Taking care of pets is one level of pet ownership. Taking care of animals that are part of your family, livelihood and local culture takes things to a whole new level – especially when your pets touch so many lives in Fort Collins.
That’s why I was excited to talk with Jim Rice, owner of Colorado Carriage and Wagon. I’d always wondered about the carriage horses in town; How are they trained to be cool-headed around traffic? How do people decide the carriage routes to follow in town? How does this whole “being in the public eye” thing work for the horse?
Well, I learned all that and more when I talked with Rice, hooves down. For 14 years his family-owned and operated business has managed carriage rides in Fort Collins, as well as Southern Wyoming, Estes Park and Eastern Nebraska. The horses in his care are comfortable working a range of events, including weddings, parties, haunted tours, hayrack rides, sleigh rides, mini trips around Old Town and other special occasions.
Rice is also the fourth generation of his family to be born here in Fort Collins (his son makes the 5th) and his great uncle, Art Collamer, was the stagecoach driver from Walden to Fort Collins. So, you can safely say this horse trainer was born into his life’s work!
Looking back on the insights from our chat, I felt it was best to share the details interview style, sprinkling his insights and warm persona throughout. Here goes!
How many horses do you have working as part of Colorado Carriage and Wagon right now?
We have 18 working horses for event appearances, and lots of folks who help make sure the horses are well-taken care of while they work. We also have barns in Bellevue and Estes Park to make sure they are well fed, rested and healthy in an area close to where the horses are working for the day. Each horse is considered a member of our family and their care is top priority.
Approximately how many events do you manage a year?
I would say Colorado Carriage and Wagon does at least 300 weddings a year, plus birthday parties, special events, tours, carriage rides and birthday parties. Overall, close to 30,000 commitments per year.
How are the horses trained to manage the diverse type of work they do?
Each horse goes through a desensitization process that’s rolled out in stages. They need to be tested around noise, debris, wind and weather, and people as well as roadside factors including railroad tracks and trains, bridges, horns, cans etc. We are first and foremost focused on safety for the horse and people, so we want to make sure a horse is used to a variety of scenarios.
As you move through the testing process you also get a sense of what a horse is suited for, just like with people. Some horses are a better fit at resorts while others are great for downtown. We also make sure that no horse under the age of 8 is ever in downtown. All our working horses are between 8 and 16 years old to make sure they are settled, well-trained and used to being around people.
How long is a horse’s workday and what does it involve?
Each day is different for the horse depending on the events booked. A typical work day runs between 2 and 3 hours total. A horse can do up to four weddings in a day, or a mix of scheduled events based on their aptitude.
How do you make sure your horses get the best care while “on the job”?
Every single horse always has water available. They can rinse out their mouth, drink, whatever they need during an event. While at home they free-fed and eat as much hay as they want. We also take excellent care of their hooves and don’t overwork them.
In the summer during the peak heat we have big buckets with wet sponges and wipe them down to reduce and/or eliminate sweating. Overall, we do our best to keep them out of high daytime heat, and schedule events for 6:30 or later in the evening when the sun starts to go down.
Most importantly, we have small teams that go out with each horse. This makes sure the animal is safe and handled well, and allows each person to focus on specific tasks while out for an event.
How do you manage allergies for some of your clients?
Every horse gets a bath after an event, no matter what, to clean off pollen, dust or oils in the skin. On our hay rides we also use straw instead of hay.
Are people allowed to pet the horses?
Anyone can pet the horses, but we don’t allow people to feed the horses. That would just lead to bad training – they would expect a treat every time they went into Old Town!
Where do the horses for Colorado Carriage and Wagon come from?
We get some horses from dude ranches, some from Amish country and others from Canada.
Where does the main route in Old Town start? Do you account for construction?
We pick people up at the northeast corner of mountain, then go by the Avery house, Otterbox, the Lincoln Center and take Magnolia to College. If there is a bit of construction, we take an alternate route to make things easier.
Do you offer anything else besides carriage rides?
Sure do! Colorado Carriage and Wagon has a petting zoo that includes baby chicks, bunny rabbits, miniature donkeys and horses, baby calves, goats, sheep and ducks. You can have the animals for a special event, birthday party or as part of an educational opportunity for a daycares or school.
Spending time with the animals helps kids learn about how to care for them, including brushing, feeding and cleaning and it’s so much fun for them. It’s actually a great party idea for all ages – we just had a woman book us for a 90th birthday party. We also offer general horseback riding services.
What’s your favorite part of what you do?
I’m the most fortunate person in the world. People are smiling when they are coming and when they are going. I also get to work with my family all day, both the people and the horses.
I also really like collaborating with businesses in town to create packages that offer carriage rides as part of a deal or special event. It’s fun and it keeps us connected to the local community.
Have you ever taken a ride on a carriage around Old Town? How about for a special event? I would love to hear your experience – I have yet to try a carriage ride! Now I just need to decide if my next party is going to have a petting zoo…