To Fresh Woods and Pastures New 10/11/2010

“Tomorrow to fresh woods and pastures new.” . . . John Milton

It was almost cruel to leave you as I did Friday, wasn’t it.  I thought about that as I was ending that post.  Should I go ahead and finish – add 30 more photographs and give you what you really wanted – the farm with the horses grazing free.  I did think about it – I promise.  

And then I smiled.  And I thought about the anticipation that built in me on the ride over on the boat last week with the horses.  When we docked, and I watched that first gelding step off the boat, my heart did a little flutter-step.  I watched them load up and the trailer doors swing shut.  And as we rode those 50 miles to Pickford, my heart continued to beat a little faster than normal.  The anticipation of the moment when the horses would be led into that big pasture, when the halters would be lifted over their heads (their halters are never off on the island), and when they would realize they were no longer bound by any means to man – that moment of anticipation was one I wanted you to feel with me.   It wasn’t meant to be cruel – on the contrary, aren’t the good things in our lives we have to wait for all the more treasured because of the wait?

But, now as I sit down to write the rest of this journey, I worry that I won’t be able to give you all the joy and emotion of what that day felt like when we did reach the farm.  But I will try, and what I miss in words, perhaps I can make up to you in the photographs.


First, let me introduce Randy Hall. Randy was my "go to" person for this part of the trip. He was the driver of one of the two horse trailers waiting to transport us to Pickford. I learned later that Randy does a lot of the Carriage Tour driver training on the island in the spring. He grew up with horses in the Upper Peninsula, and his passion for them is evident in how he talks about them and how they respond to him. He owns a horse farm himself and also grows hay.

Most of these horses are geldings - in fact there are very few mares on the island, although there are some. A majority of the island horses are purchased from the Amish, when they are 3-6 years old. The Amish have already trained and worked them around machinery in the fields, so they come to the island with basic training completed. The Amish keep most of the mares for breeding and sell the geldings. There are no stallions on the island.

Loading and unloading into the trailers is old business for most of the horses. They have done this for years, and the nervousness of the few new horses is tempered by the calm of the older ones.

Randy secures this big Belgian in the trailer.

It was so amazing to watch the horses as they came off the boat. Their eyes were wide and bright, their ears pricked forward, their nostrils flared. If I could have read their minds, I think the words would have been, "I know this place. Next is the trailer, a little ride, then freedom!"

Last one into this trailer. We were transporting 12 this first load - 6 in each trailer.

"Look! I see cars! That means we don't have to work anymore!"

Three horses are secured at the front of the trailer, then a divider door is closed that separates the front from the back. Then three more horses are loaded into the back.

And, we’re off!

I’m sure Randy thought he had been given the worst duty of the year – having to put up with Bree the Blogger for two 100-mile round trips to Pickford.  The photos above are a combination of the two trips – the first one over on the 9 a.m. ferry, then another one when we came back to pick up the second group at 11:30.  I’ve also combined the photos from the two trips to the farm, meaning we released the first 12 horses, then went back to St. Ignace to pick up 11 more and took them to the farm.

Randy was very gracious and friendly and answered all gazillion of my questions, although at times I’m sure he was thinking, “Good grief!  Is there anything about horses that this woman DOES know?”  Here’s a few of the new things I picked up on the trips back and forth:

     1)  The Pickford farms – there are three of them – are the winter home of the Carriage Tour horses, as well as the Grand Hotel “omnibus” and State Park horses. 

     2)  Randy does a lot of training with the horses before they are ever brought to the island.  He does this winter and summer because horses are brought back and forth all season.  A horse may just not be working out and will be returned to Pickford for more training.  There has to be a horse ready to take its place.

     3)  There are about 20 horses on the island all winter.  Two are used for the taxi (only one taxi in the winter), and the rest are used to pull the drays because even in winter, the work of the island continues.  Mail has to be brought from the ferries (or plane if the Straits are frozen), as do supplies for the grocery store, restaurants, hotels, and school that remain open.

     4)  Additional horses are brought to the island over the winter during peak times – Christmas and New Year’s – when more visitors arrive.

