Starting a Carriage Company from Scratch
Starting a Carriage Company from Scratch

Starting a Carriage Company from Scratch

by Christina Dahl-Sesby of Shaw Island, WA

After years of keeping an ear open for an occupation that would have many wonderful facets, including being enjoyable, environmentally oriented and horse related, my husband, Jim, and I decided to embark on starting a horse drawn carriage company of our own in October, 1994. We had heard quite a bit of positive information regarding such an endeavor and felt that we were in a position, at this point in time, to take this on ourselves. The romance of it all lured us on this wonderfully positive, happy and yet bumpy road!

The whole subject precipitated many lengthy, primarily exciting, conversations. I started researching what was available in the way of carriages. There are quite a few companies who have carriages available, both new and used. We had to decide from pictures, written information and talking with the carriage makers, what we wanted and needed in the way of a carriage. I had managed to locate a carriage that was being used in the same way that we intended, so we went to see the carriage and spent the better part of the day with the owner/operator and learned an incredible amount about what to expect as a carriage operator.

As it turns out there are many styles of horse drawn vehicles available in this day and age – one company actually makes 14 different styles of horse drawn vehicles! After looking carefully at what is available, and considering our use, we decided that a vis-a-vis (pronounced vees-a-vee), meaning face to face in French, would suit our needs. This style of carriage has a coachman’s seat and two passenger seats. George Washington first brought this style of carriage to the U.S. where it quickly became very popular because people could sit sociably, facing each other, and have a conversation.

In the process of looking for a carriage, I discovered that there are many variations in carriages, even if they are the same style and manufactured by one company. I found that there is one company that manufactures three different styles of vis-a-vis. The main differences are in the materials used, what is actually on the carriage (one has a water tank on board), and the amount of space available. Consequently, the length, weight and prices of the carriages vary greatly. Some have a full cut under for the front wheels while others are not cut under, and still others are cut under but have a reach which slightly limits the turning radius. (The reach is a bar that runs from the back axle to the fifth wheel on the front axle.) The new wheels may have roller bearings in the hubs to make a more pleasant ride as well as easier on the horse. Other features are hydraulic brakes, brake lights, running lights, and turn signals which can also be used as flashing lights. These last items are both very important safety features that we feel are essential for working for the public on public streets. The brakes are not to stop the horse, but to hold the carriage steady while customers are boarding and to hold back the carriage while going down hill. On the back of the carriage there must be a slow moving vehicle sign. We had been unsuccessful in locating a used carriage, so we subsequently purchased a new visa- vis from the Justin Carriage Works in Nashville, Michigan. This carriage is short enough that when done properly will actually fit in to the back of a full sized pickup with the tail gate down.

Some carriages offer some sort of top for inclement weather or when sun is too hot. There are flat tops like surrey tops or there are the folding auto tops which are fairly easy to put up or down as needed. Also there is usually the option of adding brass on the carriage. This addition will depend on the type of clientele that one anticipates having as passengers. Then there is what I call the “exhaust catcher” that can attach directly to the shafts or in some cases to the horse (harness) and the shafts. This is probably a feature that will be required by any city, but it is also a good neighbor item. There is always someone wanting manure for their garden compost. People expect their streets and parking lots, etc., to be clean at all times. Plus rubber on the wheels makes traveling the roads ever so much more pleasant and will not damage the road surface. One more choice that can be made for carriages today is the color. Depending on the company, the buyer can chose just about any color that you may want. It is said that the most popular choice today is white. However, one problem with the white carriages is that when a bride in white gets into a white carriage, she is hard to see since she will blend in with the carriage. The traditional color and the one that we chose is black with some gold pin striping in a few places which makes the carriage quite beautiful.

So far, it may appear that the carriage has come before the horse. In reality, we did locate a nice, black Percheron mare early in the year. We were unusually fortunate to find a horse that the past owner stated “doesn’t do stupid things”. This has proven to be absolutely true! We had previously talked about what we wanted in a horse and the primary feature, of course, was a horse who was dependable. Another aspect that we were looking for was a horse that steps into the collar easily since we felt that the ease of starting out was more appropriate for our carriage business. We also did not want a light colored horse because of the added maintenance. The horse, we felt, should be versatile, since we anticipated that we would be doing more than just the carriage business and we preferred a horse that was not too tall.

Starting a Carriage Company from Scratch

While I was finding out all I could about carriages and harnesses, Jim was finding out all he could about the bookkeeping end of the business. If this is done well from the beginning it is much easier in the long run. At this point it may be pertinent to mention that if the business is done in a family or within a personal relationship, the relationship absolutely must have a very strong footing, because the business will stress the relationship. Starting a business in a family has the potential of being disastrous.

