December 15, 2013

Fairfield couple keeps horse-drawn sleigh-riding tradition alive

As horses have lost their prominence as a transportation option, a Christmas tradition is getting more difficult to find.

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling mhhetling@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

FAIRFIELD — Steve Lemieux is a man who works with stone and plays with horses.

click image to enlarge

OVER HILL AND DALE: Steve Lemieux, his horses and dogs get some exercise in a sleigh at his farm in Fairfield.

Staff photo by David Leaming

click image to enlarge

GIDDY-UP: Steve Lemieux and his horses Hector and Tinoir go for a sleigh ride in a field at his home in Fairfield recently.

Staff photo by David Leaming

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His passion for a rare breed of horse has led him to start a business based on the old-school winter experience of riding through the woods in a two-horse open sleigh, a cultural touchstone that a handful of writers from the 1800s have linked inextricably to Christmas.

For 26 years, Lemieux has hauled rock as a mason, decades of outdoor toil that have contributed to his ruddy complexion and powerful frame.

“In masonry, everything is heavy,” he said from his home, a 60-acre tract of land with well-groomed horse trails off Covell Road.

But now, with untold tons of stone behind him, the masonry work is beginning to wear on Lemiuex’s 50-year-old body. Tasks that came easily a quarter century ago have begun to hurt.

Lemieux grew up in Quebec, where his father bred Canadians, a type of horse listed as threatened by the Livestock Conservancy, an organization dedicated to saving rare breeds.

Years after he moved to Fairfield, he was joined by Isabelle Lemieux, who came from Quebec shortly before their marriage.

They speak French in the household.

“I speak French with an English accent. She speaks English with a French accent,” he said. “We’re opposites.”

Lemieux drives his horses every day, sometimes at night, in sun, snow, or rain.

“My neighbors think I’m crazy, out there driving in a snowstorm,” he said.

“Any time,” Isabelle Lemieux, said, laughing. “Any time — you cannot imagine!”

He gets his mail on horseback. He even hunts deer from the back of his horse and says the horse’s body language indicates the presence of deer long before he sees them.

Two years ago, Lemieux decided to capitalize on his horsemanship skills and began Maine Horse Drawn Services, a business based on his ability to drive horses pulling sleighs, wedding carriages and wagons.

In modern times, with cars having long ago supplanted the role horses play in daily transportation needs, horse driving skills are rare and getting rarer.

The number of horses and ponies in Maine is declining, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which showed a 5 percent decrease from about 12,700 horses in Maine in 2002 to about 12,100 in 2007, the most recent year on record.

Lemieux said most of those horses are trained to be ridden, not driven, Lemieux said.

“It’s become a lost art,” he said.

When the Lemieuxes began offering winter sleigh rides, it revived a tradition that has been in short supply in central Maine. Last year, they gave 31 rides to 150 people.

One was for Susan Burke, of Vassalboro, her husband Joseph and a group of more than a dozen members of Gardiner Nazarene Church. Burke described being warm and cozy, wrapped in blankets and enjoying the thrill of sliding quietly over the ground, sheltered from the worst of the wind by the thick woods.

“It was beautiful and quiet,” Burke said.

The trip was prompted when one church member, 90-year-old Dottie Mead, wrote a bucket list that included a winter sleigh ride like the ones she had enjoyed as a young girl.

Burke said it was an experience she will always remember. But it’s also an experience that, as a group, Mainers have all but forgotten.

Sleighriding tradition

Central Maine used to be at the center of a vibrant horse-drawn sleigh-riding scene, but it’s been more than 100 years since the activity was a necessary and practical means of travel.

Nancy Porter, a Farmington historian, said the town used to be home to 15 or 16 sleigh-makers. Sleighs were critical to transportation in the winter, she said.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

HITCHING UP: Steve Lemieux hitches up his horses Hector, left, and Tinoir at his farm in Fairfield. Lemieux and his wife, Isabelle, are offering horse drawn sleigh rides around their 60-acre farm.

Staff photo by David Leaming

  


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