2018-02-10 / Top News

Deliveries, Repairs Are All in a Day’s Work

This Winter, A Small Crew of Workers and 18 Horses Are Keeping Things Moving on Mackinac Island
By Stephanie Fortino


Maya (left) and Gunner are two of the 18 horses that are spending their winter working on the Island this year. They stand at Mackinac Island Airport while their driver, James Jones, waits for the next freight delivery Wednesday, January 17. Maya (left) and Gunner are two of the 18 horses that are spending their winter working on the Island this year. They stand at Mackinac Island Airport while their driver, James Jones, waits for the next freight delivery Wednesday, January 17. Wintertime at Mackinac Island Carriage Tours means maintenance, as the summer population of nearly 350 horses dwindles to only 18. Carriages are hauled inside to be refurbished, and a small crew of drivers and horses deliver construction materials and other freight.

Providing help wherever it’s needed is Jim Pettit, who describes himself as the herd manager for Carriage Tours. He does a variety of tasks throughout the year, from giving horses vaccines to cutting the hair under their collars. During the winter, he can be found working on rebuilding and painting buggies at the Taxi Barn at Cadotte Avenue and Huron Road. The winter horses stay at the dray barn further up the hill in Harrisonville, which is also undergoing renovations. The barn holds about 30 horses during the summer.


Waiting for deliveries at the airport is a common task for the winter horses of Mackinac Island. Friday, January 26, dray driver Ian Welch and his team Curly (right) and Astro wait for freight deliveries at Mackinac Island Airport. Mr. Welch has worked for Carriage Tours for 10 years and is in his third winter driving for the company. Waiting for deliveries at the airport is a common task for the winter horses of Mackinac Island. Friday, January 26, dray driver Ian Welch and his team Curly (right) and Astro wait for freight deliveries at Mackinac Island Airport. Mr. Welch has worked for Carriage Tours for 10 years and is in his third winter driving for the company. “It’s a nice warm spot,” Mr. Pettit says.

Comprising the winter herd are six teams of large dray horses, two taxi teams of smaller horses, and one taxi team of larger horses that are big enough to pull a dray, if needed. Some of the horses, like Ice and Frost, have spent many winters on the Island, while others, like Buzz and Junior, are spending their first winter on the Island pulling the garbage wagon. The other dray teams include Curly and Astro, Phil and Ginger, Jethro and Victor, and Maya and Gunner.


Dray horses Victor (left) and Jethro stand near the airport terminal Friday, January 26, as their driver, Jakob Hudson (not pictured), loads freight into the dray. Mr. Hudson has worked for Carriage Tours for four summers and three winters. Dray horses Victor (left) and Jethro stand near the airport terminal Friday, January 26, as their driver, Jakob Hudson (not pictured), loads freight into the dray. Mr. Hudson has worked for Carriage Tours for four summers and three winters. Carriage Tours has six dray drivers working full time and some taxi drivers who only work a couple of days a week.

Horses are taken to winter pastures on the mainland right after Labor Day, and the migration continues late into the fall, as some extra horses are held back until the freight diminishes when the boats stop. Mr. Pettit watches the lake ice forming and hopes he can correctly anticipate when the boats will stop running so he can get all the extra horses off for the winter. With this winter’s cold start, he sent the extra horses off the week before Christmas.


The horses on Mackinac Island wear special shoes for the winter that feature a little heel at the back and studs to give them more traction. Drivers must be careful to avoid snow build up inside the shoes, which is starting to occur on Victor’s back hoof. The horses on Mackinac Island wear special shoes for the winter that feature a little heel at the back and studs to give them more traction. Drivers must be careful to avoid snow build up inside the shoes, which is starting to occur on Victor’s back hoof. “I got ’em the heck out of Dodge,” he said, “and we really didn’t need them.”

For a horse to stay on the Island year-around, they must be well behaved, be able to stand still for a while, and not be bothered by snowmobiles. If they tend to get antsy, Mr. Pettit knows they won’t like to stand and wait for deliveries at the airport.

“If they don’t stand as well in colder weather, it’s not worth putting up with it,” he said. “We try to keep the best horses around for the fall.”

Working on the Island during the winter presents different challenges for the horses, as they have less traction when pulling, especially when going up hills. To compensate, they walk differently in winter, spreading their legs a little wider and taking small steps. During the summer, Mr. Pettit can tell which horses stayed for the winter by observing how they walk.


These oats are stockpiled for the winter to feed the 18 horses that stay on the Island year-around. Jim Pettit, who holds the lid of the box, makes sure the horses get the proper mix of oats, hay, and corn. These oats are stockpiled for the winter to feed the 18 horses that stay on the Island year-around. Jim Pettit, who holds the lid of the box, makes sure the horses get the proper mix of oats, hay, and corn. Winter horses wear steel shoes with little pieces of carbide that act like spikes to give better traction. They replace the summer polyurethane shoes in October so the horses are ready for an early snowfall. Three farriers tend to the horses’ shoes during the winter.