     5)  Let’s say a horse learns to be the right-hand side horse in a two-horse hitch team.  Can he also work on the left?  “Sometimes,” Randy said, “but there are some that can never change over.”

     6)  Not only do the horses know where they’re going when they are turned out into the pasture on the island without their shoes for the first time, but they also know by the changes that occur toward the end of the season.  Randy said they know that when the weather begins to cool, and they are working an easier schedule, their days on the island are coming to an end for another year.

     7)  I asked what determines which horses remain on the island for the winter.  “Some of it is temperament,” Randy said.  “They have to be able to adjust from the relative ‘quiet’ of bikes to the ‘racket’ of snowmobiles.  Some can make the adjustment, some can’t.  When we find a horse that isn’t bothered by all that extra noise, we tag him as a possible winter horse.”

     8)  Only the draft horses (Belgians and Percherons) stay outside all winter.  The others are brought in at night and during really bad weather.

We're at the farm! This was a 60-acre pasture that was a part of what is called "9-mile farm", one of the three owned by Carriage Tours.

Irvin, another Carriage Tour worker who stays in Pickford, was there to open the gate.

I walked through the gate and was standing in the corner (out of the way) when the first horse was led off the trailer . . .

. . . followed closely by the second.

And here's where I choked up the first time. Watching Randy remove the halter, I envisioned the horses immediately taking off into the freedom of the pasture. But these are horses so used to human companionship, so in tune with their lives around people, that their main interest was not first to "make a break for it", but to taste the wonderfully abundant grass . . .


. . . and then to roll.

Can you image the horse joy of rolling around - not on the dirt of the horse corral below our condo . . .

. . . but to be scratching your back on green, sweet-smelling grass! Talk about kicking up your heels!

On the second trip, I went further down the pasture road to photograph the horses as they came in.

Another halter coming off.

These beautiful Belgians watched me curiously for a couple of seconds, then seemed to shrug and moved off to graze.

After a time, they began to realize that they could move freely about this huge pasture, AND the pasture was full of food!

These two seemed to be watching for another horse. Randy said they were part of a three-horse hitch team and were watching for their friend. He arrived a few minutes later.

Another happy horse!

At first I was concerned about Jane. She walked into the pasture and stood completely alone for a few minutes, seeming bewildered by the big, open space . . .

. . . but shortly after that, her team-mate "June" found her. Then they both wandered off and found the third member of this 3-horse hitch bunch, "Jake".

That big tire is filled with minerals, and there are also salt blocks in the pasture.

"Now, about that party . . ."

Two plus two. These duos may be team-mates, or they may just be part of a two-horse hitch group and feel more comfortable in groups of two.

So beautiful . . .

I walked back to the truck and took these next few shots from the road as the last few horses were released.

A river runs through that stand of trees to the rear of the pasture and will provide the water the horses need until they are moved later in the year. The horses have begun to move away from the fence and have started exploring their big, new space.

The Belgians and Percherons stay outside all winter in all kinds of weather. Randy said in 2-3 weeks, their winter coats will begin to come in, and they will look like shaggy versions of themselves. All the farms have ravines where the horses instinctively gather during snow storms. The sides of the ravines block the wind, and all those bodies snuggled together stay warm.


Randy drove a little out of the way to show me one of the farms where the horses will winter. The 60-acre pasture we delivered the horses to today is only a temporary enclosure. By December they will all be moved closer to this farm place, where someone lives year-round.

These water dispensers can be seen all over the farm land. The pipes are buried deep underground to prevent freezing. At the top of the pipe, warming trays keep the water from freezing when exposed to cold air.

Each of these bales of hay weighs approximately 1200 lbs. It takes four of them per day for 80 horses. At the end of the season, the three farms will be supporting around 500 horses, so you can imagine how much hay has to be stored.

As we left the farm, we could see in the distance other groups of horses whose vacations began a little earlier than those we brought today.

The horses we dropped off will join these in December.

What a beautiful vacation spot.

