In our “Cool Horse Jobs” column, we feature awesome individuals finding unique ways to work in the horse industry. Today, we’re featuring Robin Donahe of Fantasia Carriage, a professional driver and baraat horse provider!
Robin Donahe operates her own business, Fantasia Carriage, based out of Lago Vista, Texas, about 45 minutes northwest of Austin. She combines her business with a few part-time jobs to make ends meet, but the carriage business is picking up each year! We caught up with Robin to chat about her undeniably cool job, plus the unique experience of providing horses for baraats, the groom’s wedding procession from North India, West India and Pakistan.
Horse Nation: How did you start your business, and how have you grown?
Robin Donahe: I bought my vis-a-vis (wedding) carriage in 2011. I was only able to afford it because it needed major work. It was drivable but ugly — the paint was peeling off and the seats were yellowed, cracked and moldy. Once I brought the carriage home, it sat for many months because I live on a hill and the carriage brakes didn’t work at all!
In October of 2012, a friend asked me if I would give carriage rides at her son’s birthday party. I remember her saying, “Make sure you bring business cards just in case someone wants to hire you!” At that point, I came up with a business name, logo, business card, and website — I have a degree in graphic design, so I didn’t have to pay anyone for the work.
Unfortunately, nothing came of that party, but it did give me time to restore my carriage. Floorboards had to be replaced, the entire thing needed to be repainted and the seats completely redone since the foam innards were disgusting. My first paid job was giving Christmas light rides for a homeowners association party in 2013. I think I only had three paid jobs my first full year in business.
Thankfully, it’s picked up since then. Last year, I had a total of 26 jobs. It was enough that I was able to pay for the farrier, feed, and care of my three horses. The majority of my jobs are actually done without the carriage: they are called baraats and are processions for the groom in cultures from from North India, West India and Pakistan. These jobs require a bombproof white horse.
HN: Tell us about the horses you own!
RD: We have just under seven acres and keep the horses on the property. I currently own two white/grey Percheron mares, one chestnut Standardbred mare, and one silver bay Shetland gelding.
One of the Percheron mares, Josie, I just bought this February. I thought since I did so many Indian baraats that required a white horse, that it would be a good idea to have a spare — just in case. Diva is my main mare. She is definitely a “been there, done that” horse. She was originally a downtown Houston carriage horse and has been through Houston police horse training. I use her for every job that I can.
Dolly, my Standardbred will do a periodic wedding, if the “brown horse” is requested, but she would much rather do combined driving events. Dolly was originally an Amish road trotter and she’ll do pretty much anything I ask her to, but I like to only use her for things she enjoys doing.
Curio, the pony, is just a pet. I had considered using him for pony parties, but he can be a real “pony”, so he just does pony parties for my kids.
HN: What’s a typical day like for you on the job?
RD: I always, ALWAYS have to plan a minimum of two hours to get my white horse white again since her favorite color to be is brown. If I have a baraat at 9 am, which is common, I plan to start getting ready five or six hours in advance. Yes, that means for those weddings, I need to wake up at 3-4 am — reminiscent of my horse show days! I spend two hours bathing my white mare, Diva, then I have an hour to get breakfast, do something with my hair & put on make-up and hitch up the trailer — which is fun in the dark (my truck doesn’t have a backup camera). Most jobs are about an hour from me and I get to the venue an hour in advance if I’m just using the horse, or two hours in advance if I’m using the carriage too.
There are certain things I always make sure I do for safety:
- Two to four weeks beforehand, I drive my truck to the location and scope out where I can park. The trailer I haul my carriage with is a six-horse with an extra-large dressing room, so by itself it’s 40 feet long. Parking isn’t always easy — especially when the bride is saying, “Well, can’t you just back it in there, through that gate, between those trees?”
- I always bring an assistant. No matter how well my horses are trained, they are still horses and $#@% happens!
- I never get out of the driver’s seat if I have passengers. This is a HUGE no-no but carriage companies do it all the time!
- I never leave my horse unattended. Horses are horses, but people can be stupid.
- Only the driver (95% of the time, it’s me) and my assistant are allowed in the driver’s seat.
HN: How did you name your business?
RD: The business name came about after I had to put my lifetime horse down because of a very bad colic with suspected cancer. She was a half Andalusian, half Appaloosa and registered as Cubanito’s Fantasia with the Appaloosa Sport Horse Association. My family owned her mother and while over the years we got to see many foals born, my filly Fantasia was the only one born around 2 o’clock in the afternoon — while we were away at a horse show! Born in 1989, Fantasia was my love and my pet. I was the only one that trained her and she’d do anything I’d ask of her. I had delusions of grandeur and thought how one day I’d be doing high-level eventing with her, but college got in the way. I was utterly crushed when I had to put her down when she was only 20 years old and thought that naming the company after her was the best way I could have her memory live on.
RD: Baraats make up the majority of my business, mainly because I’m the only one in the Austin area that has a white horse that can do them safely! A baraat is a groom’s wedding procession in North India, West India and Pakistan. In these cultures, it is customary for the bridegroom to travel to the wedding venue on a white mare accompanied by his family members and friends. The white horse is a symbol of purity and new beginnings.
Most modern baraats include a mobile DJ playing loud music, drummers, photographers, drones flying around, and 10 to 400 dancing and cheering people. The horse has to tolerate all this with a groom on its back that usually doesn’t know how to ride, plus the horse is wearing a costume. I once had a fellow carriage business owner tell me that “a baraat is everything you shouldn’t do around a horse!”
Robin and Diva in a baraat:
HN: How did you first get into working baraats?
I started doing baraats because someone found out I had a white horse and wanted me for one. A fellow carriage operator loaned me her baraat horse costume and once I confirmed that Diva was indeed capable of tolerating the excitement, I ordered my own baraat horse costume. I started getting more and more baraats once the other business that was in Austin moved out of state. She sent her baraat business to me. The Indian culture is very word-of-mouth, so with each new baraat I did, I received more baraat requests. I also work with an Indian wedding planner and the venues are learning that I’m the area’s baraat horse provider.
Other than baraats, I mostly do the regular horse-drawn carriage weddings. We bring the bride in for her Grand Entrance, wait through the ceremony and then bring the bride and groom out for their Grand Exit. Some want a romantic ride and some just want pictures. I do have a “Just Married” sign that I hang on the back of the carriage as well. I have done a few birthdays, a few neighborhood rides around Christmas and last year I was hired to do rides at a shopping center for multiple nights over the holidays.
Connect with Robin and Fantasia Carriage:
Do you have a cool horse job you think we should know about? Email the editor at [email protected]! To find more Q&A sessions, click the #HORSE JOBS hashtag at the top of the page!