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    The Shift

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    The Shift: a monthly column about how Louisville works.

    The musky smell of horses permeates the Louisville Horse Carriages barn at 11th and Market streets. It’s 4:20 p.m., and Kelly Holcomb is heading into the office in the back. She gets an update on the evening’s reservations from Marie Morris, the company’s owner: So far, it’s just one party of six that Holcomb will pick up at the usual spot, the Old Spaghetti Factory at Third and Market. The temperature has already dipped to 30 degrees, and business this evening is expected to be slow. To get ready for the 6 p.m. pick-up, Holcomb needs to start preparing by 4:30.

    She removes the cover from one of the company’s 11 carriages, and dust puffs up into the air. “We try to keep them clean,” she says, “but it is a barn.” She sprays and wipes down the seats and the sides.

    Gus, one of the business’s eight horses, will be pulling a six-seat carriage. He is a Percheron weighing roughly 2,400 pounds and standing 18 hands high. Morris and I wait outside the stall as Holcomb puts on his lead. “He looks small now,” Morris says (though he doesn’t), “because he’s down in a hole. When he comes out of the stall, he’ll really be big.” When the horse emerges, his back is higher than Morris’s head, and Holcomb has to stand on tiptoes to get the bridle over his ears. She brushes him and uses a special horse stain-remover to clean him, because it’s too cold to wash the horses in winter. Morris and Holcomb worked together under a former owner until Morris bought the company in 2019. Holcomb, who has worked with horses for 25 years and driven carriage rides for four, has the distinction of being the one full-time employee.

    Holcomb folds the braided tail up on itself so it will stay out of the way of the “diaper bag” cloth sack. Every day Gus eats an average of 18 pounds of hay and up to 10 pounds of pelleted grain feed, so it follows logic that his evacuations would be substantial, which he proves immediately after Holcomb has finished combing him and buckling the myriad straps on his harness.

    Gus the Percheron outisde the Old Spaghetti Factory.

    Before she hooks Gus up to the carriage, Holcomb pulls ski pants over her jeans and changes into hunting boots. She adds a few layers of sweaters and stashes a coat, a canvas bag and her purse under the driver’s seat. 

    At about 5:50 we climb up to the driver’s seat. It’s an uncommon angle from which to view a horse — we’re both above and behind him, so his head seems a mile away. His rump is as wide as a Volkswagen, covered in studded black leather straps designed to keep the carriage from rolling over him, should he stop abruptly. But Gus moves at a leisurely pace. Sometimes, in the middle of an intersection, he slows to such a crawl that it seems he might stop altogether. “People ask what’s wrong with him,” Holcomb says, “and I say, ‘He’s pouting.’ Just wait ’til we head back to the barn tonight; he won’t have any trouble speeding up.”

    Kodi, another carriage horse.

    It takes about 20 minutes to go the eight blocks to the Spaghetti Factory. We stop at a sign depicting an old-timey car that says “Carriage Stop” and lists the hours of operation, from 3 p.m. until 7 a.m. This doesn’t seem possible, and Holcomb confirms: Rides stop around 9 p.m., though the previous owner would be out until 1 a.m. or later. “It’s freezing tonight,” she says after looking at her phone. “We’ll probably go in early.”

    A couple waits at the sign, and Holcomb informs them there’s a reservation — the six people who have already begun climbing in the back of the carriage — but she takes down their names and promises to be back in 30 minutes, the length of a standard ride. The couple retreats into the restaurant to wait, and Gus moseys toward Second Street, then turns left into heavy traffic. At Main he takes another left and we roll through the heavy scent of steaks, giving the potholes a wide berth.

    Gus stops at red lights and changes lanes without indication from Holcomb, following a familiar route that falls within parameters established by the city back when there were 15 horse carriage companies competing for business, which Morris estimates was in the ’70s. The city treats horse-drawn carriages like taxis — drivers must have a special license, carriages must be registered, and the company has to carry $1 million worth of insurance. All of that — in addition to 400 pounds of horse feed a week, wages, taxes and the many other costs associated with running a small business — and $50 for a three-person ride doesn’t seem so unreasonable.

    Kelly Holcomb braids Kodi's tail.

    The group in the back looks like a family celebrating the holidays — four kids and two adults — and they talk among themselves. Holcomb says, surprisingly, that the drunks are her favorite customers. “They engage with you and they tip well,” she says.

    Gus turns left onto Sixth Street, and Jefferson Square Park is lit up with Christmas lights. When we reach Fifth Street, a relatively innocuous intersection, Holcomb says, “This is his favorite spot,” gesturing to Gus. It’s not until she says something about a “water feature” that I realize this is where he likes to pee.

    When we return to the Spaghetti Factory, the couple is outside waiting. They turn out to be carriage enthusiasts on their way from Virginia to Indianapolis. They have even ridden with one of Holcomb’s former colleagues on a previous trip. The couple asks to be dropped at the Galt House, and Holcomb obliges.

    As we approach the Spaghetti Factory after the drop-off, Holcomb says, “If no one’s out we won’t wait long. I’m frozen in place.” It’s now 28 degrees.

    But a woman and her daughter are already waiting. The girl goes inside to get her dad and brother. The boy, who is younger than six and will ride free, lights up when he sees Gus.

    Across from Fourth Street Live, where the carriage turns left to return to Market Street, a young man with a large beard and long hair yells, “Beautiful horse!”

    “Thank you!” Holcomb calls back.

    People pull out their phones to snap pictures as Gus ambles by. A woman stopped in her car next to us stares at him with admiration. When she pulls away, she waves and mouths bye-bye. Holcomb tells me she recently saw a woman rear-end a guy because she was looking at the horse.

    After we drop off the family at the restaurant, (blissfully) nobody else is waiting. Holcomb says she can’t take the cold anymore. Morris calls on the walkie talkie to see if we’re all right, and we embark on a freezing ride back to the barn (which is faster than the ride out, as predicted). Holcomb still has to remove Gus’ equipment and cover the carriage and fill out paperwork and plan for the next day.

    “It’s hard work,” Morris says when we leave the barn. “It’s a job that, honestly, most people can’t do.”

    This originally appeared in the February 2020 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline “Urban Equines.” To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Photos by Mickie Winters,

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