Stanley Park: By Horse

Photo: Remy Scalza

OK.  I know you’ve thought about it:  Wouldn’t it be fun to take one of those horse-drawn trollies around Stanley Park?   But for some reason or another, you never get around to it.  A bit touristy?  Possibly.  Too pricey? Well – at $29, adult tickets aren’t exactly cheap.  In any case, earlier in the week, I got tired of the excuses.  I put aside my doubts and took my first trip on a Stanley Park Horse-Drawn Tour.

I’m glad I did.  I learned a lot about Stanley Park and even more about draft horses.  Like this tidbit:  Each of the Tour’s 18 horses consumes up to 25 pounds of grain, 35 pounds of hay and 82 liters of water a day.   And, probably for that reason, they also all wear specially designed horse diapers.

Photo: Remy Scalza

My guide on the trip was Caitlin – a 24-year-old from Vancouver Island who, incredibly, has already been driving and working with horses for 11 years, first in Victoria, later in Ecuador and most recently here in Vancouver.  She knows all the horses in Stanley Park by name, including the two pulling the trolley today.  There’s King: a fine old Belgian draft horse who started out in the logging industry (Yes, they still use horses for logging).  And Howie: a feisty Clydesdale who’s always trying to break into a trot.  Each weighs in at around a ton, with massive haunches designed for hard work.

The tour starts on Park Drive, opposite Coal Harbour.  While Caitlin flicks the reins to keep Howie in check, she offers a running commentary on Vancouver history and the sights around Stanley Park.  I learn about the dark past of Deadman’s Island in Coal Harbour, first an Indian burial ground, later a municipal cemetery and now home to Vancouver’s Naval Reserve, as well as plenty of spiteful ghosts.  We pass the Stanley Park Totem Poles – including the mortuary pole carved by famous Haida artist Bill Reid – and take a sharp left into the woods.  Here, Caitlin points out cedar, hemlock and thick-barked Douglas firs, seared black by fires hundreds of years ago.

Photo: Remy Scalza

We emerge on the other side of the park, facing Burrard Inlet, the Lion’s Gate Bridge and the imposing North Shore Mountains.  Above the clip-clop of horseshoes on asphalt and the rattling of the yoke, Caitlin explains the story behind the Girl in a Wetsuit, a statue perched out in the inlet.  Commissioned in the late ’60s by a Vancouver lawyer, the statue is a knock-off of Copenhagen’s famous Little Mermaid.  A favorite perch for seagulls, the statue hasn’t had a bath since the mid ’90s, when its patron passed on and no one stepped in to keep up maintenance.

But for me, the best part of the trip is observing the horses.  Amazingly, they never spook – not even when giant SUVs go whizzing by or pedestrians on the seawall race up for a quick snapshot.  The horses apparently have no instinct to fear cars or people, though they still have their quirks.  At one point, Howie backpedals and bear’s his teeth at the sight of a bright green dumpster.  Another horse, Jack, reputedly spooks at the sight of wedding dresses (“fear of commitment,” according to Caitlin).

Photo: Remy Scalza

Near the end of the hour-long tour, we pass the stables – right inside Stanley Park – where the horses spend their off hours.  Interestingly, they share space with the steeds belonging to Vancouver’s mounted police.   I ask about the treatment of the animals.  On any given day, a Stanley Park horse will do a maximum of five one-hour tours.  They get a half-hour break in-between trips, not to mention the entire winter off.   Caitlin, who has spent her life around horses, explains that they were bred to do this kind of work and are treated extraordinarily well.

If you’re interested in taking a horse-drawn ride through Stanley Park, you can check out the prices and schedule at the Stanley Park Horse-Drawn Tours website.  Apart from the big, old-fashioned trollies, the company has an entire fleet of vintage wagons which are available for private rental: fancy-looking vis-a-vis coaches, a much loved Cinderella pumpkin coach and even a horse-drawn hearse, should the need ever arise.

Tickets for this and all other Vancouver attractions are available from our Visitor Center.

Has anyone else done a horse-drawn tour through Stanley Park?  Any fond memories or favorite horse tales?

Remy Scalza

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