A "How It's Done" look at Seattle's downtown horse-and-carriage rides
How It’s Done looks at secrets and curiosities behind Northwest icons and traditions.
An iconic Christmas carol describes the joy of “dashing through the snow in a one-horse open sleigh,” but here in the lowlands, we don’t (often) have much snow, and sleighs are even rarer. However, we do have some really big horses and ornate carriages that offer holiday rides in downtown Seattle. Not exactly dashing either — the pace is pleasingly slow, punctuated by the hollow clop, clop of horses’ hoofs, a relaxing counterpoint to seasonal frenzy.
Steve Beckmann, owner of Sealth Horse Carriage Tours, was Seattle’s first carriage driver of the modern era. Thirty-one years ago, he pestered the city for a license and finally got one after hauling an official around to prove the rides are safe, fun and, thanks to a well-placed sack, hygienic. Among other things, the license requires horses receive biannual checkups with a vet.
Along with his wife, Skye, Beckmann owns five horses — members of the family all — that are used part time in the carriage business. The rest of the week, the Beckmanns are devoted to a small organic farm near Issaquah. Really devoted. Beckmann calls himself a “slow-motion, locovore Luddite,” a crusader for endangered small farms.
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Mind you, this identity is a long way from Beckmann’s roots — the suburbs of St. Louis. That changed when he left home at 16, moved to New Orleans, and apprenticed first as a stable hand, and then as a carriage driver. He brought that knowledge to the Northwest and has been navigating Seattle traffic behind the rump of a horse ever since.
I met the Beckmanns and one of their drivers, Dirk Barry, at a downtown warehouse — storage for wagons and tack. They were getting two horses, Barney and Pete, ready for their day. Steve Beckmann answers a few questions:
Q: They’re so calm. I’m watching you put all that gear on them and they don’t even move.
A: Draft horses are called “gentle giants.” They’re known for their passive natures.
Q: And yet you have hand-lettered notes on their foreheads that say: “Do not touch me here.”
A: Well, you know, a horse gets fed up pretty quick with hands in his face. If you want to touch them, it’s good to ask first, and then pat them behind the collar, not the head.
Q: Are Barney and Pete draft horses?
A: They’re hybrids. Barney is half quarter-horse and half Belgian, and Pete’s quarter-horse and Percheron. I like hybrids for their vigor and stamina.
Q: They look strong. How much weight do they pull?
A: The harness, collar, all the gear, is probably 40 or 50 pounds. The carriages — which are Amish-made — weigh between 900 and 1,000 pounds each, and then you put six people in there and the horse is pulling close to his own weight. A team of two horses can pull 20 tons, so a carriage isn’t heavy work for a draft horse. I know that some people don’t want to see horses work but my feeling is they enjoy it. It’s what they do. They’re built for work.
Q: Do they ever freak out in the chaos of city streets?
A: I spend four or five months training a horse before I bring it downtown. A horse has a mind of its own and runs when spooked. So I have to get them accustomed to cars, noise and learn the routine. After that, they’re fine.
Q: What kind of shoes do they wear on pavement?
A: The shoes are padded with rubber. We have to replace them every couple of months and they’re expensive.
Q: It’s all expensive, isn’t it? The hay and transportation.
A: We’re not in it to get rich, although back East or in New Orleans, it can be a $10 million-a-year business. For me, it’s fun. I’ve been in on thousands of marriage proposals. My record is five proposals in one night.
Q: What other reasons are there for riding in a carriage?
A: There’s the Saturday night date. Once I had a couple celebrating their 80th anniversary. The whole family saw them off. In the summer, it’s mostly tourists. I’m a history buff so I enjoy sharing the history of Seattle, Pioneer Square, the buildings. From a carriage and at a slow speed, you can really take in the architecture. Over the holidays, I have a lot of repeat local business, people who rode in my carriage as kids and now they have kids. It’s a tradition.
Q: Any misbehavior?
A: Oh, yeah, it happens. I guess the funniest was this couple. They’d obviously been drinking. We were going through Pioneer Square when I noticed people on the street pointing and laughing. I turned around and the guy had taken off all his clothes. He was just sitting there smiling. And then she took off her clothes. So, I told them, if you don’t want to go to jail you better put your clothes back on. They did and I dropped them off.
Q: How do you deal with all the cars on the road? Any advice to drivers?
A: Some cars honk at us or cut us off. The best thing to do is just give us our space, the way you would another car. We’re slow, but that’s the way it’s been for thousands of years with horses. It’s the rhythm of life.