Why I Love Being a Horse and Carriage Driver

Why I Love Being a Horse and Carriage Driver

America’s cities were once congested with horse-drawn carriages and delivery wagons.  Today, you can relive our pre-automobile past by taking horse-and-carriage rides in cities like New York City and Chicago.  One of the H&C drivers in Chicago is Megan Gray (nee Gist), an accomplished equestrian and trainer who we profiled several years ago. She has gone on several month-long rides throughout the U.S.  But now the veteran long-distance rider has taken up the reins as a short-distance driver in downtown Chicago. Rides in her carriage along Michigan Avenue average between 20 and 40 minutes.

Megan loves her job. She loves her horses. And she loves her RailRiders: “I wear the men’s pants because I am rather tall (almost 6 feet in driver’s boots).  The mediums fit well with the longer length for warmth and coverage. I have the Men’s VersaTac Mid Pants in black for driving the carriage as we are required to wear black, and a Men’s Explorer Shirt for the top.. My Men’s Adventure Khaki Pants are still kicking butt from 2008, and this is after 3,000 miles in the saddle and training 115 horses since the end of 2012.” 

Here’s our second interview with Megan, who passionately talks about her job as a carriage driver and why animal rights activists are wrong in wanting to ban the practice as being harmful to horses.

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horse and buggy circa 18th century

Question: Explain how you ended up being a horse and carriage driver in Chicago.

Megan Gray: Ironically, as an equestrian explorer and a slow, long-distance rider of hundreds of miles, my roots started with the horse and carriage industry in Chicago back in 1987. I worked for Chicago Horse and Carriage back in those days and later expanded into my own horse and carriage business in Fort Myers, Florida. Working for Chicago Horse and Carriage came to mind this holiday season. I also wanted to get back into driving to preserve America’s finest mode of horse travel: the horse and carriage way.  Without preserving the traditions of America, they will be lost and our heritage will be destroyed. I am still very passionate about being a horse-travel preservationist and have been this way now for several years.

Q: How many other drivers are there?

MG: Chicago Horse and Carriage employs 11 carriages and about the same number of drivers.

Q: What are the qualifications to be a driver?

MG: They include horse experience, a friendly customer-service attitude, love for horses and willingness to preserve equestrian heritage.

Q: Did you have to take a test?

MG: Yes, we have to take a horse and carriage driver’s test to get a license to drive in Chicago. Also, drivers are drug tested, finger printed, and security checks are done on them.  A person has to possess a valid Illinois driver’s license to drive a horse and carriage and know the rules of the road for horses and carriages.  We take our driving jobs seriously as does the state

Q: How often do you go out on trips?

MG: Chicago Horse and Carriage operates on a weather basis.  We rotate 11 horses and only use 5 carriages a day. We don’t go out when the weather feel is under 15 F or over 90 F. We are not allowed to be out before 4:30 pm and we strictly adhere to all the rules.

Q: What are the horses like?  Megan Gist driving the horse and carriage in Chicago

MG: I have been able to partner closely with 3 of them. They are very laid-back horses.  They take everything in stride.  They all have some draft breed in them, like the Budweiser Clydesdales. So are Percherons which is what many of our horses are. Draft horses and draft crossbreeds are versatile breeds used for centuries for a multitude of purposes, including farming, draft-horse showing, logging, and recreation. While most draft horses are used for driving for the last 300 years, they can be ridden, and some of the lighter draft breeds are capable performers under saddle.

Q: Where do they stable?

MG: These horses, as like most horses in the Chicagoland Metro area, are stabled in a barn.  Our stable is on the near west side.  I can eat off the floors of this stable and the horses have stalls that are enormous, giving them enough room to feel comfortable.  They get out on a regular basis and exercise, much like the riding horses all over America who are stabled in this manner.

Q: Describe the average person or group that takes a trip.

MG: Carriage riders are all about romance, traditions and family! We can only seat a maximum of 4 adults.  Mostly we take marriage proposal couples, couples who want romance, families who have young children and senior citizens, horse folks who have never ridden in a carriage and some regulars.   We have a place where we park and we are not allowed to make one-way trips anymore, so we start at the place where we park and end there, as well.

Q: How do the horses deal with the car traffic and noise along Michigan Avenue?

MG: These horses handle all the city chaos much like my own horse did while riding in through big cities, too.  They are used to it and are very relaxed around the traffic and noise. In fact, I feel safer driving a horse and carriage or riding my horse in the city than driving a car!

horse and carriage in front of some historical sitesQ: Do they ever get spooked or rattled?

MG: Not usually.  Every once in a while, just like any horse, they will flinch at something that bothers them but not very often.  They are very well seasoned to the work they were bred to do in the city.

Q: What are the carriages like? Who makes them?

MG: These carriages are styled in the vis-à-vis fashion.   A vis-à-vis is a carriage in which the passengers sit face to face with the front passengers facing rearward and the rear passengers facing forward. The term comes from the French vis-à-vis, meaning face to face. These carriages are still commonly made by Amish carriage makers in the Midwest.

Q: How does being driver compare with your own long-distance riding experience?  

