Several decades ago, a group of Mardi Gras krewe members gathered one night near some stables. Accompanied by flambeau carriers and a few musicians, they proceeded to bang on kettles and yell while a group of waiting horses stood somberly watching with their grooms. “We just wanted to be sure they were parade -ready,” one krewe member remembered. “It was the first time we were renting from that stable.”
Each year the lieutenants or officers of various parading Mardi Gras krewes will mount up to parade, masked, through the daytime and nighttime streets of New Orleans (and outside-the-city parade routes).
“Horses are great sports. They will do anything you ask,” commented one Mardi Gras veteran masked rider, who owns a horse but doesn’t bring it to parades. He admitted that the one spot on the Uptown parade route at which he always has the assigned groom hold the lead rope (rather than guiding the horse himself) is underneath the expressway at Lee Circle. “That noise overhead can really spook a horse.” And, in another nod to safety in the old-line krewes, “if you ride, you’re discouraged from carrying throws.”
The Hermes parade has at least one rider who’s astride his own horse, and there have been others with their own mounts through the years, but the krewes rent horses for the majority of riders. A major supplier is Barbe Smith’s Cascade Stables in Audubon Park.
“We buy a lot of horses and bring them in and get them healthy. After Mardi Gras we sell some of them to really good homes, and we keep some to be our school horses,” Smith says. The Rex Parade alone uses 35 horses, and some nights Cascade supplies horses (each with a groom) to more than one parade.
“The Captain will ride a white horse, General de Gaulle,” Smith says. For safety, “we use shoes with borium (tungsten carbide) on the bottom, and that keeps them from slipping, even if it’s raining.”
Another stable supplies the seven horses used by the Krewe of Sparta, and the horses ridden by the Captain and his boy “shadow” are both white. Besides the krewe members who ride, parades will often have groups of riders, “posses” or riding clubs who are part of the procession. The huge Budweiser Clydesdales will be represented in several parades, with eight horses pulling the traditional beer wagon.
The Krewes of Sparta, Zeus and Babylon also make use of mules in their parades.
In Sparta, “the King’s float and our signature float are pulled by mules,” says the Captain. Mid-City Carriages provides those mules.
Louis Charbonnet of Mid-City says that their 35 mules and 15 horses are housed in stables right off North Claiborne Avenue near the Municipal Auditorium. The carriage company provides a driver for each vehicle the mules pull, and also sends out grooms for the animals. “If we can, we send a vehicle along with them, a pooper-scooper, but sometimes they don’t want our truck right behind a float,” says Charbonnet.
In earlier years New Orleans used mules that ordinarily pulled garbage trucks to pull floats during Mardi Gras. Now, mules are only used sparingly, but Charbonnet still believes in mule power. “They are physically fit, and they work every day. Working is better than standing around the stable, so they enjoy working.”
“If mules are being mistreated, if the harness is on wrong, they’ll let you know,” he says. “And when they’re ready to go home, they’ll tell you. You better head to the barn!” Charbonnet’s mules regularly pull tourist carriages, and they will pull carriages in a French Quarter parade on Bacchus Sunday. When pulling floats in a parade, they’ll be wearing a white cloth covering.
While masked parade riders are ceremonial these days, the New Orleans Police Department maintains a mounted division year-round. An officer on horseback can see above crowds and can get places more quickly than on foot, and all that additional height and bulk can be intimidating to wrongdoers. Plus, policemen on horseback are always crowd-pleasers, and that makes for good public relations.
New Orleans Police Commander Jeffery Walls will be spending Mardi Gras riding Dakota, a female Percheron-cross, a large horse well-suited to parade season. The police horses will be working overtime during Mardi Gras, too, but they’ll get an extra holiday after the season.
Some police officers are full-time riders and some ride on a part-time basis, but all get regular training. “Before any special events, we go out and do things with the horses. They all have their own personalities. Some are scared of flags, different moving things, noise, so we try to desensitize them,” Walls says. The horses have a rubber-type shoe and some of them are fitted with earplugs.
Mounted policemen have also gone through crowd-control training and they’re ready for any Mardi Gras shenanigans. But don’t even think about hurting their horses.
As Commander Walls cautions: “They hit a horse, they go to jail.”
So when you hear hoof beats at Mardi Gras, look and smile – but don’t touch!
Anyone looking for a dependable, experienced mount can find one behind the gates of Angola State Prison. An annual October horse auction is held by Stemmans Inc. Horse Sales. As Charlotte Stemmans-Clavier says, Angola horses are good buys for riding enthusiasts because “they’re still using horses in agriculture. Horses are pulling the plows and the cultivators; they still ride horses for work.” Horses are also bred at Angola. Percherons are large, heavily muscled horses, and the offspring of a Percheron and a Thoroughbred horse is especially prized for police work. All government agencies buy directly.