Horsing Around

A typical Saturday evening in winter will find Tim Wilkins, owner of the Historic White Horse Inn in Metamora, in front of his restaurant tending a small bonfire. A group of bundled-up restaurant patrons will gather around the flames, while Wilkins peeks into their hot-chocolate mugs, making sure they’ve got enough.

The winter revelers await the evening’s pièce de résistance — a sleigh ride around one of Lapeer County’s most quaint villages. In preparation for the bracing ride, they’ve been fortified by a hearty meal at the 160-year-old establishment (Michigan’s oldest continually running restaurant). Very shortly, they will slide into seats aboard a horse-drawn sleigh.

Two sleighs (with tiny wheels near the runners that allow them to safely navigate streets) hold four average-size passengers each, says Wilkins, a resident of Leonard who has been offering the rides for eight years. For sleigh “purists,” who may prefer runners to wheels, there are sleighs with runners that can accommodate up to 15 passengers. They glide along an old railroad track nearby.

“Both options get more popular every year,” Wilkins says. “People start calling as soon as the first snow hits.” The restaurant owner partners with Pinecrest Percherons and Carriage Service in nearby Lapeer.

“It’s amazing to watch the passengers before and after the rides,” he says. “When they first get on, it’s like ‘OK, well, this should be fun.’ But when they get off, it’s ‘Wow, that was fantastic!’ ”

Snuggled under a blanket, sipping a hot beverage, and basking in Michigan’s winter wonderland, riders experience a sense of calm mixed with anticipation and delight. With steaming breath and stamping hooves, the sleigh’s leaders quietly await their commands.

“Giddy-up!” and you’re off for a fresh-air affair. Away from the clatter of contemporary life, senses awaken as the sleigh swishes through powdery snow. Horses pant, trot, and heave along, their harness bells jingling in the quiet country air.

The White Horse Inn is one of several Michigan restaurants, farms, and resorts that offer sleigh rides throughout the winter. Sleigh styles range from cozy two-seaters to multi-passenger rides. Their routes also differ, from charming village streets to rural countryside.

“People return for sleigh rides every year, as a family tradition,” says Annette Bell, who offers excursions at her Har-lyn Ridge farm in Deford in the Thumb of Michigan’s mitten. “It’s awesome to feel the sleigh glide over the dips and hills in the field and woods,” she says. “There are hills and turns, and in some spots, the sleigh just fits.”

Bell and her husband, Harvey, introduce guests to Belgian draft horses Misty, Janice, Rosie, and Lauren. That team is expanding; the Bells are expecting foals this spring from Janice and Misty.

Another countryside favorite for dashing through the snow is Wild West Ranch in Allegan.

“We’re surrounded by state land, so you’re in woods, open fields, a little wetland; it’s great,” says co-owner Jan West. She and her husband, Jim, have been offering 40-minute sleigh rides (“longer than that and you get cold,” Jan says) for the past few years. Her sleigh carries three passengers, but the romantic ride for two is the most popular. “We even had someone propose on a sleigh ride,” Jan says. “Of course, she said ‘yes.’ ”

Wild West Ranch is prepared for all types of weather and often caters to guests from nearby inns. “If you don’t like the cold, or it’s raining, go for our Amish buggy, which has a roof — and we can put a heater in it, as well,” Jan says. If the heater doesn’t warm you, homemade quilts, stitched by Jan and her daughters, will.

Resort-style outings also make for memorable times. “No one in our group will ever forget our Zhivago weekend at Garland Resort,” says Toni Grinnan, of Bingham Farms. “It’s a winter memory that makes us all smile,” she says of the northern Michigan getaway. The special package includes a gourmet five-course meal at the resort’s romantic Bridge Inn. Grinnan, a lawyer, and several of her colleagues who call themselves the “Slippery Slopers,” have taken several annual cross-country ski trips that included Garland’s Zhivago Night.

“The complete silence of the woods at night — just the sound of the horses’ hooves was wonderful,” Grinnan says. “And the amazing number of stars visible from the northern woods, along with the fabulous food and drink at the end of the trail … all great memories.”

Artist Chris Unwin also can attest to the memory-making aspect of horse-drawn outings. Rummaging through a pile of 1940s photographs at her West Bloomfield Township home, Unwin pauses to study one image for several minutes. The black-and-white snapshot shows Unwin, her cousin, and her aunt enjoying a sleigh ride on Detroit’s Belle Isle. “I might use it as a Christmas card sometime,” she says. “Sleigh rides are delightfully old-fashioned.”

The sleigh-ride tradition glides on over Michigan’s hills, dales, and lanes. “Sleigh rides tap our imaginations,” says the White Horse Inn’s Wilkins, as he prepares for a night of rides back at his Metamora restaurant. “When people experience one, they are stepping out of their world. With all the stuff and all the craziness going on in our lives, they provide a little bit of magic.”

Troy-based freelance writer Swoyer has experienced two Michigan sleigh rides — one at Zhivago Night at Lewiston’s Garland Resort and the other at Thunder Bay Resort in Hillman.

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