretchen Colman Johnson, Makayla Rickley, and Henry, the Haflinger, on the shore of Lake Huron. Pastor Seth Weeldreyer, Bruce Johnson, Gretchen Colman Johnson, Makayla Rickley, and Henry, the Haflinger, on the shore of Lake Huron. Colman is the director of the Little Barn (Mackinac Island Children’s Riding Academy). She has worked with both Island and off-Island children during the months from May through September. Colman started and helped to build the concept of the program eight years ago. She is also a certified therapeutic riding instructor and has worked at facilities in North Carolina (Free Rein) as well as in Kalamazoo. Her husband, Bruce Johnson, is a native of Kalamazoo. Bruce not only fell in love with his wife, but also with Mackinac Island, and the Little Barn.

At left: Henry, the Haflinger, looking his nicest as best man. At left: Henry, the Haflinger, looking his nicest as best man. Henry, the Haflinger, has also been a part of the crew at the Little Barn since 2010 when he arrived. He was the first of the children’s horses off the boat. That year, all the horses had been selected by Jim Chambers of Mackinac Island Carriage Tours, and donated for the summer. Jim has a good eye for horses. A few decades back, the Chambers family owned and operated a riding stable on Mackinac, complete with a pony ring. Perhaps Jim harkened back to those days when he opted to choose Henry for the program. Comely Henry was walked off the boat by deckhand Mike Hart, and he threw the lead line to Gretchen, who was awaiting the horse, sight unseen, and said, “Good looking pony.” Henry became one of Gretchen’s best friends.

So Henry was joined by his stablemates Clarence and Poppy and made up the first trio that summer. It should be noted that while these horses were great for beginner children to work around, riding them was another thing, for none of them were “school horses.” A school horse is basically a horse that has been trained to walk, trot, and canter both ways of the ring and tolerate a variety of riders on its back. They went well in a straight line, but not in a ring. Things have a way of working out. Those horses improved and have been returning to Mackinac each year.

Henry has tolerated many children as well as small adults on his back. He still is not what an expert would call a “school horse,” but he does well enough to instill confidence in his rider. He has been in downtown Mackinac Island parades, formal rides, as well as shows. Perhaps the best part is that he is really a good little trail horse. He often is confused with another longtime Mackinac Haflinger named Blaze, but to Henry’s credit, he knows that he is a bit stockier, and wider.

In addition to a best man, most weddings have a maid of honor, who partners with the best man, and whose duties are to assist the bride. Henry had his other best buddy right next to him, Makayla Rickley. Makayla, a seventh grader at Mackinac Island Public School, is the daughter of Larry and Kathleen Rickley of Mackinac. She has been a longtime member of the group of children who are at the Little Barn. That Wednesday, before the wedding, Makayla put in a full day of school, biked home to get her dress clothes, biked to the Little Barn, did chores, and braided the tails of Poppy, Clarence, Charming, and Little Black (the current horses), and then set to work getting Henry ready for the wedding. She expertly wove flowers (baby’s breath) into his long mane and tail. Then she helped Gretchen change at the Little Barn, along with herself.

When her parents and sister arrived, both she and Henry were looking great and the bride heaved a sigh of relief.

Planning this informal “barn wedding” and event took less than a month. Guests were invited by word of mouth, and the barn’s picnic table served for potluck goodies. Several clean wheelbarrows were loaded with ice for beverages to chill, and party lights were strung an hour before people assembled. The horses were on their best behavior. Some of them were turned out in the little corral and others stood politely in their standing stalls.

Then came the time for the bride and groom to walk the few short blocks to the trail and beach, followed by their minister, then Henry (with halter and lead), Makayla, carrying her own bouquet of baby’s breath, and all of the well-wishers. Once all were assembled, the vows were recited and Henry stood like a trooper. True, he was fed a share of peppermints to keep him happy. And, yes, it’s pretty hard not to be upstaged by a kid or an animal, but Gretchen and Bruce did an admirable job of focusing on each other, and so did their minister, Seth Weeldreyer.

After the finality of a kiss, the bride and groom, along with Henry, Makayla, and the rest of the wedding party, walked back to the barn, which was aglow in party lights. Henry went back to his stall and to his dinner of grain and hay. Everyone else feasted on ham, turkey, potluck dishes, and homemade carrot cake (which was only fitting). And the music began, guitar, a homemade bass, and lots of tunes.

This summer Henry almost died, so this important night was all the more special for a few of the participants there. Earlier this summer Henry was the cause for much concern as well as prayer. He went through a bad bout of colic. Colic is always bad, and some colics are worse than others. A colic is a degree of impaction in the bowel. Veterinarian Dr. Carl Hites was on hand, and so was Makayla, as well as Gretchen and others. They all helped the horse pull through, and all of them were at the wedding.

As one person said to me about the whole saga, “It went from touch and go, now to very touching.”

For centuries, from Native American lore, Mackinac has been regarded as a special place, a gathering place, a mystical place. Sometimes in the height of the summer it can seem quite the opposite, yet sometimes fairy tales do come true. Congratulations to Gretchen and Bruce!

Candice Dunnigan is a resident, writer, and equestrian on Mackinac Island. She belongs to various national and local equine organizations.

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