By Joe Bailey, Features Editor—
Before the car, there was the horse, and with it came the carriage.
Meagan Bryant, owner of the Chattanooga Carriage Company, said that public perception has shifted for this particular mode of transportation over the course of the past century or so.
“Back in the day, when cars first came out, only rich people had cars and poor people had horses,” she said. “Now it’s reversed. Only rich people have horses and poor people have cars.”
In 2020, services such as Bryant’s are some of the only ways Chattanooga city-dwellers can experience transportation as it would have been for their equestrian ancestors.
Along with doing birthday parties, weddings and even funerals, the Chattanooga Carriage Company can most often be seen giving horse-drawn tours downtown. On top of the novelty of perusing the city streets in a carriage, drivers also treat passengers to a little bit of history as they ride.
But for Bryant and her carriage drivers, horses are more than a mere novelty or relic of the past. They are living, thinking, feeling creatures, with more to offer than just rides from wedding A to funeral B.
Bryant talked a lot about how her life experience had been shaped up to that point by riding horses. She got her first horse, Trusty, when she was six, and has been riding, feeding and loving a variety of breeds ever since. Now Trusty is 30 years old, and Bryant continues to care for him.
“A horse will teach you more than a human can in my opinion,” she said.
Her dedication has not come without cost, however. The company’s six working horses burn through money fast.
“They cost me about $800 a month to feed,” Bryant said. “That doesn’t include their vetting and their farrier. I mean, the chiropractor and the acupuncturist aren’t really needed, but I just want my horses to have the absolute best that money can buy. They’re the ones earning the money so they should get it. Everything they earn goes back to them.”
Bryant said that she wouldn’t be able to care for her horses were it not for the revenue from her business, which has been going strong for five years.
“I work at Erlanger Monday through Thursday to pay my bills, and then I do the carriage horses so that I can have horses,” she said. “They help me pay for them.”
Ultimately, Chattanooga Carriage Company exists as much for Bryant and her horses as it does for her customers.
And these are no ordinary horses. With two Percherons, two Clydesdales, and one Shire, as of October 2020, the Chattanooga Carriage Company has some of the largest and rarest horse breeds in the world.
“They were bred to be war horses,” Bryant said. “That was what their initial purpose was by King Henry VIII. He wanted a war horse. He wanted something strong, something hard to bring down, so thus the Percheron was basically born.”
Today, the idea of a war horse has become just as antiquated as the concept of a horse-drawn carriage.
Employment levels are at an all-time low for the types of horses that Bryant picks up.
“They were built to plow fields,” she said. “Well, now we have tractors for that. They keep losing their jobs.”
Bryant said that larger breeds like Clydesdales and Shires are dying off due to their high maintenance costs and limited uses. With some of her horses standing at nearly 7 feet tall, and weighing as much as 2000 pounds, they aren’t exactly easy to take on trails.
It’s unfortunate, then, that one of their main occupations, pulling carriages, has come under criticism.
“A lot of people don’t like the carriages,” Bryant said. “They think that it’s cruel, but they don’t understand that there’s nothing cruel about it. It doesn’t hurt them in any shape, form or fashion.”
Due to Bryant’s tight schedule, she needs to work them hard to maintain their muscle mass. They spend most of their time basking in sunny pastures, so their three days of work in the city each week make for crucial exercise.
Something the critics don’t seem to realize, she said, is that when these horses lose their jobs, their situations often get worse.
“Like everybody, we age and we retire,” Bryant said. “Horses don’t retire. Unfortunately, some people send them off to slaughter, and they become dog food.”
In her lifelong search to mutually enrich the lives of horses and humans, Bryant has aspirations that go beyond the Chattanooga Carriage Company.
She has dabbled in non-profit work before, taking her horses to nursing homes and hospitals, but Bryant said she wants to build something more organized around the idea of spreading equine joy to the places that need it most.
This is where her new non-profit organization, Chattanooga Clydesdales, comes into play. With a new Clydesdale horse on the way, Bryant hopes to get it up and running in the coming months.
Calling them by name and banging on her grain bucket, Bryant signaled that it was time to eat. Moments later, four of her biggest horses crested the grassy hill, sending shockwaves through the earth as they came.
Just then, as she started to explain what she meant when she said that horses can teach some things better than humans, the thundering parade interrupted her sentence when they all stopped to greet her. She didn’t need to finish her explanation.