Dave and Nancy Lively operate a livery service with a mission: to help preserve the only breed of draft horse to originate in the United States.
Their mission began in 1998, when the couple ended a 20-year run as dairy farmers and immediately began to look for another type of livestock to raise on their Bennington, Vermont, farm. Their neighbor raised Percherons and suggested that the couple try draft horses. He loaned them a book called Horse Power, which had a chapter titled “American Cream Draft Horses: The Breed That Didn’t Make It.” The title referred to the fact that American Creams were on their way to becoming extinct.
The breed originated in Iowa around 1905 with the birth of “Old Granny,” a cream-colored draft mare with pink skin and amber eyes. Old Granny passed her coloring on to her foals, along with a stocky build and calm personality. Soon breeders were perpetuating her bloodline. By 1950, the breed was recognized as a standard by the Iowa Department of Agriculture. Unfortunately, that was a dark time for draft horses of all breeds. Most farmers had switched to using tractors, rendering heavy horses virtually obsolete and with little value. They were sent to the kill en masse. The fledgling American Cream population dwindled to a precarious few horses.
Unwilling to let the breed die out altogether, a group of Cream owners got together in 1982 and reopened the breed association’s books. Through the efforts of dedicated breeders, the Cream population has been rebounding. The 701st American Cream to ever be registered was shown at Iowa’s Hamilton County Fair in July 2012. As of this writing, 425 horses are currently registered with the American Cream Draft Horse Association (ACDHA).
The fact that the horses were rare appealed to Dave Lively. He was also attracted to their unique appearance. The breed standard requires that Creams have pink skin, amber eyes and a white mane and tail. Accepted hair colors are light cream, medium cream and dark cream, which looks like palomino but technically is not. Creams also have a distinctive body type. “They’re short-coupled and compact,” Dave says. Mares range from 15 to 16 hh and 1,500 to 1,600 pounds, while stallions are 16 to 16.3 hh and 1,800-plus pounds. The horses are purposely kept to the workhorse conformation, rather than trending toward the hitchy-style popular among other contemporary draft breeds.
Besides their rarity, attractive coloring and manageable size, American Creams have another attribute that appealed to the Livelys: an inner beauty that is expressed in their calm personalities. “We consider them to be the gentlest of the gentle giants,” Dave says. Nancy points out that one of the couple’s main criteria in looking for a horse is a soft eye. “Our stallion had the gentlest look in his eyes, and he passed that on to his offspring,” she says.
After reading about American Creams, Dave saw an opportunity to build a herd and contribute to saving this piece of American history. He contacted Don Johnson, a Cream breeder and the president at that time of the ACDHA. Johnson sent photos of his horses, and Dave liked what he saw. He put a deposit on two unborn foals. When the foals were six months old, Dave and Nancy traveled to Iowa to pick them up. “And then one thing led to another,” Nancy says. “David’s the kind of person who once he gets his teeth into something, he makes a full-bore commitment.”
Part of that commitment included becoming involved with the breed association. Dave and Nancy became members and attended the annual meetings. Nancy became the association’s secretary in 2002, a post she's held ever since.
Happy with their new horses, the couple soon bought three more fillies from a breeder in Minnesota and a stallion from Mississippi. They then had a herd of five fillies and one stallion to begin their breeding program. The plan was to earn retirement income by breeding the horses. “But it didn’t work out,” says Dave, who is now 63 years old. After building their herd to 14 horses, the Livelys realized that there was little money to be made in the breeding business, so they have since reduced their herd back down to five working horses, including Shirley, one of their original fillies. The three mares and two geldings are enough to maintain two teams plus a spare horse to fill in as needed.
The livery business has turned out to be the most successful part of their venture. When the first two fillies –Shirley and her partner, Laverne–were two years old,their careers got off to an auspicious start when they were hired to take the governor of Vermont on a carriage ride that traveled through a renovated covered bridge in town. The fillies did their work calmly, thanks to their innate personalities and Dave’s efforts to expose them to a variety of situations on the road.
Although he had worked as a horse exerciser on Nancy’s father’s farm when he was a teenager, Dave didn’t consider himself a horse person until he bought the Creams. “I didn’t connect with the horses until I got into the American Creams,” he says. “Every day you learn something new. The horses basically trained me. I took that knowledge and used it to train the next generation.” His training tenets include daily practice, being consistent and ending on a positive note. One of the first lessons a foal learns is to calmly enter a horse trailer. This is accomplished by simply leading the mare onto a trailer when the foal is just a few days old. The foal will naturally follow his dam, and thus he learns that the trailer is a safe place to be.
As they progress in their training, the horses are driven through town, where they gradually get used to sights and sounds that they will have to deal with in their work: cars honking at them, train whistles blowing, even helicopters landing nearby. “Training is a lot of hours and miles,” Dave says. “The horses learn to trust you.” But he stresses that no matter how well trained your horses are and how well you know them, you can never let down your guard when driving. “You have to be able to handle anything that comes along,” he says. “Whatever’s coming around the corner, you need to see it before your horse does.”
In addition to encountering noises and traffic in town, the horses are often approached by strangers who wish to pet them. “People are drawn to them for their beauty and their quietness,” Dave says. “As a society, we don’t want to lose that connect with horses.” For that reason, he allows people to interact with the horses as long as they do so in a safe manner.
Lively’s Livery offers a variety of carriage services, wagon and sleigh rides and other horse-powered services. Their motto is “A Cut Above the Rest,” and that standard is set by the quality of their horses and equipment, attention to detail and a dedication to customer relations. It all begins with the first impression. “It’s all about presentation and turnout,” Dave says. “Your carriage has to be in showroom condition. Your horse has to look like it just came out of the shower. That all takes a tremendous amount of preparation.”