The next item of business was to locate harness that would be appropriate for the carriage and horse. The type of horse, the type of carriage and the amount of weight that the horse or horses would be pulling all must be considered. Using a collar harness allows the horse(s) to pull more weight easily, but a breast collar harness can be used for less weight or days that will not be so busy and give the horse a break from the collar. The material from which a harness is made is another consideration. There are nylon harness that are light weight and easy for which to care, but do not have class. Then there are bioplastic harnesses that look like patent leather, are light weight and can be washed off with the hose, and do look nice. And finally, there are leather harnesses that are absolutely beautiful and there is nothing like leather. They do require more work and they are heavier but I have been surprised at the number of compliments that we have received on our harness since it is a simple brichen harness with some brass hardware and spots. People do seem to notice!

With these major items starting to come under control I felt that I should tackle the permit process. Depending on the requirements of your area, there will almost always be a permit of some sort required. When I called inquiring about what I needed to do, the first responses that I got were along the line of, “You want to do what?? Well, I will have to get back to you.” Several days later I would hear from them again. Fortunately, I pretty well had the safety features of the outfit covered, so that got me off to a good start. In talking with the road department the man who contacted me, because he loves horses, was more interested in the breed and color of my horse than anything else, but he did let me know in passing that I had to have rubber on the wheels to protect the road surface. The sheriff wanted a statement of intent: he needed to know what my intentions were so that when someone called he would be knowledgeable. Needless to say he got a very detailed letter just prior to the start up date. The one permit that I needed for the primary area where I intended to work, was a sign permit since the “A” frame (sandwich board) sign was larger than allowed. That did not cost much but I did have many conversations with the planning department before the permit finally did come through. I did find that incorporated towns can be extremely hard to tackle. For some reason there seems to be the attitude that horses are nice or even great, but we don’t want them here. I found that the one town to which I applied had actually had three other carriage operators working in town in the past, but when I came to get a permit they had many reasons why this would not work. I feel I got off pretty easy as far as permits go, but it was an extremely lengthy process and time consuming.

To work on the street or at any fairs we felt that we needed to have a sign. This was another whole dimension that took more time and energy. I knew right off that the sign had to be done by someone who could do an excellent job depicting animals. Guess I have seen too many signs with poorly painted animals. After talking with several sign makers I made an appointment with one who turned out to be the perfect person for the job. The entire process of finding a sign maker, obtaining the permit, to the finished product took an amazing amount of time! We ended up with two signs, one an “A” frame (sandwich board) and another on the back of the carriage so people would be informed that we were for hire no matter where we were. On our “A” frame sign we decided to price the rides per person with a minimum. The other option is to price it per ride. Our sign maker used special numbers that can be removed fairly easily and other numbers put in their place. We also have a couple of hooks in the fare section of the sign so that a second sign can be easily put in place thereby changing our price quickly.

At the same time I was trying to do a lot of public relations work so as to inform people of what our intentions were. I wanted as many people as possible to have a positive feeling about a horse and carriage being in town before we actually started up in business. It is amazing that people love to see the horse and carriage but they do not want to be slowed down in traffic and they do not want any horse droppings left around. We even went to carrying a whisk broom and dust pan just in case part of the droppings missed the “exhaust catcher”. It seemed that the horse would seldom miss the catcher, but when she did it was always in the most awkward places, so this was an easy solution to the problem since the missed droppings could be quickly swept up and dropped into the catcher. A few times when Jim jumped off to sweep up he was applauded by onlookers. The public relations is extremely important in a business of this sort, both on the spur of the moment and ahead of time.

Another item that needed attention was business cards. Ah, yes, you can’t expect to do business without cards! Fortunately, the sign maker was able to work with a graphic artist who took the logo from the sign and put it on a card with appropriate information. Coming up with just the right words in a small amount of space is really a trick, but it can be done!

