The “Horse is King” on Mackinac Island, a place where vacationers’ only means of transportation are bikes, rollerblades, horseback or carriage rides. Known specifically for its no-motorized-vehicle policy, this Northern Michigan vacation spot is a blast from the past with plenty of horse-themed travel ideas: go for a ride through the streets in a horse and buggy, or hop on the saddle and ride around the island. You can celebrate the horses on Mackinac Island at the Festival of the Horse, a Northern Michigan festival that happens every August. Read on to learn more about the history of the horses on Mackinac Island.

History of Horses on Mackinac Island

Horses first arrived on Mackinac island when they were used to haul Fort Mackinac from the mainland, across the ice, and over to the island in the 1700’s. In the 1800’s horses started to be given as gifts to families on the island and by the 1850’s businesses began to use the horses as means of transporting goods. From the 1870’s to 1880’s the horses were in high demand and continued to stay on the island year-round—unlike today where the horses are shipped off the island come winter. With railroads beginning to reach the island, and hotels being built in 1885 (The Grand Hotel being built in 1887) a new breed of people had arrived: sightseers.

The ban of automobiles on the island in 1901 resulted in the creation of horse and buggy sightseeing rides. After WWII ended, Stewart Woodfill, owner of the Grand Hotel, began the promotion “Horse is King,” and then in 1948 Mackinac Island Carriage Tours was formally established. With a surge of cottagers with children arriving on the island, the horse industry began to boom.

From the 1970’s on the industry continued to grow with the Mackinac Island Horse Show starting in 1970.  Both the summer riding program and the Mackinac Island Horseman association were established in 1988.

How Do Horses Get to the Island?

A prevalent misconception about the horses on Mackinac Island is that they are permanent residents. In fact, many of the horses are transported off the island come winter and taken to stables within the Upper and Lower Peninsula of Michigan. Come spring, the commercial horses are transported by ferry back to the island just a few weeks before the season begins. As tourist traffic grows, so too does the number of horses kept on the island at stables like Cindy’s Riding Stable.

The private horses—the ones you can find at the stables at the Grand Hotel or on the West Bluff—will arrive at different times. In days gone by, private horses traveled to the island with their owners as the cottages they resided in were “seasonal,” with that season starting much later than when the island opens today. The Grand Hotel’s horses often spend their winters in Minnesota or Florida, and are brought back to Mackinac Island a few weeks before the hotel opens for the season. Other horses are brought up as needed.

Spend Time with the Horses on the Island

There are many places you can find horses on Mackinac Island:

  • Jack’s Livery Stable: Open until mid-October, Jack’s Livery Stable offers family horse and buggy rides around the Mackinac Island State Park that puts you in the reins. After a quick assessment of your level of experience, the horse professionals will provide you with a map of the island and careful driving instructions. Horseback rides are also available.
  • Mackinac Island Carriage Tours: Take a guided carriage tour across Mackinac Island; book your tour at their kiosk on Main St. across from the ferry docks.  Standard tours last about 2 hours, although special routes can be arranged.
  • Cindy’s Riding Stable: Sister company to Jack’s Livery Stable, Cindy’s offers affordable horse back riding trips that allow you to sight-see at your own pace around the island. The stable maintains about 30 horses a year that will be perfectly matched to each riders skill level.
  • Grand Hotel Horse and Carriage Tours: Take a group ride around the Island and learn about the history of Mackinac. Or opt for a private tour with your own itinerary. Visit the new Grand Hotel stables that house twelve resident horses and take a look at some of the history of the horse on Mackinac.
  • Festival of the Horse: Visit the festival that celebrate the horse as King of the Island. Watch a horse show, take the kids for a pony ride or go for a carriage ride

More Mackinac Island

Article contributors: Kelly Brown
Originally published June 9, 2014

Photo(s) by Dave Weidner