Many of us who love horses and are passionate about the Western lifestyle have wished, at one time or another, we could go back to the days when we relied on horses for everything: to transport us, to plow our fields, to haul our goods.
There is “Someplace Special” where that’s possible: Mackinac Island.
Located between Michigan’s Upper and Lower peninsulas, Mackinac Island is small; only eight miles around and about 11 miles from the mainland. Motor vehicles were banned from the island in 1898 to preserve the charm and protect the safety of its residents and visitors, and it remains that way today. People get around on foot, on a bike, or by horse, and use horses to accomplish all the island’s needs.
In the summer when tourism is at its peak, Mackinac Island is home to more than 600 horses. Before winter, most of the horses are ferried back to the mainland. Visitors can bring their own horses to the island, too, either just for a day or by prearranged boarding at the Mackinac Island Community Equestrian Center, as the tiny island boasts more than 90 miles of wooded trails in Mackinac State Park for riders to enjoy.
Tom Seay invited me to join him on Mackinac this past fall for a filming of his popular TV show, “Best of America by Horseback.” I brought my own Quarter Horse, Scout, and Percheron mare, Majesty, along for the three-day adventure.
Loading both Scout and Majesty onto the ramp and into the cargo area of the ferry was a snap. Although it was the first time they had been on a boat, they managed to find their “sea legs” on the swaying deck, and handled the unusual and constant roar of the engines well. After about a 20-minute ride, we arrived!
A friend—who was also on the island for this special ride—met us at the dock astride her mule. The harbor hugs the edge of a bustling downtown area, and I immediately felt transported by time machine back to a bygone era. Horses dominated the busy Main Street traffic, with lots of horses and horse-drawn vehicles of many different sizes and types: big, long, fancy carriages that hold lots of people; smaller taxis for just a few; and drays and wagons hauling goods. Some were stopped to load and unload people, some rolled past us. There were bikes, too—lots of bikes—some parked alongside Main Street’s shopping and restaurant area, and others being pedaled by.
Except for gentle creaking and clanking of the horse-drawn equipment and the cadence of hooves, it was pretty quiet for a major thoroughfare area compared to what we’re normally used to. I could actually hear people talking to each other and to their horses, with gentle commands to “whoa” or “giddyup.”
I had one eye—and both hands–on Scout and Majesty who seemed to be in awe like me, and one eye on everything else. I wanted to know about the people who did this every day. I wanted to know how they really make this town work this way. My eyes were seeing it, my ears were hearing it, my heart was definitely feeling it. So much to take in, but like everyone else in this bustling little 1800s-style town, we had things to do and somewhere to go!
We walked our horses past the downtown area, but once we were a block away, I mounted Scout and ponied Majesty, who carried the bigger pack with our basic needs for the weekend. We rode on smaller winding streets for almost two miles to the Mackinac Island Community Equestrian Center. We encountered cyclists and walkers along the way and an occasional carriage would pass, and every time we all exchanged a friendly smile, head nod, or hello.
People were happy here. Horses were happy here.
After settling Scout and Majesty in their stalls, we met Tom Seay and his crew and attended a brief orientation about what to expect for the weekend, and then we were free to wander around the island for the evening.
Of course, I headed out by horseback along with a few others to explore. We rode to one of the islands unique spots, Sugar Loaf, an immense 75-foot-high limestone rock laid bare by erosion, deep in the forest. But the locals told me a different tale about how Sugar Loaf was created: A man’s face is clearly visible—etched right in the front of the rock—so early settlers and Native Americans believed that a visiting spirit who fell in love with a mortal woman was transformed to rock forever as punishment by a God he’d angered.
The next morning, we gathered at the barn for coffee and muffins, saddled our horses, and headed out in three medium-sized groups along with Seay and his co-host Kristen Biscoe. He and his crew were so very personable and down to earth that I felt like I was with my best riding buddies. We navigated the trail system and took in the sights of this beautifully wooded forest, glimpsing occasional spectacular views of Lake Huron. We talked about our horses and how fortunate we are to share our lives with them and other like-minded people on adventures like this, and to be here riding in such an incredible place.
The second day, we rode to the northwest part of the island along a charming residential road on the Lake Huron shoreline. The road meandered up along a grassy bluff, making for a stunning vantage point to view the majestic lake, framed by scenery that could have been plucked straight from a fairytale book—one illustrated with darling cottages, punctuated with colorful bunches of flowers here and there, and rimmed with decorative fences and rocks—all perfectly placed to accent the story.
Lake Huron’s vastness makes it seem more like an ocean than a lake, and it can get just as rough when the weather gets nasty. The weekend had been cool and a little rainy at times, so we could see some whitecaps on the water’s surface.
We rode to British Landing Park, where we were able to take the horses out on the beach. A few of the horses in our group were leery to go near the choppy waves hitting the shore, and their hooves sank a little in the deep sugar sand. Yet, it was a thrill to ride on the beach and let the horses take a drink of the crystal-clear water.
Monday morning came way too soon. We packed up our gear, mustered our horses, and made our way back through town to board that ferry bound for the mainland—back to our motor-filled world we know too well.
Yet, I was so grateful for the opportunity to spend some time in the one and only place in our whole country that operates solely on horse power! I met some fascinating folks, too: people passionate about Mackinac Island and who work so hard every day to sustain this lifestyle they love.
Michigan’s Upper Peninsula has had a slogan for more than 60 years: “Some Place Special.” Mackinac Island truly lives up to it.