What a delight it was to watch the horses wander, in groups of two and three, around that pasture – nibbling on the grass, playfully trotting over to say “hi” to a friend, lifting their heads and feeling the wind ripple across their backs and over their ears.   I wonder what they thought that first morning when they awake free – no noisy barn workers or drivers, no harnesses thrown over their heads or bridles put in their mouths.  Instead they awoke, as their ancestors did before them – on the open plain – to a morning quiet except for the singing of birds and the whisper of the long grass shifting in the breeze.  Perhaps they strolled down to the river for a sip of clear, cold water and then came back soon to find, in addition to the grass, bales of hay for their dining pleasure.  To them, it had to be like Heaven on earth.

Enjoy your rest, sweet giants.  And in the Spring, come back to us fat and healthy and refreshed.  We’ll be waiting.

My sincere thanks to Doc Al for setting up this trip and to Dale Peterson and Randy Hall for your gracious hospitality.  And a special thanks to Dr. Bill Chambers, who has allowed me to ride along – not only on this trip – but also last year when I wrote the stories about taxi and Carriage Tour drivers. 

I have seen things so beautiful that they brought tears to my eyes.  Yet, none of them can match the gracefulness and beauty of horses running free.” . . . Anonymous

35 thoughts on “To Fresh Woods and Pastures New 10/11/2010

  1. Oh Bree, what an awesome experience. You told the story beautifully. It brought tears to my eyes. The combination of your words and pictures allowed me to feel the horse’s joy rolling free in the grass. What magnificent creatures!

  2. May the gentle giants of Mackinac Island winter safely and serenely, and enjoy a well-deserved rest.

    Beautiful Jane, with her lovely pink snip. Thank you, Bree, for the stunning photo of this glorious girl.

    ~ My treasures do not clink together nor glitter; they gleam in the sun and neigh in the night ~

  3. Oh, Bree what a beautiful story you’ve told us. They look like school children do on the first day of summer vacation. Only the horses vacation is during the winter. By the time spring comes around they’ll be ready to go back to the island and their human friends.

  4. How beautiful they are playing in the field being free to do whatever like rolling on the ground and chatting with their friends while they eat the sweet grasses. Thanks for sharing their wonderful story with us! It was worth waiting all weekend to read about your adventure and see the wonderful pictures! Happy Monday!!

  5. Oh the joy they must feel upon the release into the fields. All you have to do is look at that big beautiful horse rolling on it’s back and you can see how happy they are. I’m so amazed at the connection they have for each other, that they would wait for a missing member of their team. Thanks for this heartwarming story Brenda…it was awesome!

  6. Brenda,

    Your blogs leave me aching to come to The Island and also drive to the horse farms near Pickford. I have known about the farms for 55 years, but have never seen pictures of them or seen anything written about them until your blogs. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate what you have done.

    As an aside, we drive 18 miles through the countryside to church and yesterday the color was beautiful. I thought of the drive you and Ted will be making next weekend and how you will oooh and aaah for miles and miles. I think southern Michigan will be at peak or a little beyond about then. Just now I saw movement out the window and looked out to see a blue jay in the yellow leaves next to some burgundy leaves and an orange breasted robin looking for his breakfast on the lawn. Beautiful!

  7. Oh Brenda – I am speechless. Where is my Kleenex when I need it! Thank you so much for sharing this incredible experience with us.

    Also, I agree with Lowell about the fall color. I was off the island this weekend and as I was driving back up yesterday I can’t tell you how many times I thought to myself “Oh, Brenda is going to LOVE these colors!” Most beautiful fall color I’ve seen in years. I love Michigan and love my second home – this wonderful island!

  8. Brenda, beautiful simple beautiful. I love reading and looking at the pictures. What a great opportunity. I often wondered what happens to those horses when they are moved to Pickford. I wondered if they were out all winter & you have answered my questions. Thanks.

    “I have seen things so beautiful that they brought tears to my eyes. Yet, none of them can match the gracefulness and beauty of horses running free.” . . . Anonymous — What a beautiful quote, so perfect for today.

  9. This post and the previous one are now definitely my favorites on your blog. I love this story and that you got to go along, take pictures, and tell us all about it. I think it’s cool that the horses hang around with their hitching-team friends, and I’m so happy for them that they get this freedom after working so hard on the island. Thank you so much for this!