Starting a Carriage Company from Scratch

Along this same line, only more intense, is MARKETING!! This is probably the toughest and yet the most important part of any new business. We felt that we had something that would sell, but we didn’t know exactly how to target any particular market, so we figured that we would work on the street and with some advertising we would hope to reach the special occasion market. This worked to a certain extent, in that we gave lots of people rides that just wanted a ride around town and occasionally someone who wanted a longer, romantic ride and we were hired for some special occasions. Most people on the street want about a 20 minute ride, but we also offer a longer ride of 40 minutes if they so desire, or they could hire us by the hour. As time moved on we found that we could offer several different prices for special occasions. The three categories were first, an “as-is” (we would just show up at a given location and time within a half hour carriage ride from town in our top hat(s), black jackets and boots). Then we had an “as-is with flowers” and finally we had what I called, for the lack of a better term, the “spit and polish” choice where everything shined and there were flowers on the carriage and the horse was braided with flowers in the mane and tail and on the bridle. Being able to offer these three different prices did help bring in more customers, but we were lucky in that we were working in an area where we did not have to load everything up and travel to reach most destinations. Obviously, loading everything up does complicate the time and energy.

For marketing it really helps to know what your clientele is going to be, and then how to reach them with the information that you are open for business. Getting a business card was easy, getting a picture of our setup was complicated but other forms of advertising were more complicated, consequently we decided that a picture was worth a thousand words, so we came up with the idea of a postcard. I felt that we should be in the “spit and polish” mode so that we could look our best. We had to hire a photographer that would take pictures with slide film and then try to make an appointment with the photographer on the perfect day for light. We had some friends that were the “bride and groom” for the pictures, but the sun was pretty bright for what we wanted. It all worked out, however. We were not able to put the picture taking together until the middle of the summer and then the printers took almost eight weeks. In the process of looking for acceptable advertising I did find that there are business cards that have a picture on the back, which some may find helpful. For this coming season we are definitely targeting specially occasions since they pay more in the long run. They are more work, but they are ever so much fun since everyone is happy.

In the course of events I contacted a carriage company in Eureka, California, and they too helped me tremendously. Among the things that they highly recommended was that I look into joining an association of carriage operations, called Carriage Operators of North America (C.O.N.A., phone 619-421-4205). I have found this to be very beneficial in that these are professional people who are experienced in operating carriages on the street for the public. C.O.N.A. has “Rules of Operation” that are most helpful for someone just starting out or for others to make sure that they have all points covered before getting out on the street. Above all, SAFETY is of utmost importance!! I also found that I could get insurance coverage through C.O.N.A. with Lester Kalmanson Agency, Inc., in Maitland, Florida, for a “reasonable” rate and without all of the problems involved with a horse riding situation, which it seems, can get pretty sticky.

Along the same line, with the help of a friend we have a couple of different “Livery Contracts” that cover us so that we are not liable for accidents due to the inherent risks of equine activities. They state clearly for whom the contract is being made, location of the event, the route, date and time, colors if applicable, and other instructions. Other details are, of course, the name, phone number and address of the party responsible, the non-refundable $100 deposit and the amount of the balance due at time of service. I always check out the route of any occasion myself to make absolutely sure that I will have adequate space to maneuver. This is a Cardinal Rule! And I have found that it definitely helps to discuss prior to the occasion what the people want us to do if it appears that they are going to go over their time limit. For these special occasions there is a large flat fee which in our area, range from $350 to $500 for the first hour and then $60 an hour after that. This may sound like a lot of money, but by the time you add in all expenses and time and energy it really isn’t very much all considered. The fees will probably vary from one area to another. Also, all occasions start at the time that the hiring party set, even if they are late, you are there and ready to go.

While all of this detailed work was going on, we were in the process of getting the horse in condition and also preparing her for working in the street and anything we might encounter. I took her on the road when there were going to be big trucks going by. I carried a boom box with me to play different kinds of music at different volumes and I played a radio to accustom her to talking that had nothing to do with her and at other times I would carry on a conversation that, also, had nothing to do with her. We tied balloons to the bridle and my son rode his bike all around her trying to frustrate or startle her. An umbrella was brought into play. My son was delighted to be assigned the task to start at a distance and shoot a cap gun and then slowly working into firecrackers starting with small and working up to larger. All of this really helped with being on the street and with parades and at one point some little kids lit a large firecracker rather near us, but Candy only lifted her head.

Before embarking on the search for costumes I had looked at various books of attire from the Victorian and Edwardian eras. We had a lot of fun looking for costumes in second hand stores, for jackets and shirts that we thought would be appropriate. For people of average size and smaller this would probably work very well. Both my husband and I are tall so it was a little difficult, but we did find some things. We bought costume top hats and bowlers. These are really cheap and did not hold up well in our coastal rain, but they got us through the summer. We are going to look for reasonably good top hats and then use some waterproof spray on them this coming year. For boots we were both able to locate used, tall, black riding boots that have shorter than calves so we could sit down comfortably. For some of the color coordinated occasions we wore ascots or stock ties that I made to match the ribbon in the horses mane and tail. This added a very nice touch. We also have a less formal attire, so we are not “overdressed” for our rural location, but are still a sort of “English Country-estate” costume. The costumes really add a most desirable look to the whole unit.