Mr. Pettit has worked for Mackinac Island Carriage Tours since 1981 and has driven for about 20 winters. He now works in the shop, but fills in with driving when needed.


Brent Anderson, who’s in his first winter driving a dray for Mackinac Island Carriage Tours, stops so his horses Phil (right) and Ginger can get a quick drink from a water trough at Four Corners during a freight run Wednesday, January 17. There are six teams of dray drivers and horses working on the Island this winter, and three teams for the winter taxi. Brent Anderson, who’s in his first winter driving a dray for Mackinac Island Carriage Tours, stops so his horses Phil (right) and Ginger can get a quick drink from a water trough at Four Corners during a freight run Wednesday, January 17. There are six teams of dray drivers and horses working on the Island this winter, and three teams for the winter taxi. As a winter dray driver, he kept an extra layer of clothes in a bag tucked under the seat.

“It was more psychological to always know you have an extra layer,” he said. “Sometimes you get up and dance around a little to keep your toes warm.”

Reflecting on his experiences, he said, “It takes a special person to be here in the wintertime.”

Following the mid-January thaw this year, a layer of ice covered the roads and was topped with a thin layer of snow, making things slick. When the roads are icy, drivers give their horses smaller and lighter loads so they don’t have to work as hard. If horses start to slip, they stop to regain their balance and continue. Drivers also learn how to go up hills carefully, following angled paths rather than straight lines.

Over the years, Mr. Pettit has learned many tricks about how to drive in the winter.

“You’ve got to be aware where the slippery spots are,” he said. “Avoid the glare ice. Go on an angle. Try to make curves not as steep. You’ve got to be smart about it.”

Snow, especially wet snow, can also build up in the horse’s hooves, causing them to lose traction. To combat these snowballs, the driver might have the horses trot for a while, or might stop and manually break them up.

“The last thing we want,” he said, is an accident.

Horses are bred to work, Mr. Pettit said, and the animals that work on the Island year-around are happy to do so. While they don’t get a winter vacation like the rest of the Island herd, they do get some time off during the spring when some of the other horses return to the Island for the tourist season. Keeping horses working is also good for their health, he said, noting that many of their Island horses live well into their 20s, older than most pleasure horses. And horses prefer to have routines.

“When you get a horse that works, it’s a lot better for ’em to keep ’em working,” he said.

During their two days off, the horses spend time in the corral and keep active.

“Most of them enjoy working,” he said. “They’re like the dog that wants to keep you happy.”

Special attention must be paid to their diets, as their digestive systems are easily affected by changes in food. This winter, the veterinarians recommended corn be added to the dray horse diets to give them extra calories and energy. Corn is usually fed to horses that are having trouble keeping on weight. Mr. Pettit works closely with the veterinarians to ensure the horses are being fed properly and looking out for illness and disease.

The horses have been working hard this winter, as construction is booming. Dray horses work five days a week, while the cab teams “have it easy,” he said, working only a couple of days a week. All of the horses have Sundays off.

“This has been an incredibly busy fall and winter,” Mr. Pettit said. “Construction has been very busy. Everything’s hauled by horses. It’s easier to have it hauled by horses.”

The day begins at 5:30 a.m., when dray barn manager Sierra Todd arrives to dispense the food and water. By about 7 a.m. or 7:30 a.m., the drivers arrive to give the horses a quick brush and put on the harnesses. They then take off to the airport or boat docks, depending on their runs for the day. The drivers bring along a pail of oats for the horses’ lunch. The horses return home at about 5 p.m. for dinner. They spend the night in the barn.

Even without the boats running, the docks are packed with construction materials for the winter, making them a frequent stop for the drays. Each morning, the contractors have a list of the supplies they need for the day, which is loaded onto drays and hauled to worksites throughout the Island. In addition to work at Silver Birches, deliveries are made to a home being built near the end of the airport runway and to ongoing work at Hedgecliffe. Other project sites are downtown, making dray trips quick and easy.

About six drays are in circulation at any time, as some drays are taken out of service for a few hours to make deliveries to the most remote construction sites.

Each day, one of the first dray trips is to the airport to get the mail. Subsequent trips are for hauling other items like UPS, FedEx, and produce, which has to be hauled quickly so it doesn’t freeze.

Just as construction contractors have to ensure all their supplies are on the Island for the winter, Mr. Pettit had to ensure everything he needs for the winter was on the Island before the ferries stopped running. He has stockpiled oats, corn, and hay for the winter, as the food can’t be brought to the Island by airplane. Four large, round bales of hay were brought over to the Island for winter, as were many other square bales of hay. Also included are 30 boxes of oats that weigh about 2,000 pounds each, which are safely stashed away in a barn at Four Corners.

Return to top

Click here for digital edition
2018-02-10 digital edition