  10. OMG Bree, these pictures are beautiful and their vacation home is wonderful. I loved the pictures of the horse rolling in the grass. She must be so happy. Thanl you for the pictures and story.

  11. Another beautiful post! I had to laugh looking at the horse rolling around and all four hooves were up in the air when you snapped the photo!! How sweet. I’d never seen that before! They deserve that wonderful time of relaxation after their hard work on the island!!

  12. I agree with all above! Thank you again for taking us on your journey. This is one of my favorite stories. Great pictures too. I love how the horses find their friends to stick with So cute.
    Thanks again Bree!

  13. What a great story! Thank you so much for showing us where the horses spend the winter. It’s nice to know they have such first-class accommodations. I loved reading about their personality traits and seeing how they roll on their backs and hang out with their buds. They’re kind of like dogs in that respect. BIG, BIG dogs.

  14. I’m so glad you had that experience, and that you shared it with all of us! What joy! I’m with Lowell – have known of the farms but never saw them. It’s good to know that those beautiful, big horses are well cared for and in such a lovely place.
    Next week? Already?! Well, the trip south should be beautiful. My best for a sweet last week and a peaceful trip back to Georgia.

  15. Excellent post and well worth the weekend wait for the conclusion to your adventure. You really captured what the horses must have been thinking!

    Thanks much for another great start to my day.

  16. i have always wondered where the island horses spent their winters – thank you for sharing this lovely story and beautiful pictures!!

  17. You are a great story teller. I could see those tired horses going–“Ahh! No more people and bicycles! And I can eat all day too!”
    Thanks for the pictures. I’ve always wondered what it was like at the horse’s winter home.

  18. Thank you so much for these blogs about the horses…I thoroughly enjoyed reading them. It is nice to know that the horses get a good rest after their work on the island all summer. And yes, you do a good job telling about them. I too could almost here them sigh with pleasure when they arrived at the pasture and had their bridles taken off.

  19. Brenda- THANK YOU for this great story!! Its great finally being able to see what their winter will be like. I especially love seeing the pics of Jane, June and Jake. I drove them most of the summer and you captured their personalities perfectly. Jane is a very apprehensive horse, and June is an absolute sweetheart. Jake can be quite an assertive horse. It surprises me not at all, and is actually reassuring, that these three immediately sought each other. The nickname for this team (all the 3 horse hitch teams have nicknames) is, affectionatly, “the Misfits” because, for one reason or another, they just didn’t seem to fit in any other teams. I know they will have a great winter; hopefully I will be driving them again next season. Best wishes!!

    • Something about Jane ‘went in deep’ and touched my heart. I’m glad the ‘Misfits” have each other. The relationships horses form with each other never ceases to thrill and amaze me. Like people, they gravitate to what/who they need.


      • I love that little team, Susan. I know their driver, Jeff, and he pointed them out to me the morning I was at the barn getting ready to walk down with them. He asked me to “keep my eye on them”, and I was glad I could reassure him that they were “ok”.

  20. My granddaughter is sitting looking at the pictures with me. This year was her second trip to the Island where she celebrated her 8th birthday. She loved the pictures and the story. “It was awesome” is her comment.

  21. My son and I just read the post you wrote about their arrival to the farm. Beautiful, I love how they find their friends and stay together. Beautiful gentle giants they are and we cannot wait to see them next year.

  22. As usual Brenda you did an wonderful job telling us (and showing) about the winter home of these beautiful horses…so glad you were able to make the trip and chronicle it for us in such a beautiful way….Thanks Brenda…you are awesome!!

  23. This beautiful girl [Jane] spoke to me deeply and profoundly in your first Blog about the horses. You eloquent words and photographs tell their story so beautifully. I am grateful to have discovered your Blog. I imagine Jeff misses his special team when they are off-island. Bittersweet … just like life.


    • Yeah, they’re fuzzy little angels. But I know they are going to be happy horsies enjoying a well deserved winter of relaxation. Hopefully Jane will become more relaxed in time as she becomes more accustomed to the island and its routines.
      And I know Billy and Rusty (my team from last season when I was driving the 2 horse carriages) are out there somewhere too…


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