Horse play: Business offers different view of Lake Geneva
The three mares have become a familiar sight in the lakeshore community, leading visitors on peaceful strolls through the city's most historic and scenic areas.
In an age powered by combustion engines, they've shown there's still a special place for horse-pulled carriages—a trend some believe won't end anytime soon.
"I think it's nostalgia, especially with the older generation because they're a little closer to it not growing up within the technology age," said Jessica Clapper, a UW-Rock County student and Lake Geneva native.
Clapper is driving one of two carriages for Field Stone Farm Carriage & Pony this summer.
"I also think it's something of a fairly tale," she said. "This is something little girls see all the time, the whole Cinderella thing, and it's not something you see everyday. Everybody can go on a boat and get a Jet Ski, and this is something different."
Caroline Ausman of Burlington started the company about eight years ago. She led carriage rides through the streets of Chicago for nearly 10 years before leaving the city to start her own business.
That venture could have taken her anywhere, but Lake Geneva carries a healthy reputation in the Windy City. One day after moving to Wisconsin, she visited the quaint community during its annual Winterfest celebration.
"I couldn't believe all the people there at the time and how beautiful the area was," Ausman said. "That was sort of my light-bulb moment, my 'a-ha' moment.
"I thought, 'I could do this up here.'"
Ausman said business has been fair, despite an economic downturn that slowed Wisconsin tourism during the last several years. She started with just one carriage but added another when rides became more popular than expected.
Now the company operates seven days a week Memorial Day through Labor Day. Carriages also carry customers on Valentines Day, through Christmas and during spring break, she said.
Carriages take passengers along the lakefront into downtown before reaching the city's historic Maple Park District. The quiet neighborhood includes homes built as early as the 1840s.
Ausman said a wide variety of people take the tour. Some make marriage proposals and others celebrate anniversaries. The company also gets family trips or groups of friends visiting town for the weekend.
"It's kind of nostalgic, and I think there is a romantic compound, too," said Bill Sesser, a carriage driver. "It just seems to strike a chord with people, and kids in particular are fascinated with the horses."
The horses themselves require intense care and preparation before venturing into the streets of Lake Geneva.
Ausman said she owns seven horses, but most are in different stages of training. Horses must be disciplined, and she tries to pair them with the same driver to maintain consistency throughout the tours.
Ausman wakes up each morning about five hours before tours begin to feed the horses, which live on her Burlington farm. They are then loaded on a trailer for a 20-minute ride to Lake Geneva, where they're groomed and harnessed before walking nearly 10 blocks to their post in front of the Riviera.
Tours were canceled for a week in late July when temperatures soared into the high 90s. Horses are quite susceptible to heatstroke, Ausman said.
It's those types of obstacles that make it difficult to maintain a steady income in a business that doesn't operate year-round.
"I made some personal sacrifices to keep my business going, and it's well worth it," Ausman said. "I learned to really save money and budget myself, and it took learning and some mistakes a long the way, but staying with it and not giving up … that's the main thing, not giving up."
Ausman said she has no plans to expand. Her focus now is to keep business coming and wait for the economy to fully recover.
"I like where I'm at right now," she said. "With the economy growing, things will get back on track and we'll stay busy. That's kind of where I'm at."