MG: Being a driver and riding a horse is no different in any situation. Keeping the horse’s welfare above your own still stands as my credo. My horse’s health and well-being always comes first! They are like my children and our synergy and livelihood depends on one another. My last equestrian expedition was 576 consecutive miles across the state of Texas on my walking horse Evangeline. It took 82 days and we averaged about 7 miles a day.  We were after the meaning, not the senseless chasing after miles, as it was on all 9 expeditions that started in 2008. The sweet acquisition of heart and soul on an equestrian journey happens and blades of grass become clear and focused. Crickets seem to start to whisper the secrets of the world at 3-4 miles an hour. More than anything else, the best part about an equestrian journey is the journey inward toward oneself. My emotional journey has been profound since I started taking a horse out on the road almost seven years ago.

Q: New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is known for wanting to shut down the horse carriage business in Central Park, citing “animal cruelty.”  Is he being unfair and unreasonable?   What is your viewpoint?

MG: The New York City Mayor may have campaigned for this, but it’s one of his money-donating campaign groups that’s pushing the issue! I could go on and on about the political agenda of this matter, but here are some facts.  If my calculations are correct, the horse-and-carriage business brings in about 2 million dollars to the New York economy.  Some people come from all over the world just to take a carriage ride.  Some do this as a bucket list thing.  I remember that I had a dying woman who had cancer and three weeks to live take a carriage ride to fulfill that dream in Ft. Myers.  Of course, I did this for free.  Ironically, there were 450,000 calls for animal cruelty in the city of New York last year, and not one of those documented calls was for the horse and carriage industry.  They were for other animals. On the other side of the coin, I can understand why people would feel that putting a horse in the city could be dicey. But it’s no worse than a dog living thereScreen shot 2014-12-22 at 4.24.47 PM either.  A dog can get off a leash and get hit by a car easier than a carriage horse can run away with a carriage. However, it all comes down to the facts. Total horse and carriage weight with passengers = 2,500 pounds. A draft horse can pull 2 -3 times their weight = 4,000-6,000 pounds. The average draft horse weighs 2,000+ pounds.  Most weigh over 2,200 pounds. The average pressure on a horse’s chest when pulling a carriage with these roller bearing wheels is the pressure of a firm handshake. Here’s an analogy: a Cessna airplane weighs 5,033 pounds.  When asked to park an airplane with a tow bar, the pilot gets out and pushed the plane by hand with the tow bar into the parking space. I have done this personally when I was learning how to fly.  Therefore, a 2,200-pound animal pulling 2,200 pounds is nothing.  That plane to me was light as a feather and I pushed it 2/10ths of a mile to its spot.

Our carriage horses are rotated and worked every other day and we do not allow them to trot on pavement. We only go at a walk. On the busiest of weeks, a horse is worked about 160 minutes a day —total.  That includes standing around for about 60 of those minutes.   So a total of 90 minutes 3 times a week of actually walking.  That equates to about 5 hours a week.  Animal rights advocates claim it’s 63 hours a week.  By law, we are not allowed to be out in the City of Chicago for that amount of time.  The total time we are able to be out there is about 32-40 per week.  And the weather calls us off many times.

Usually when I ride my quarter horse, I ride about 90 minutes three times a week.  Carriage horses’ schedules are similar.  Leaving a horse to sit in a pasture and watch them not exercise is likened to a person sitting in an easy chair munching junk food until they die.  Even though horses eat grass, they can still get super fat and more at risk of health issues if they don’t exercise and eat accordingly. Some say horses should not breathe smog. Well, shouldn’t we ban everyone in New York City then?

Q: What is your own interaction with Chicago Police Department’s Mounted Patrols? 

MG: We love our Mounted Police Horses and Officers.  They work alongside us doing their harder jobs as well.  Their horses are really awesome and Chicago’s finest are protecting our people.  The Mounted Horses have harder work than their carriage horse counter parts.  They are the Mounted Police’s eyes and ears above the crowd. Horses are given rankings just like an officer in many cases.  So thanks to all of those Officers, equine and human alike for keeping an eye on Chicago!

Q: A horse carriage is non-polluting from a carbon-dioxide perspective, but well, how about that other thing?

MG: Since the late 18th century, a manure bag is attached to the carriage shafts.  That hasn’t been a problem ever.  While riding, I usually kick the manure off the path and give it a good whack with my boot!

Q: You have a long and deep experience being around horses. What are they really like? How are they different from dogs which are used to being around people?

megan gist in the saddleMG: Not all dogs are used to being around people. I find that horses are generally friendlier than dogs.  When is the last time you heard a horse aggressively attack a human for no reason?  They don’t. From a scientific factual standpoint, horses are flight animals and would rather run away than pick a fight with any creature.  Horses are prey animals and dogs are predators.  That explains the fundamental difference.  Now I am not saying that horses can’t be mean or aggressive, but generally, as a rule, they will stand down and run as dogs will fight back if they are threatened. I think there are large misconceptions that just because a horse is big that they are not accustomed to people.

I have mixed with several dogs and also trained many horses.  And as it is in humanity, more animals have people problems than people have with animal problems.  What I mean by that is many owners can mess up a creature’s mindset…any creature.  As the old saying goes, “Don’t shake a stick at a dog.”  I have never heard anyone say, “Don’t shake a stick at a horse!”That makes me chuckle, because if I shook a stick at my horse, she would look at me like I was crazy.  Now my dog… he would jump up and try and steal it.

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