Personal Note: During the summer of 2009, I wrote several blogs about folks who work on Mackinac Island as summer employees. This is Part I of the piece I wrote about Jeanine Noel, a taxi driver on Mackinac Island. Part II is coming on Thursday!____________________________________________________________________
FIRST PUBLISHED ON JULY 2, 2009
I HAD SO MUCH FUN in the 6 hours I spent with Jeanine today that it is going to take me 2 days to tell you about it all. There is just no way I can pack it into one blog – I must have taken 100 pictures, and now I am trying to go through them and find the best ones to tell the story. Part I will be the actual preparation that goes into getting the horses and carriages ready to begin their 5-hour (approximate) day, and Part II will cover the 5 hours I spent on the taxi with Jeanine for the first part of her 12-hour shift.
First, a little about Jeanine. She is from Rochester, N.Y., and this is her 3rd year driving for Carriage Tours. With an Associate Degree in Animal Science with concentration in Equine Management, and an almost completed Bachelor’s Degree, she is taking some time off from academics to decide what she wants to concentrate on as a career. Vet Tech school is one option she is considering, which would probably mean completing her bachelor’s in Biology.
Jeanine began riding lessons when she was 10 years old and had the typical little girl’s love and fascination with horses. She has shown hunters and jumpers, and in college showed Belgians in several hitch configurations. It was while in college she heard of Mackinac Island and saw a chance to use her talents on a daily basis.
When drivers apply and are hired by Carriage Tours, they come to the island in April and spend a week or more learning the ropes – literally. They ride on what they call “the school bus”, a carriage that will hold several “students”, riding with an experienced driver. They ride the “tour” over and over again, listening to the narrative, learning the routes, and getting hands-on experience handling the horses. They also spend time in the barn learning to take care of their horses (each taxi driver usually handles the same 4 horses each season) which includes all the preparation for a day’s work (more on this later). Then they go do their “homework”, taking home detailed histories of the island and its people so they are prepared for the myriad of questions they are asked each day.
The first assignment as a driver is on a tour carriage, two-horse and three-horse carriages that take hundreds and hundreds of tourists each day around the island, chronicling island history and transporting visitors to famous landmarks. All of this is on a set route, with a pretty-much set script. Since I will be riding with a tour driver sometime in the future, I will save more details on that for later. From the most experienced tour drivers, the taxi drivers are chosen. Carriage Tours operates 11 taxis, two wheelchair taxis, two hotel shuttles, two Mission Point shuttles, and two Stonecliffe shuttles. They also operate 20 two-horse tour carriages and 16 three-horse tour carriages. It is a huge operation with unbelievable logistics.
I set the clock for a 5 a.m. wake up (Ted grumbled, turned over and went back to sleep). I didn’t spend a whole lot of time getting “dolled up” for this assignment – but I sure put on several layers of clothes. It was 56 degrees, and I knew I would be riding at the front of the taxi. I layered on my long-john top, a long-sleeve t-shirt, then my fleece jacket. Blue jeans completed the outfit. I tied my hooded rain jacket around my waist and put my earmuffs in my pocket. Hey – I’ve learned how to dress up here for anything!
It’s a 5-minute walk to the horse barn, and I met Jeanine coming across the street to the barn from where she lives. Most of the taxi drivers and barn employees live in (appropriately named) Barn View. She shares a suite with 3 other Carriage Tour employees and works the 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. shift six days a week.
I had no idea the responsibilities of a driver. I just thought they arrived at the barn, climbed on a carriage where two already hitched horses stood waiting, and off they went. Nope – that’s not the way it’s done.
First comes wiping down the carriage with a clean cloth. The carriage sits out during the night, so it may have rained, or dew may have fallen, or it might just be dusty from use the day before. Today, the flaps surrounding the body of the cabin were left down because there was a chance of rain.
We went into the barn and found Andy (left) and Thunder (right) standing in their stalls. Andy and Thunder are bay cross-breeds. Their bloodlines most likely carry a mix of Belgian and Percheron.
A curry comb is used on each horse to start the clean up process from a night in a stall or a night outside in the horse corral. Thunder had obviously had a little more fun the night before than Andy as he was coated in a layer of mud. Horses love to roll around on the ground to scratch their backs, or just for the fun of it. The dust coming off Thunder was so thick in the air it clouded my camera lens.
After the dirt is loosened by the curry comb, a brush is used to finish the process of removing any dirt from the horse’s coat.
Jeanine then harnessed Thunder, using all kinds of strange words like martingale, crupper, and neck, breast and quarter straps.,
Next to Andy’s stall, a horse was lying down, apparently sound asleep. I said to Jeanine that I thought horses slept standing up. Jeanine said, “Horses are prey animals. They sleep lightly while they stand so they can be ready to run if they are attacked. But 2-3 hours a night, they will lie down and sleep soundly – get their REM sleep.”
Jeanine thought it would be great fun for me to put the horse collar on Andy. I eased into the stall, sliding carefully up next to him and tried to lift the collar over his head. Couldn’t do it. That horse was tall, and that collar was heavy! Trying to help me out, Andy bent his head down almost to the floor, and I finally got it over his ears. Then Andy lifted his head and bammed it into the stall ’cause I was in his way. Poor Andy. He turned his head back to Jeanine with a look that said, “OK – enough with the weak, dumb blogger. Please come finish this and get her out of my stall.”
Since I couldn’t lift the collar, Jeanine knew better than to try me with the harness. She did take this picture of me after she had taken it all down off the wall and put it over my head. If she hadn’t then taken it all off of me, I would have had to pull the carriage today because I would have never gotten it off by myself!
Jeanine harnessed Andy and then took both horses outside for a bath – cool water if the weather is warm, warm water if it’s cold.
After changing into her uniform, Jeanine went back outside to use Pledge on her carriage. The painted areas on the outside are polished each morning.
By the time she had finished, Donny and Aiden had led Thunder and Andy outside, where Jeanine joined them to do the final harnessing – adding the neck yoke that turns two separate horses into a team.
With everything done except actually hitching them to the carriage, Andy and Thunder are led out to No. 6, Jeanine’s assigned taxi, where they are backed in, with the runner separating them. The runner is attached to the neck yoke, and they are officially ready to go.
This entire process with Andy and Thunder only took a little over 30 minutes. At 6: 55 a.m. Jeanine was on board, and I took one final picture before she put on her work cap. Then I climbed up behind her, she called the dispatcher to check in as ready for customers, and we headed downtown.
The story of my day with Jeanine continues on Thursday as I ride with her on the morning leg of her 12-hour shift. We took lots of calls, covered lots of ground, and I talked with a lot of passengers who were very excited to be photographed for my blog. Hope to see you then!