Letter to the Editor – Tom Hough

This letter published in the Feb. 17, 2022, print edition. Send your letters to the editor to jgray@natchitochestimes.com

Dear Editor,

Now that a change has occurred in the local carriage industry and employment no longer dictates that I keep my opinions to myself I’ve decided to do a short essay on what I have learned in my experience as a tour guide in the carriage industry. I’ve driven in several southern cities and have learned a great deal about how things are done in other places and why things are done that way. I’m going to pass this knowledge along because as a consumer you should understand the industry and you should also have an understanding when giving input concerning public policy of the regulation of the industry. A great decline occurred in the tourism industry in Natchitoches when standards were lowered. I found out that the owner of the carriage company must have had a very low opinion of carriage drivers and tour guides.

The reason I say that is because I was told by one of his drivers that when he worked for this person he was put out on the street with out knowing a tour with the instructions to “Just BS them. That’s what most tour guides do.:” A statement that is very offensive to people who take pride in the accuracy and quality of their tours. This same driver was told to take out a team without any training and preparation. The owner believed that driving teams was just like single pull and in a sense it is but at the same time it is not. The driver of the single pull has too keep two independent brains in sync.

The driver of a team has to keep three independent brains in sync. You have to be subconsciously aware of what the animals are thinking and you must understand the messages that are being sent to you through the drive lines and you must be able to respond instinctively to those signals. So basically what this owner did was have low tour standards and low driving standards which can also be referred to as low safety standards. Several accidents did happen under his ownership one of which occurred on Front Street when a team of Belgians panicked from the presence of a tractor trailer rig passing on a street it was not supposed to be on. Another involved a young woman driver who fell from the carriage during a runaway.

From an eye witness description of the accident I must say that it was technically the young woman’s fault but it was also the fault of the company owner for not having safety training standards and the regulators, which there probably are none, for not making sure that safety standards are in place and that training is provided so that those standards are understood. Concerning tour quality one of the things I have learned over the years is that historians are more easily trained to be horse people than horse people are to be trained as historians. I worked briefly in Charleston until I found the cost of living too much to bear. What I found in Charleston was that there were jobs in the industry for horse people. It was called barn help.

They got to work early and fed, mucked the stalls harnessed and hitched the horses so that the folks that actually got out and made the money could be clean and sharp looking when they climbed up on that carriage. The education of the drivers was very diverse and their ages ranged from mid 20s to mid 60s. One was a PhD Professor at Charleston College who taught Anthropology and Archaeology. Another was a retired teacher. Another had a Masters in Accounting from the Citadel. Another had a music education degree. Another had a architectural history degree. He was a horse person for during high school he had attended a private academy in Austria to learn horsemanship. One was a general contractor with extensive knowledge in architectural history. The owner of the company was a chemical engineer who saw driving carriage as an interesting side job and when he saw how much money could be made he organized his own company. All of these people became excellent horse people. Why would so many highly educated people take a job like driving a carriage? One reason is it is fun. History was their hobby.

The other is that when a good product is provided and the tour last long enough to satisfy them then people will pay a ridiculous amount of money for a tour and then tip the driver well when it is over. The other reason is that in Charleston there is prestige in the job. The reason for the prestige is due to the fact that acquiring a tour guide license there is a difficult thing to do. I can brag and say that I did do it and I did it on my first try but it was a harder test than any history final I ever took in college. My grade would have been a high C if it was for college credit. While in college I wanted a higher grade than that one but that test was so difficult I had no problem accepting the grade I earned . I read  studied made up flash cards and spent every moment I could at work learning those flash cards for a good three weeks before taking the test. Lots of folks prepared by taking a college course but I didn’t feel like I had the time to wait that long to start earning money. In reality I wasn’t able to get to that higher earning level before the cost of living over came me. When a person carries a Charleston tour guide license which I can proudly say I have he can be called on to speak to groups on different aspects of the cities history. He could hire out to a movie company as a location scout or a technical adviser to maintain historical accuracy. He can discuss and debate.

The Charleston tour guide does more than learn a script. If a Charleston tour guide says that building is Italianate and someone asks “What makes that Italianate?” the Charleston tour guide can start spouting off a brief lecture on that style of architecture. There is an attempt to declare the license requirement unconstitutional and that may help a cab driver get by with talking about history but to be a carriage driver the integrity and the prestige of the profession will be preserved by making the present standards a company standards even if the city can’t require them any longer. I will criticize Charleston for doing the same thing that is done in Natchitoches. Using Yankee horses in southern cities. For those of you of a southern heritage have you ever heard your grandfathers talk about what a good team of Belgians or Percherons they had to plow their fields when they were children? If you said no it is because the old folks knew that large animals suffer in the heat and humidity of the south. The mule was the primary draft animal of the south and for good reason. The father of a mule is a donkey a creature of the hot deserts. Their ears are long like jack rabbit ears and their bodies are lean and they take the heat extremely well. New Orleans mandates the use of mules for that reason.

One of the tragedies that occurred in New Orleans was a carriage horse suffered a heat stroke on the street. That was bad enough but a policeman used his weapon to put the animal out of his misery in the presence of tourists. That whole thing was a bad image for the city and the industry. Natchitoches should follow New Orleans standards. Charleston justifies the use of big horses on the grounds that big horses are needed to stop large carriages. One thing is for certain and that is they are not needed to pull the carriage for Charleston is the flattest city in the south. Even flatter than New Orleans. I can rickshaw a fully loaded carriage around on a smooth flat surface. A large horse is not necessary to stop a carriage if the carriage has brakes which for some reason the Charleston carriages don’t have. I consider this a bad safety standard for two reasons. First drive lines can be used to keep an animal from going forward and from side to side but they can’t be used to stop the animal from backing up. That takes a whip in the drivers hand to beat the horse forward. Terrible optics for the tourists. I only use a whip when driving a team to insure that one animal doesn’t freeload on the other. I don’t like a whip even seen on my carriage yet they are required in Charleston. The second reason for having brakes is you can’t fully train an animal when he has at least one option as a way to go. Lets just say the horse doesn’t like standing close to a bus or big truck.

Without brakes the horse steps back possibly running someone over passing to the back of the carriage. With brakes you put the horse close to the thing which he is scared of use the drive lines to pull him back into his britching strap and hold him there for how ever long it takes for the animal to realize that he doesn’t need to be afraid. Another thing I found not very safe in Charleston was the fact that the drivers stood to drive the carriage. Great when everything goes well because it is like being a teacher addressing the class. Terrible when a crazy woman in a dinosaur suit charges the carriage with the intention of causing an accident, which did happen or when the 1st Scott’s Presbyterian church is letting out and a carriage is coming by just when the bag pipers exit the church causing a runaway which is something else that happened. The worst accidents that have happened there the driver ended up on his butt down on the street watching the carriage running away. The driver should maintain a low center of gravity mainly on his butt in a comfortable seat and with something to hook his feet to in the event he loses his balance. Guy Tuscio the new operator here is a good man and I’m sure he will do a good job but I highly recommend the city as the issuer of the franchise get much more involved in the standards for both the tour and safety on the carriages.

Tom Hough

Carriage driver and tour guide