FAIRFIELD — Steve Lemieux is a man who works with stone and plays with horses.
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 a handful of writers from the 1800s linked inextricably to Christmas.
For 26 years, Lemieux has hauled rock as a mason, decades of outdoor toil that have contributed to his powerful frame.
“In masonry, everything is heavy,” he said from his home on 60 acres that include well-groomed horse trails.
But now the masonry work is beginning to wear on Lemiuex’s 50-year-old body. Tasks that once came easily 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.
He drives his horses every day, sometimes at night, in sun, snow or rain. He even hunts deer from the back of a 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.
“It’s become a lost art,” he said.
When Lemieux and his wife Isabelle 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.
FULFILLING A WISH
One was for Susan Burke of Vassalboro, her husband Joseph and 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.
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 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.
“Once the ground was frozen and the ground was covered, people could then start moving around,” she said. “And they did.”
The activity became identified as a wholesome Christmas activity largely because it was prominently featured in writings and songs by New England writers from that era.
In his essay, “Christmas in Maine,” famed Brunswick writer Robert P.T. Coffin described his idyllic Christmases as a boy in the late 1800s on his family farm. During a sleigh ride, he wrote, “you ought to be wrapped in a buffalo robe to your nose, and be sitting in a family pung, and have your breath trailing along with you as you slide over the dry, whistling snow.”
Sleighriding is also the focus of the song “Over the River and Through the Woods,” written by Lydia Maria Childs and first published in 1844, and “Jingle Bells,” written by James Lord Pierpoint and first published in 1857.
Both Childs and Pierpoint were born in Medford, Mass., and both of the songs were originally associated with Thanksgiving, not Christmas.
Even though sleighriding was once common at Thanksgiving time in New England, warmer winters have limited it to a shrinking slice of the year.
Lemieux said the horses, like snowmobiles, need enough snow on the ground to pack and form a thick layer that won’t break easily.
“You have to have 10 times more horsemanship skill to drive a horse than you do to ride a horse,” Lemieux said.
Unlike in riding, when an unexpected sidestep is usually nothing more than an annoyance, driving requires constant concentration and precision.
“When you’re driving, if you lose control of your horse, with a rider and a sleigh behind you, you end up with a wreck,” he said.
The only way to meet the demands of driving horses, Lemieux said, is to have a strong ongoing relationship between horse and driver.
“To have a good horse, you have to hitch him up three or four times a week,” he said.
There are a handful of people who also offer horse-drawn sleigh rides to the public. Northern Heights Farm in Waterford, Hideaway Farm in Topsham, Rockin’ Horse Stables in Kennebunkport and High View Farm in Harrison offer private sleigh rides and advertise minimum group charges of between $50 and $100. Others, including Chase Farms in Wells and Meadow Creek Farm in Sumner, offer sleigh rides but don’t have prices listed on their websites.
The Lemieuxes charge $10 for adults and $5 for children, with a two-person minimum.
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be contacted at 861-9287 or at: