Saturday, March 8, 2014
FAIRFIELD — Steve Lemieux is a man who works with stone and plays with horses.
Steve Lemieux hitches up his Hector, left, and Tinoir at his farm in Fairfield.
Staff photo by David Leaming
Steve Lemieux and his horses Hector and Tinoir go for a sleigh ride across a field near his home in Fairfield.
David Leaming/Morning Sentinel
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.”
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