Horses’ hooves on the cobblestones return to Mackinac Island

MACKINAC ISLAND (WWJ) – As the promise of spring approaches Mitten State, we often associate global warming with the cheering of Comerica Park, the chirping of robins in the morning, and the sound of motorcycles on the streets, but for those in the Mackinac Island, the return of the horses marks the official start of the season.

“They seem to know what time of year it is,” Ron Atkins, of Mackinac Island Carriage Tours, told the Detroit Free Press while surveying the herd. “A lot of them have been doing this for years.”

Atkins is responsible for transporting the island’s most famous residents, who spend their winters in open pasture near Pickford in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

But as the days lengthen and the weather warms, the horses make their triumphant return to Michigan’s most famous island, located in Lake Huron between the state’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas, in tow and by ferry.

Large draft horses are bred specifically for work and traction; they have been essential to island life since the late 1800s and have become synonymous with Mackinac.

The towering animals are also known for their gentle and calm nature, which makes them perfect for the types of work they do around the island.

“They have to be trustworthy because there are so many distractions, bicycles, pedestrians and other cars,” Atkins said.

Horses are used for carriage rides, delivering goods, and even picking up trash, as no cars are allowed on Mackinac Island except for a few select emergency vehicles.

Atkins said the horses are transported from their winter pastures to the island by trailer. Six to eight horses are loaded at a time and driven to the Arnold Freight ferry dock in St. Ignace; they are then taken by boat to the island, truck, trailer and all.

The first horses to arrive will work to establish freight service and help businesses prepare for the tourist season.

“Usually in mid-April I go five days a week with eight horses at a time. The first week of June, I have about 300 on the island,” Atkins said.

Over 500 horses end up on Mackinac Island during the summer months and most are used for trade; less than 100 are used for fun and trail riding and even fewer are privately owned.

Jim Pettit, a Mackinac Island Carriage Tour employee working at the Grand Hotel stables, said horses are essential as the island prepares for tourists.

“Roughly between now and Memorial Day, we’ll be hit hard with the build-up to the season,” he told the Detroit Free Press.

Horses are sized for the new gear and hustle once they are settled into the stables. From there, work begins and Atkins said the horses are ready.

“It takes a good horse to be on Mackinac Island.”

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