On this small island, most of the work is done by four-legged “employees” that aren’t worried about pensions or 401(k)s.
The island is only 3.8 square miles in size. Its narrow roads and city streets weren’t made for automobiles or any conveyance powered by motors.
Those ribbons for movement were constructed with horses in mind. Large draft horses to pull drays. Mixed breeds to guide trolleys and trams on leisurely tours of the island. Two thoroughbreds that perform in shows put on for the tourists. A standardbred to be ridden on self-guided tours.
During the tourist season from May through October there are about 600 horses that do the majority of the island’s work. And it is the tourist season on Mackinac Island that brings the revenue to the 500 or so year-round residents.
Tourists come by ferry or private boat. A small airport is available for the few that come by airplane. There is no bridge to connect Mackinac with either the Upper or Lower Peninsula of the state of Michigan. Bridges are for vehicles, and the only vehicles on Mackinac are ambulances or those used for other emergencies.
Visitors often ride the ferry from the Lower Peninsula’s Mackinaw City for a round-trip cost of $24 and a chance to soak up a little sun and see the still-cold waters of Lake Huron.
All but 30 of the horses are also seasonal visitors to Mackinac. The large Percherons, Clydesdales, and butterscotch-colored Belgians also come by ferry for their summer of “employment”.
Mackinac will have as summer “workers” or guests Friesians, Quarterhorses, and even Pinto ponies.
Welsh Cobs, Hackneys pulling carriages, and Halflinger ponies are about. Arabians to ride, Tennessee Walking horses to guide some of the lighter carriages, and an American Paint can be found.
Three crossbreeds are on Mackinac. They are the Friesian/Paint, the Quarterhorse/Appaloosa, and the Percheron/Standardbred.
Look long enough and a visitor can spy a Norwegian Fjord or an American Show Horse.
They arrive, are unloaded, and are walked in threes and fours to the paddocks that will be home for five months.
The island has the world’s largest concentration of working horses.
On Mackinac, the three means of movement are provided by the horses, or pedaling your own bicycle, or walking.
Horses are hooked to carriages or surreys that look like low-slung trams or trolleys. Along casual lanes and well-worn paved streets, the tourists are taken on slow rides by the friendly horses. Horses always have the right of way. Humans are allowed to clean up the refuse but can’t win against the vote of even one horse. As the horses ply their various trades, they often work a 12-hour day . . . pulling in teams the drays that are loaded with cargo brought to Mackinac by ferries . . . supplying restaurants and eateries with produce and kitchen needs . . . unloading tourist necessities at the many bed and breakfasts . . . bringing merchandise to village businesses that cater to the visitors . . . or simply removing waste and garbage.
Some of the mixed breeds are used as saddle horses. The few thoroughbreds and standardbred provide riding pleasure. Roofed trams with open sides are pulled along as taxis. Carriages led along by high-stepping horses might be seen rising slowly along the sloping rise to the Grand Hotel, the island’s largest overnight accommodation for visitors.
The horses are docile and used to humans and their habits . . . even the giant draft animals.
No complaints come from the “workers.” No calling in late. No days off are asked for by the quiet staff of nearly 600.
Visitors can take photos.
When hired by riders, the horses can also be groomed at times by the children.
The island’s pace is usually set by the horses. Some are faster in front of the carriages with their high-stepping gait. Some are much more leisurely as they tow cargo just unloaded from a ferry. Some canter around trails close by the island’s edges.
The tourists are there mostly to relax and enjoy a day or so away from the taxing times back at home.
Since the horses do the work, they are shown respect by year-round residents and tourists alike.
Troughs that are regularly tended and locales that provide the horses with fresh water are liberally scattered through the town. Horses are watched carefully and quantities of fly spray are available to all of those out working on a sunny day in July.
Hurrying is not recommended. To be accused of promoting any hustle or bustle can be grounds for drawing scowls from people on Mackinac who are there to relax . . . and eat fudge.
Shops that sell fudge are numerous. So many visitors come for a stay in a bed and breakfast, a tour of the state park that occupies 80 percent of the land space, and the fudge that they are called “fudgies” by the locals.
Mackinac Island, small as it is, has more than dozen shops where fudge is the primary item on sale. On Main Street, a visitor can be tempted by the odors coming from places mixing the proper ingredients in copper kettles and pouring it onto large slabs made of marble.
When a work day ends about dark, the horses go to shaded paddocks. Veterinarians are on Mackinac to look after the horse’s welfare. Farriers are also on the island if shoeing is needed.
When the summer season is finished, only 30 horses stay on the island during the winter months. They are all kept inside and have the same care they received during the tourist season.
The other “workers” leave by ferry and spend the off-season indoors and getting the attention they deserve.
Mackinac could be called “Horse Island” or if a nine-year-old child were asked the nickname given might be “Horse Heaven”.