Besides the costumes the carriage also sports a carriage or cellular phone. This is so that customers can reach us to pick them up at a restaurant after they have finished their meal. Also, if there is an accident that we see, we can call for emergency help immediately. As much as I was basically against having this convenience, we use it to stay in touch with one another at certain times. It is most helpful for our son since he can reach us easily of he needs information or permission for one thing or another.

In the process of putting this all together, there was suddenly a Kerry Blue Terrier puppy for sale. This is something I had wanted for some time, plus many old portrayals of carriages show a small dog on the carriage. There were slow times when I worked on the carriage by myself, so I took my pup, Meghan, with me. She soon became accustomed to the idea of riding on the carriage, and the people loved her! My intention was for her to ride on the floor of the coachman’s seat area, but frequently passengers really wanted her in the back with them since she is such a pleasant dog to be around and she loves people besides being a good all around farm dog. I definitely feel that carriage dogs are not a necessity, but she has turned out to be a plus working on the street and we take her with us often.

Also, during the early spring I was able to meet and surpass the requirements by C.O.N.A. for hours of observation and actual driving with an experienced driver working with me. I was extremely fortunate in finding a situation as an assistant, where I spent four consecutive weekends, both Saturday and Sunday, first observing and then driving a team hitched to a trolley that can carry about 26 passengers. I ended up having many more hours than required by C.O.N.A. I was exhausted and, of course, it was hard on my family but it was well worth the effort!! There is a tremendous amount to learn about working with a horse and carriage on the street, so the more time anyone can put in the better prepared they will be. I was also able to get in quite a few more hours of driving time before starting business.

Another must in this business is an accomplished farrier. We were very fortunate to find one that does an excellent job and is willing to come to our island to shoe draft horses. Besides the shoes, some hardener like borium must be applied to the shoes to keep them from wearing out from the abrasive action of the hard surface and to keep the horse from slipping on smooth surfaces.

Well, by the third weekend in May we had the essentials for the business in place – horse, harness, carriage, costumes, sign and insurance. There were still some loose ends, but the essentials were all there. What a wonderful reception we received in the small town where we started. Many local people came to find out what we were all about and have a ride. We quickly found that the local kids all wanted to ride and even though they didn’t have enough money we would give them a short ride which we felt was good public relations. Two girls came to town to buy a treat and went for a carriage ride instead. Another little girl wanted to take her Mom for a ride with her saved up allowance money so we came up with a shortened ride again. This sort of approach, we felt, would be a community service and help us in the long run.

After starting business we quickly found that you really have to think fast in dealing with customers. Plus, watch that people don’t do anything that is not acceptable around the horse – watch those kids! One thing that we learned right away was not to carry any more change in your change pocket than absolutely necessary so you don’t look as if you have too much money. You can have more money in another pocket. In giving change if you are going to give say $10, give a $5 bill and five $1 bills, since you are more likely to get a tip that way, than if you return two $5 bills, and those tips do help!

Once the customers are seated and you are on your way, you can “break the ice” by asking the question “Where are you from?” This will tell you a lot about your riders, since many really want to talk, some want lots of information and still others just want to be left alone. Depending on your area the response may be most interesting. Most people consider our business a tourist oriented business, but to our surprise we found that 70- 80% of our business was from local people.

Starting a Carriage Company from Scratch

All summer we worked with just one horse and most of the time that was fine for everyone since we were really only working two days a week. However, there were some times when we did a special occasion that took several hours that the horse was too tired to work the evening too, so we decided to quit. There was another time when our horse strained a muscle and we had to lay off for a few days. Jim and I have come to the conclusion that it is best to have a second horse for back up as well as relief. We have also decided that to be able to make this a viable business we must have more jobs year round, so a wagon and a team doing hay rides to a pumpkin field or a tree farm or during any kind of festival could possibly really augment the year round income.

The whole business has taken incredible amounts of time and energy and many expenses that we had not anticipated, but the payoff has come in the response of the people. There is something about a horse and carriage or a team and hay wagon that makes people wonderfully happy and relaxed!! It has been wonderful being able, in this day and age, to give something to people that transports them to a space where they are truly happy and not concerned about the multitudes of negativity now. Many children have the rare opportunity to pet a horse and see and feel how wonderful they are. The special occasions to us are a real bonus because they are such happy occasions and in reality our job seems to be making people happy wherever we go. We love it and have every intention of continuing.