When you’re watching a Mardi Gras parade, what gets you most excited? The floats? The throws? The marching bands? One New Orleans native has loved Carnival since she was a little girl, but not for any of these reasons. She loves it for the horses.
Over at Cascade Stables horses are busy getting "shoed" by their blacksmiths, a brief, yet apparently uncomfortable process. It is one of a few necessary steps the staff goes through in preparing their horses for Mardi Gras season. Assistant trainer Scooter Sherrik explains.
"First things first, we take care of their feet," Sherrik says. "The blacksmith here goes through and shoes all the horses. We put barium shoes so they don’t slip on the concrete."
Sherrik says they clip off hair so the horses are more comfortable. "Then we bathe them, ride them, and they're good to go."
Cascade Stables is one of the top 20 show stables in the country. For most of the year, the focus is trail rides, lessons, and attending and hosting horse shows. But for one month out of the year, as is the case for most people and places in this town, the usual routine is put on hold. Especially for Barbe Smith, Scooter’s mom. She runs Cascade Stables.
"We will put probably 300 horses collectively on the street Mardi Gras, we do all the parades," she says. Smith has been connected to the institution before it was in Audubon Park, and before she owned the place.
"I started riding at Audubon stables when I was six years old — took lessons here for years — and I remember standing on the streets at Mardi Gras not really caring about the beads or riders, but I knew every horse that came through that parade," she says. "And that was really cool, and its just a long-lasting tradition. My father put me in business in 1981 when we bid on the stables, and we’ve just held the tradition."
Smith provides all the horses for every old line parade, from Babylon to Chaos to Hermes to Rex, as well as a few new parades like Bacchus and Endymion. Some parades need over 30 horses, which is why sometimes Smith calls in backup.
"Every year we buy approximately 20 horses for Mardi Gras, some of which have been rescued, and we try to give 'em good homes after Mardi Gras," she says. "We even have six or seven that I shop to show stables around the country; they use them for lessons all year, and then send them back for the week of Mardi Gras. And then I send 'em back. We’ve got horses in Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, all over."
Testing which horses to use for the parades, and which ones to keep after the festivities, is easy. Put a young rider on the horse and see what happens. Well not really… but kind of.
"Its really fun I was watching some kids ride today, and they’re all riding Mardi Gras horses" says Smith. "We give our lesson kids all the new horses to ride: they get familiar with them, they take care of them and brush them and fall in love with them, because we always keep three or four or five of them as our lesson horses. So they’re all kind of vying for that position."
Though the tradition of krewe Lieutenants and Officers riding horses is a long one, today most of these people don’t have any experience riding horses at all, except for their one parade. That’s why each horse has a walker, or groom, to accompany the often-inexperienced royal rider. Barbe’s son Scooter takes on this task.
"We put a walker with every horse that goes in the parade, no matter what," he says. "I usually do the Captain of Rex, because its Rex, and it’s the main guy, so you gotta have somebody trustworthy for that. I walk his horse, and if he needs me to do anything I’m there to do it for him."
But there are still concerns that cause Barbe to bring along backup horses, in case one of them gets spooked in some way and needs to be pulled from the parade and replaced.
"We always worry about the crowd, we worry about guys falling off and getting hurt, but it’s a risk," she says. "They’ve outlawed the snap and pops this year, those things they throw in front of the horses, thank God! So that will help us greatly, because that will get guys thrown, the drum beats coming out of nowhere when the horses don’t see it coming, that can be kinda scary... but for the most part the horses do really really well."
They all do well, but of course there has to be a star. The Captain’s horse is the horse that’s up at the front of each parade. It’s always a white horse, and for the past 16 years it’s been Cascade Stables’ General de Gaulle. But he just died this year. "We all took it pretty badly" says Barbe. "He had been the Captain's horse all these years... we just bought a new horse and named him Mystic. He’s from Shelbyville, Tennessee, and this is going be his first year as the lead. So he’s got some big shoes to step into, and we’re hoping he does good."
But some things will remain the same. After the horses are bathed, clipped and shoed, there’s one final step that is essential in order to roll: Looking pretty.
"We paint their feet gold, we French braid their tails with gold ribbons, we clean the saddles and bridles," smith says. "It's just something I came up with when I started doing Mardi Gras, and we try to make a great presentation, and the gold feet are just something special. A lot of people on the street comment on how beautiful they are, and the braids are something I developed and something we’ve always done."
So now you know what to look for when you’re out on the parade route, and what it took that horse, and it’s staff, to get there.
This story has been revised to reflect the following clarification:
This story originally referred to horses being secured by all four limbs while being shod. While horses are secured during the shoeing process, they are not tied by all four limbs at the same time.