The bulk of the livery income comes from weddings, which also require the most work for which to prepare. Dave notes that when people balk at the expense of hiring his carriage for what they see as just a few hours, they don’t realize the work that went into preparing for the event. “Once I get to the wedding and I’m sitting on the carriage, my work is almost done,” he says. “I’ve put hours of preparation into getting ready for that moment.”
For weddings the Livelys use black harness with a black Vis-à-vis or a restored 1876 surrey. The Vis-à-vis makes a dramatic contrast with white wedding gowns, and the black harness looks especially striking on the light-colored horses.
A more casual tone is set for the wagon rides, which are the second most popular part of the business. The birthday wagon is bright red, while the wagon used for leaf-peeping tours and other occasions has multi-hued natural wood tones. Both have rubber tires for road use. The standard ride is a one-hour excursion that takes passengers through the town’s covered bridge on a four-mile loop. As a special treat after the birthday wagon rides, kids have the opportunity to feed carrots to the horses.
Lively's also offers several specialty services, including day and night sleigh rides, using a wheeled sleigh if snow is lacking. Another of their specialties is a “proposal carriage ride” to a secluded setting where a prospective groom can propose to his future bride. The Livelys prepare the spot in advance with hors d’oeuvres and a beverage. So far every proposal has been successful, but just in case there’s a problem, Dave requires payment up front with no guarantee of a "yes."
The years of trust that the Livelys build with their horses lay the foundation for the variety of work they are called upon to do. Shirley is hired occasionally to pull a moose out of the woods for local hunters. The first time she had to drag a moose, she snorted nervously and had her ears laid back. Dave reassured her that everything was okay, and because of their relationship, she trusted him. “The first [moose] was a thousand-pound bull with a 48-inch spread on its antlers. It took all day to drag it out, from daybreak until about four o’clock in the afternoon,” Dave recalls. “Shirley pulled that moose through an area that five or six guys couldn’t do. I was quite proud of her. But you have to have the relationship to get there. The horse has to trust you.”
The Livelys recommend that anyone considering entering the livery business do thorough and extensive research of the local market before investing in the necessary equipment, insurance and other expenses. “You’ve got to go where the money is,” Dave says. “It doesn’t have to be top hat and tuxedo, but there has to be a city nearby, or people who want to take wagon rides or want to learn to drive.” The Livelys are fortunate to live in a wedding destination area near large towns with well-to-do residents. Because of rising fuel costs, they limit theamount of work they do beyond Bennington. Horse owners who live in remote rural areas may have a harder time finding enough customers to sustain a livery business.
People who want to start a livery service should also carefully consider their own personalities, Dave advises. “You have to have a rapport with people, and be somewhat of an entertainer. You have to have the attitude that the customer is always right,” he says. When customers are present, he adds, “be a professional and try to act as good as your horse does.” Interacting with customers during the ride puts them at ease and makes the ride more enjoyable for everyone.
Dave and Nancy agree that the most challenging aspect of running a livery business is working with difficult customers. “You smile and get through it, and bang your head on the wall later,” Dave says.
Some challenges arise simply out of circumstances beyond anyone’s control. Dave tells of one wedding at which he waited outside the church in his carriage during a steady rain, only to have the bridal couple take a limousine when they emerged from the ceremony. “I did get paid, but I never did the job,” he says. Instead, he spent the rest of the day trying to dry out his carriage with a kerosene heater.
At another wedding, the bride’s father had ordered the horse and carriage as a surprise for his daughter. Unfortunately, it was not a good surprise–it turned out that the bride was terrified of horses. She finally entered the carriage, but was on the verge of tears throughout the entire ride.
Although the livery service takes a great deal of their time, both Livelys are also employed elsewhere. Dave hosts a radio show and does summer lawn care and other off-farm work, while Nancy is employed full-time. Both are also innkeepers at the Henry House Inn in Bennington, Vermont.
Their horses have other jobs to do, as well. They work on the farm mowing, harrowing, seeding and rolling the ground. “They’re really fun to work with,” Dave says.Their mare, Sunny, also gives rides to disadvantaged children at an annual event in Bennington. The couple and their horses have also participated in fairs, the Equine Affaire in West Springfield, Massachusetts, and parades.
It is clear that American Creams have brought much joy to Dave and Nancy Lively, and they are happy to share that joy with others. One of Dave’s most satisfying moments was simultaneously teaching a young man and a young horse to log. “It doesn’t get any better than that,” he says. “To watch [the man] realize the power of a horse when you hook up to a log, to watch him hook up to the log … and then to see him finally get it–you can’t buy that feeling.”
He also gets immense satisfaction from the fact that his horses can take a vacation in the pasture and then go right back to work without missing a beat. “Knowing that we can go out in the pasture and just see them running around and doing their thing, and after a month or six weeks in the pasture, being able to put a halter on them and dress them up and they’re professionals–I just can’t describe it.”
The horses have brought the Livelys into rewarding friendships with other American Cream owners. Wendell Lupkes of Iowa is the vice president of the ACDHA. He has known the Livelys for over ten years, having met them at an annual meeting of the breed association. Lupkes praises the couple’s efforts to preserve and promote the breed. “Nancy, being the secretary and treasurer, does tireless work for the association,” he says. “Dave has been an outstanding ambassador for the breed with the carriage service.”
As part of their commitment to American Creams, the Livelys are preparing to resume their breeding program. They have a young broodmare prospect named Susan that Nancy describes as “the best specimen of American Cream we’ve ever seen. She’s smart, bossy and beautiful.” The couple is keeping their eyes open for a top-quality colt to sire a new generation of American originals. “Creams are critically endangered,” Dave says. “This is our legacy to the world.”