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Saddling up for a night of work under the stars: Carriage driver encounters romance, drunkenness

August 18, 2008

When she reported to work at 5 p.m. on a recent evening, Taylor consulted a chart and saw she was assigned to Cheyenne, a 16-year-old mare, and carriage number 29. She backed the spotted horse out of the stall, hitched up the carriage-making sure all straps were tightly fastened-and left the Yellow Rose stables at 13th Street and Capitol Avenue.

During the half-hour ride to Monument Circle, she explained the personal challenge that carriage driving posed. It wasn't how to drive-it was where.

"I had been downtown probably three times in my life" before coming to Yellow Rose a year ago, said Taylor, 23. Because the job requires acute awareness of directions and familiarity with local attractions, she faced a steep learning curve.

"These carriages are easy to drive. Knowing where to go, when to be there, timing everything just right-that's the trick."

Yellow Rose's horses, Taylor explained, are almost exclusively voice-trained. This means the straps in drivers' hands generally do very little. In fact, many horses know the routes and practically drive themselves-they recognize red lights, and even when lights on cross streets turn yellow.

This was a significant change for Taylor when she started driving carriages. Though she had been riding horses all her life, including playing polo and participating on the equestrian team at Purdue University, she had never driven voicetrained horses.

"It took a bit of getting used to, but it's not too hard," Taylor said. The Amishbuilt four-passenger carriages used by Yellow Rose are durable and easy to drive. Though they never exceed 2-3 mph on a pleasant ride, Taylor has tested them at higher speeds when hurrying to alleys for shelter during thunderstorms.

She is careful to point out that the "whips" attached to the front of the carriages are purely fly swatters.

"We never use them on the horses," she said. "Sometimes parents threaten their kids with them, though."

Minimum wage, plus tips

Taylor said she loves her job because she enjoys working with the horses and meeting interesting people.

Her three nights per week behind the carriage bring her only minimum wage ($6.55 an hour), plus tips-typically about 20 percent of the fare, but sometimes 100 percent or more.

Passengers at Yellow Rose can choose from half-hour or hour rides on either a Central Canal or other downtown route. Costs range from $40 to $80 on weekdays or $50 to $100 on weekends. She is on the job until radioed in, usually around 11 p.m.

The closest encounter Taylor has had with fame was an architect for the Lucas Oil Stadium project. "But it's fun to meet all the different people and hear their stories," she said.

Not all the meetings are fun, however. Recently, Taylor's trip was interrupted when a haggard and visibly intoxicated man approached the carriage and grabbed the horse's head. When Taylor asked him not to touch the animal, he became enraged, telling her she was rude and unfriendly. Fortunately, he staggered away with no harm done.

Strong reactions to the horses are not uncommon, Taylor noted. While locals who spend a lot of time downtown are accustomed to seeing the animals, "some people are just in awe of the fact that there could possibly be a horse here," she said.

As Taylor waited for passengers on the Circle, a group of early-teenage girls coalesced around the line of carriages, pet ting the horses and taking pictures.

Several women stopped to ask Taylor about the breed and history of the horse.

"Usually, the worst you get is people slow down because they're amazed or because the kids are going 'horsie, horsie!' " Taylor said.

Some nights, she has more people wanting rides than she can accommodate, while other evenings she gets just one or two rides. Yellow Rose accepts both reservations and walk-up costumers. Tonight, she has a 7:30 reservation, and until then she'll wait for walk-ups.

"Usually I wait down south, where there are less carriages," Taylor said. "I get more rides that way."

The amount of business varies greatly by season. Christmastime is busiest, followed by summer. January through March are generally slow.

Season also determines the types of people Taylor meets on her rides. "During prom season, it's all teenagers," she said. "Christmas season, it's all families, with the occasional couple."

Taylor's favorite trips are surprise marriage proposals.

"We stop somewhere, usually on the Circle or by the canal. The person is like, 'What on earth is going on?' But then they propose and everyone is all excited. Usually, they give a really big tip, too."

Looking for customers

After about 45 minutes on the Circle, Taylor decided it was time to look for a ride elsewhere. She headed to her favorite spot, known as the "Marquis," a carriage stand at Illinois and Maryland streets.

Before she reached her destination, however, she received a request over radio to cover a 7 p.m. reservation. After she worked out the logistics to also cover the 7:30 reservation she already had, she changed course to the Marriott to pick up her first guests of the night.

After waiting for the group to get organized, Taylor introduced herself to the five older women who boarded the carriage. They asked to be taken for a loop around downtown and to be dropped off at a pub.

Taylor didn't talk to the group for the duration of the ride. She said she is always available to chat or to share information, but isn't offended if passengers don't seem to want to talk.

After she dropped off her costumers, Taylor headed back to the Circle to look for more rides. But her hopes dwindled as a gentle sprinkle set in.

"This rain's gonna kill the night," she said.

At least she had a raincoat.
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