This week columnist Kristen Kovatch shares, in enchanting detail, her recent experience of giving holiday horse-drawn wagon rides around a quaint western New York village.
Every town has its own holiday traditions: In my sprawling hometown of suburbia, Pennsylvania, we held an enormous several-hour long parade with Santa bringing up the rear on a fire truck. The local departments were holding their annual “Santa runs” on Saturday in which a half-dozen local volunteer firefighters dressed up as Santas and cruised the neighborhoods on fire trucks, sirens and lights in full force.
In western New York, however, where I’ve recently transplanted myself, there are no sprawling suburban miniature cities, but small railroad and farm villages, some only a few blocks wide. In one such village, their Christmas tradition is quieter, more intimate, but still the official kick-off to the holiday season and one of the most important nights of the year for a large part of the local population: Santa is brought through a neighborhood and into the square by horse-drawn wagon; he then listens to every child in the village tell him what they want for Christmas while the wagon gives free rides around the block. Though my University team is intended for use in teaching rather than parades and rides, I couldn’t say no—the village’s previous teamster had retired and they were in need of a new team.
My teaching assistant and co-driver Kaitlyn and I had the prep work down to a science and we moved wordlessly around each other and the horses in the warm aisle of the barn, grooming, scrubbing socks, wiping down the show harness and harnessing, braiding forelocks and manes with the long purple and gold mane rolls, working together on the complicated tail braids with all of our hands simultaneously. We squeezed our big Belgians into the trailer and headed out for the village in light flurries.
We had stashed our wagon in an empty lot in the village the night before, and when we arrived we found that the coordinators had already swept the snow clean from the seats. They eagerly stood by as we attached our wreaths, set out our lap robes and attached the driving tongue, the coordinator’s granddaughter watching hungrily as at last I stepped into the warm darkness of the trailer to unload first Randy and then Rocky, shod hooves clattering on the frozen road as they stepped into place. As Kaitlyn and I buckled the long strings of rich brass bells around their girths, it was hard not to smile at the joy in our observers’ faces.
We hitched up quickly, boosting my border collie Sage into the driver’s bench where she would sit between us, then took a warm-up lap through the quiet neighborhood, the cadence of hoofbeats mixing with the constant clatter of the bells to draw the residents to their porches and windows, faces pressed against the glass, beaming and waving as we passed. We picked up our Santa, an amiable guy as all Santas ought to be, and started the long walk into the center of town.
Kaitlyn slid off the wagon at a big intersection so she could meet us to head the team at the drop-off point, leaving just me and Sage in the driver’s seat and Santa standing just behind me in the wagon, waving at the passing cars. We walked right down Main Street, slowing traffic in both directions, bathed in the glow of streetlamps and Christmas lights, bells ringing as we drew right up to the Town Hall. Santa thanked me quietly before spreading his arms benevolently to the children gathered on the sidewalk. “Merry Christmas!”
Santa soon had a long line of eager children, but so did we outside in the cold: Family after family filed into the wagon for their one-block ride, chattering happily and admiring the team, my dog, the wagon and the evening in general. We drove lap after lap, exchanging passengers at the Town Hall, gratefully accepting hot cups of coffee from the coordinators. I slipped off the wagon for a lap to take a break, exchanging a few words of holiday cheer with the coordinators who expressed their gratitude for our team and rig, our attitude and knowledge, and even the bells—“what a nice touch! It’s really making the holiday to have the bells ringing!”
I smiled and shook their hands, happy to be appreciated as I waited for Kaitlyn and the team to come back to pick me up. As I stood there in the gentle snowfall in the twinkle of Christmas lights on the trees, I heard a peculiar faint metallic ringing, growing steadily louder. Down the road, coming around the corner, my horses drew into view, silver show harness gleaming, heads swinging in step as they leaned into their collars, bells ringing, Kaitlyn smiling up in the driver’s seat with Sage sitting alert right next to her. As she pulled them to a gentle stop, I could not help but grin. I understood now the wide eyes and gasps from the waiting crowd every time we drew into view. Always driving the team, I never had the chance to simply watch them, to stand there in the moment and the magic, in the presence of these giant but gentle horses, caught in the spell of Christmas.
Photo by Haley Argersinger
About Kristen: Kristen was an English major at Alfred University and was then hired on after graduation as the western teacher and trainer at the university’s Bromeley-Daggett Equestrian Center. She would joke on that irony but her students don’t find it very funny any more. Kristen coaches the varsity western team, teaches classes in western riding and draft horse driving, and keeps several of her own horses in training on the side. She shows reined cow horse and also shows western pleasure and horsemanship for fun. Between her horses and her students, Kristen is never short on stories to tell. Some of these stories can be read at her blog at thewesternlife.wordpress.com. She has also been published in Today’s Equestrian and Take the Reins.