First sign of spring on Mackinac Island: Horses returning!

Horses have a long history on Mackinac Island and horses play a variety of roles on Mackinac Island. In fact, horses are probably one of the first things that come to mind when thinking of Mackinac Island!

Horses also happen to be one of the first signs of spring returning to Mackinac Island.

We caught up with Mackinac Island Carriage Tours, Gough Carriages, Jack’s Livery Stable, and Cindy’s Riding Stable to learn more about where their horses go in the winter and what their return looks like in the spring.

Horses from Mackinac Island roam around a farm in Michigan's Upper Peninsula during the winter


  • Where are Mackinac Island horses during the winter? Most horses live in Pickford, Mich. in the Upper Peninsula during the winter season.


  • Why do the horses leave Mackinac Island in the winter? It’s easier to bring the horses to the feed than to bring the feed to them. This is especially important when considering the harsh winters on Mackinac Island. The horses have an abundance of acreage at the farm in Pickford allowing them to run and roam free during their winter break.


  • How do Mackinac Island horses get to their winter home? After Labor Day, the tourism season starts to wind down and thus begins the process of getting the horses off Mackinac Island. The horses are walked to the boat dock where they board a boat for the mainland and then ride in trailers to the farms in Pickford.


  • How many horses stay on Mackinac Island during the winter? Between November and March, there are generally 16 to 18 horses on the island. These horses are with Mackinac Island Carriage Tours and make up the dray teams, which are horse-drawn, flat-bed wagons used for transporting freight, as well as taxi teams that transport residents and visitors alike.

What Mackinac Island is like in the winter

A horse handler walks a group of four horses off the boat and along the dock while returning to Mackinac Island in the spring


  • When do the horses come back to Mackinac Island? It always feels like the start of a new season when the horses come back in mid- to late April. Only a fraction of the horses are on Mackinac Island when the season starts in May, and by the middle or end of June the teams are fully stocked. Safety is the #1 priority, so new horses are introduced to Mackinac Island slowly as they’re prepped for a Mackinac Island temperament with a few test runs.


  • How many horses come to Mackinac Island for the travel season? More than 500 horses are on Mackinac Island during peak season. Mackinac Island Carriage Tours has the largest working draft horse herd in the world and during peak season has between 350 and 400 draft horses. Cindy’s Riding Stable has about three dozen saddle horses with a full barn. Jack’s Livery and Gough Carriages have similar numbers of horses as well.


  • Who is involved in getting the horses to Mackinac Island? The Mackinac Island Carriage Tours barn crew for both the mainland and the island is roughly 10 to 15 people. There are barn people that work solely on the mainland in Pickford and barn people that work solely on Mackinac Island. For Gough Carriages, Jack’s Livery Stable, and Cindy’s Riding Stable it is the truck drivers who get the horses from the field to the ferry and their employees who get them off the boat and to the barns. One of the most important jobs in the process is the farrier, who makes sure all the horses get their shoes!


  • What does getting the horses to Mackinac Island look like? The process of bringing the horses from Pickford back to Mackinac Island is similar to getting them off the island in the winter. For Mackinac Island Carriage Tours, the annual walking of their horses up Grand Hotel is known as their “corporate fitness program.”

10 questions about horses on Mackinac Island

Horse-drawn carriage rides on Mackinac Island is one of the most popular things to do for visitors.


  • What kind of horses are on Mackinac Island? There are several different breeds of horses on Mackinac Island. The carriage horses can be Percheron, Standardbred, and Belgian. The saddle horses are mostly Quarter horses, Morgans, Appaloosas, Paints, or a mix of multiple breeds.


  • What do Mackinac Island horses do? Each horse has a specific job to fill. Most horses on Mackinac Island are pulling carriages for transporting people, giving tours, and moving freight or anything a bike can’t haul. Out of the 500-plus horses on Mackinac Island, only about 70 are saddle horses that are available for rent or are privately owned.


  • How much do the horses work on Mackinac Island? In a typical workday, carriage horses work anywhere from 6 to 8 hours and saddle horses range from 2 to 6 hours a day.


  • Who cares for the horses on Mackinac Island? It takes a team of people to care for the horses on Mackinac Island. In addition to the staff at the barns, there are five rotating veterinarians, as well as certified farriers who focus on horse shoes and hoof care.

How much it costs to ride horses on Mackinac Island

Mackinac Island is a unique and special place because of the horses and their history on the island. Each company takes great pride in the care and well-being of their horses. The next time you visit, be sure to explore one of the fun horse activities on Mackinac Island for an experience you won’t forget!


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