Island Life (Part I)

Albion senior Emily Galka is spending her third summer working as a riding trail guide at Cindy’s Riding Stable on Mackinac Island, the famed vehicle-free vacation hub in northern Michigan. (Famously, Somewhere in Time starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour was filmed there.) Needless to say, an island powered entirely by horses is paradise for this hunt seat team member! She’s written two blog entries about her experiences; in Part I, she outlines daily life on the island and the experiences she’s had over the past few summers. In Part II, she’ll introduce readers to her four-legged coworker, Big Lisa.

I have worked on Mackinac Island at Cindy’s Riding Stable every summer I’ve been in college. In my time here, I’ve found a second home at “The Big House” with the Gough Family and Cindy’s crew, mastered 80 miles of trails, and fallen in love with a Percheron. (More on that later).

My parents first brought me to Mackinac Island when I was four months old. It was our first family vacation and my first time around horses. I believe that was when my love for horses began because my mom told me that as soon as I could talk, I was asking about horses and if we could get one.

Mackinac 1

My first trip to Mackinac Island was at four months and I’ve spent the last three summers there.

By age seven, my mom realized my love for horses was not going away, so she enrolled me in hunt seat riding lessons at Talamar Morgan Farm, a barn just down the road from our house. As I became more experienced, in addition to riding lessons, I was allowed to come and ride whenever I wanted – even if that meant taking a horse out on a trail ride for several hours with friends or by myself. As a teenager, my riding instructor would coordinate trail rides across Michigan that took about a week of camping and riding 25-30 miles per day. It was during one of those week long trail rides that I met Isaac, a fellow rider whose father had once worked on Mackinac Island as a trail guide at Jack’s Livery Stable.

The years passed by and I kept riding at Talamar, even getting a little bit of show experience to prepare for the equestrian team I hoped to try out for in college. Though sad to leave the horses I grew up with, I was ready to move on to Albion and it was about halfway through my freshman year when I decided to look into jobs for the summer. Isaac had worked the previous summer on Mackinac Island as a trail guide at the same company his dad worked for and it sounded like a job I could enjoy, so I asked him about it and decided it was worth a try. I was interviewed in May and by June 2014, I started work at Cindy’s Riding Stable.

Galka 2

Leading out a group aboard Big Lisa.

Cindy’s is a family company run by the Gough family. They also own Jack’s Livery Stable, which has saddle horses and drive-yourself carriages. Most of the crew are relatives of the Gough’s (including their three grown children) and family friends. Each year they hire a few summer workers, but many are returning crew members so in 2014 I was the only Cindy’s guide who had never worked at the stable before.

At Cindy’s there are 37 horses: 31 are rentals and six are guide horses. A lot of the same rentals come back to work each year, but there are always some who retire and we try out replacements. Every day of the season, Cindy’s crew (six guides and the barn man) arrive at the barn at 7:00 a.m. to clean stalls, brush, bathe, and saddle all 37 horses before 9:00 a.m. because by 9:00 (and sometimes earlier), we have customers at the door who want to ride. Each rider fills out a questionnaire to help the person who rents the horses get a feel for the rider’s ability in order to match them up with a horse. We then bring the horses to the side yard, help the riders mount, and give them a general overview on how to stop and steer. Everyone is escorted out of town by a guide with group sizes ranging from one to a dozen horses and once we are out of town, the guide can either stay with the riders the entire time or give them directions so they can finish on their own.

On a busy day in the summer, a guide may go out for four or five trips, meaning we are riding for four or more hours per day, five days a week. We stay open until 6:00, which means if the last group goes for an hour, we will be back by 7:00 to untack and feed the horses. Working as a trail guide may look easy, but it is very draining to manage people on horses in traffic who usually have no idea what they are doing. When I come home after work, I eat, shower, and go straight to bed. In addition to riding ability, guides need to be prepared for a lot of barn work and physical labor, have people skills, and be prepared to handle mishaps calmly and effectively. Yes, the tourists do fall off on occasion – and so do we! My first day at Cindy’s, I was told to ride one of the new horses to test it out before we rented it. I walked her into the yard, put one foot in the stirrup and the mare reared up and flew backwards. After her fit, I calmly grabbed the reins, climbed back on, and followed the rest of the group up the road; the crew later told me that it was at this moment they knew I would fit in.

I’ve been here every summer since. Now I feel at home here and wouldn’t spend my summers any other way .

Check back soon for the second installment of Emily’s tale of life on Mackinac Island, which outlines how she met Percheron cross Big Lisa – a partnership for the ages and one that she hopes to continue beyond summer.


4 thoughts on “Island Life (Part I)

  1. I also worked at the stable as a guide on horseback a long time ago when it was Chicago Riding Stable and Bob Bailey owned it. The guides used the Morgans for their guide work and very occasionally, an experienced tourist was allowed to rent one. I did eventually see my dream come true by buying Mackinac Queen several years after Mr Bailey sold the stable and horses.

  2. Pingback: Island Life (Part II) | Briton Bits (and Saddles and Reins…)

  3. Pingback: Made it! | Briton Bits (and Saddles and Reins…)

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