Caring for carriage horses

Jen Meinhardt, Staff Writer

It’s between 6 and 9 a.m. when Mike Miller—co-owner of The Hitching Company, a carriage horse company that operates in the downtown area of Minneapolis—stands outside the field where his herd is grazing. He whistles a loud, sharp shrill that pierces the air. The herd spent the night in the far pasture, and as the whistle dies down, it’s replaced by the thundering hooves of nearly two dozen horses rushing to the barn for breakfast.

They enter the barn the moment Miller opens the gate, a dangerous flood (his average animal can weigh over 1,600 pounds). The largest horses are his Belgians, Marty and Frank. They’re heavier, almost 1,900 pounds each. They mill openly about the barn, moving from one grain bucket to the next in a pecking order established by dominance in the herd. While they eat, Miller closes the gate behind them. He loads several 50 plus–pound bales of hay into the front loader of his Bobcat before driving it into the closest field and then unloads the hay into multiple large tractor tires so the herd can graze throughout the day.

Each horse eats around twenty pounds of hay per day. With 20 horses under Miller’s care—about the maximum he can handle alone—it can cost upwards of $4,500 a year to feed them all. That’s not including the cost of grain. It’s no secret that horses are expensive to keep and, that the average person just doesn’t have the means to care for an animal that can cost upwards of $8,000 a year in feed, transportation and health care. This isn’t the fault of the horse. Biologically, their physiology makes them a temperamental sort of animal; however, it leaves many of them in need of home, the sort of home that can afford their upkeep. Miller gave them that home.

According to Miller, a carriage horse is usually on its second job. Many of these animals come from other situations such as trotters on the race circuit used to warm up the Thoroughbreds, or even from Amish farming communities. Many of these horses either weren’t a good fit or were too slow for the job required. If they aren’t picked up by a carriage company, an industry which re-trains them to pull carriages for tourists around city centers, they instead tend to go into retirement. A retired horse doesn’t necessarily mean the animal lives on a farm; that sort of thing is rare. More commonly, a retired horse ends up in the slaughterhouse. Miller keeps his horses through their retirement. He believes if a horse gives you their all, you owe it to them. This is only possible thanks to his working horses, the ones that pull the carriages downtown.

Each day goes a little differently, yet the breakfast routine is carried out 365 days a year—no matter the weather. After the field is closed again, the horses are released from the barn and are allowed to wander in and out as they please. When Miller needs to take a horse to work downtown, he usually tries to catch them in the barn. Otherwise, he takes whoever is lingering nearby. Normally this is Marty or Frank. Marty is one of the lowest horses in the pecking order, which means that he tends to prefer downtown where he gets a private source of food, water and individual attention from his driver. Getting downtown takes an hour, but the horses like riding in the trailer and occasionally load themselves. They have a personal hay bag nearby they get to snack on during the ride. Once downtown, they’re led to a stall, brushed, tacked and allowed to eat until it’s time to put on the bridle. Once the bridle goes on and the bit is put in, the horse knows it is time to get to work and pull the carriages.

Carriage horse in Minneapolis. Photos by Jen Meinhardt.

This article was originally published in the Feb. 22, 2019 issue.