“Do you think they know what’s about to happen?”
That was one of dozens of questions I asked Wednesday and Thursday. I’ve always wanted to go see the Pickford farms, where the horses of the island go to spend their winters. But I was beginning to think it wasn’t going to happen – at least not this year. Then a few days ago I put a bug in Doc Al’s (the island vet) ear that I’d like to do this story, and he asked all the right people, and all those people said “ok”.
So there I was at the big horse barn on Wednesday afternoon, where I’d been told by Dale Peterson (who runs the barn) I could watch the blacksmith remove the shoes from some of the horses leaving the island on Thursday morning.
I've never been inside the blacksmith's shop on the island. I knew where it was (on the back side of the big barn where the majority of the Carriage Tour horses are housed) and always stopped by there at the end of the season to take a photograph of the hundreds and hundreds of horseshoes stacked up outside the door.
I watched as Eric and Keith (the blacksmiths) brought two horses out of the barn to have their shoes removed. These were two of the 36 which would be going to the winter pastures on Thursday. Their manes had already been shaved - so they don't return in the spring with manes full of cockleburs. The haircut also ensures that the returning horses' manes will all be the same length in the spring, giving the teams a more matched appearance.
Keith is the head blacksmith. While he worked, he explained that most of the horses wear steel shoes on their back hoofs and rubber-over-steel on their front hoofs (to add traction on wet pavement).
Removing the nails which keep the shoes on the horses' hoofs (the process is completely painless, as is the shoeing itself) requires strength, balance, and the ability to keep the horse calm while the work is done. Sometimes a simple prop is used to anchor the foot while the shoe is removed . . .
. . . and sometimes the hoof rests on the blacksmith's hip.
Over 1,400 of the steel shoes and more than 3,000 rubber-over-steel shoes are used each season. At the end of the summer the shoes are transported off the island for disposal.
Haywagons travel up Cadotte all the time, but I had never actually witnessed what happens to the hay when it arrives at a barn. Carriage Tour workers were unloading a haywagon as I was leaving Wednesday afternoon, and I stopped to watch the process. The bales are tossed onto an automated conveyor belt that carries each bale up into the hayloft of the barn.
At the top of the belt, another worker is waiting to remove the bale and stack it in the loft.
Ted set the alarm clock for 6:30 Thursday morning, and I grumbled myself awake. I needed to be at the barn (a five-minute walk from the condo) at 8 a.m. so I could watch the workers catch the horses in the corral. I figured an hour-and-a-half would be plenty of time to get myself awake enough to make sense when I got down there. Silly me. I’d forgotten how many months it’s been since I had to get up at 6:30 (almost 2 hours earlier than I’ve been getting up lately). I needed to wash my hair (don’t ask me why – I just felt like it needed to be washed) – which I did. I needed two cups of coffee so I wouldn’t growl at anyone (I made the coffee and didn’t have time to drink a drop). I couldn’t decide how many layers to wear (after checking the Weather Channel for Pickford – an hour north), I decided on three, saddling myself with two too many – it was a gorgeous northern Michigan Indian Summer day.
I left the condo at 7:50, and arrived at the barn to find taxi and Carriage Tour drivers busy washing and harnessing their horses for a regular day.
This two-horse hitch carriage was getting a quick rinse before pulling out for a day of transporting island visitors around the island.
It was while I was watching the horses in the corral that Dale walked over, and I asked, “Do you think they know what’s about to happen?”
He smiled. “Oh, yeah – they know”, he said. “We have 36 going today, and yesterday all of their shoes were removed. They are never put into the corral without their shoes. So they know something is different. And the ones who have been through this for a few years learn to anticipate it.”
A few minutes later, Eric moved toward the corral, opened the gate, and he and several other barn workers began to catch the horses, bring them outside the corral, and group them into four's.
Denise, from the Carriage Museum, came down to take photos also and shared this one with me late this afternoon. That's me with the backpack, standing around like I have no clue what's going on while everyone else is busy, busy, busy.
We'd be transporting three groups of four horses this first trip. All the horses going today were either Belgians (all shades of brown) or Percherons (usually black, grey, white, or dappled).
"Jane" is a new horse this year. Because of that, she had her picture made before going off the island. It will be put into a computer file which stores "mug shots" of each horse owned by Carriage Tours. That's Jim holding Jane's nametag.
Once the horses were grouped, everything started moving really fast. I instantly knew I had really messed up by not riding my bike. When these guys take off to walk down a hill, they don't think "leisurely stroll". I started off ahead of them and was soon ridiculously behind.
It was a wonderful morning on the island, and the horses seemed to sense that this was no ordinary walk around the block. I'm sure the pavement must have felt very different to their feet without their shoes - maybe like that first barefoot day of summer right after school is out.
At Four Corners I knew I was about to lose this footrace. I started out ahead of the first group, and now was being overtaken by the last two groups.
This is another Denise photo (thank goodness!). And yes, that's yours truly huffing down the hill on the right - now firmly in last place.
A great photo from Denise as one group passes the Grand Hotel. They are really beginning to feel frisky now!
I took this one from behind (where I stayed for the rest of the trip down the hill).
The horses on Market Street (a Jill photo). I had just turned onto Market and was crossing behind them to Main Street. That's Frankie and Hershey on the sidewalk.
I arrived at the ferry dock a good 10 minutes after the horses, and thank goodness we had left the barns early. A crowd had formed on the dock (as it always does when word that "horses are coming" sweeps through downtown). Visitors are awed by getting up close to these gentle giants and love to pet them and snap photos.
This little boy had lots of questions about the "horseys" and wanted to touch them - as long as Mom touched them first.
As much as I've been around horses and their drivers for the last three years, I'm still always amazed at how the workers seem to know the names and temperaments of each and every horse - and I'm talking over 400 of these four-legged wonders. In this photo, Eric was talking to a small crowd that had gathered about the likes and dislikes of each of these four.
And then there's the obvious love the workers have for these animals - and that love is returned full measure by the horses. Watching them say goodbye always gets me teary-eyed. Don't know if I could handle doing it several times a week as they do this time of year.
I think these four were saying, "As soon as we get to the farm, let's plan a party!"
Loading time finally arrived, and the first group was separated and led into the ferry - one by one.
Not a single one of the 12 balked. It was like they were thinking, "Ok - gotta take a little boat ride in order to start the vacation."
The last group boarded, and I asked if I could go inside on the horse level to take photos. No worries - but they did suggest I might want to take the photos, then go topside for the trip over.
The horses are all tied individually at the rear of the ferry. Most have made the trip so often they take it all in stride.
"Let's get this show on the road - uh, water!"
The Huron is a lot different from the catamaran we're used to riding. It's main purpose is to transport freight of all descriptions (including horses) back and forth across the Straits.
And we're off!
The only other "civilian" on the boat was Tarry, who works with the St. Ignace Chamber of Commerce. She had crossed with the horses many times and had all kinds of good suggestions for photos.
The horses made the trip just fine. Next step to freedom - a trip down the gangplank . . .
. . . then a step up into the horse trailers.
On Monday, we’ll travel to Pickford and watch the horses unload into what – to them – must feel like Heaven on earth. You will love it!
Have a great weekend, and God bless.