Above photo: Silver Lining on wedding duty with Catherin driving.
Like the magical horses prancing through the pages of childhood fairy tales, a mighty white Percheron is captivating the hearts of people from near and far along an avenue in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.
Conversation stops at sidewalk cafes as the clip-clop of hooves turns the corner, followed by smiles and surprise when glancing up to discover a beautiful horse and carriage passing by. Who can resist snapping a photo and waving hello? Horses have a way of bringing out the kid in us, whether we’re nine or 90.
Imagine my delight with an invitation to ride up on the box seat with the owner of Asheville Horse & Carriage Tours, Catherine Hunter. It was like Christmas morning and a birthday party all wrapped as one. It might seem like old hat for those in the draft horse world, but for this kid-at-heart, an opportunity to spend time with a Percheron is pure joy, especially on a lovely September evening in my hometown.It was such a treat watching Silver Lining, a sweet-natured 15-year old gelding from Georgia with years of experience pulling carriages, meander through the streets with such finesse, while I waved to people and learned more about the carriage business. As we approached the reserved spot to unload and greet the next group of folks waiting for a ride, Catherine’s faithful horse proved just how calm, cool and collected a Percheron can be. Someone was lying on the sidewalk with a medical emergency. Within seconds, two ambulances with sirens blaring, pulled up right beside and behind us, causing my heart to skip a beat in all the commotion. Like a pro, Silver Lining simply moved forward to the next parking space with such ease and precision when hearing Catherine’s gentle command. Now, that’s a horse you can trust!
Catherine and her stately steed fit into the eclectic mix of individuals enjoying the sights and sounds of downtown Asheville on any given evening. There’s a spirit about this town that draws people in with its art deco architecture, enchanting cafés and independent restaurants, decadent chocolate shops, crafted beer from dozens of breweries, great music and the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains in every direction.
Downtown Asheville is an easy and pleasant city to explore, whether it’s a leisurely stroll on foot or jumping onto a variety of fun-filled modes of transportation like the bright yellow bicycle taxi for two, the two-wheeled motorized Segway tours, and the brand new Pubcycle, a ten-seat orange and silver contraption where energetic souls sit sideways behind the driver, providing their own pedal power.
There are the traditional trolley tours that transport visitors around the area, plus the zany purple LaZoom Comedy Party Bus that sometimes has more locals joining in on the fun in colorful costumes with knapsacks full of snacks and brew. It’s a moving theatrical extravaganza, especially at night on the haunted ghost tour that promises plenty of thrills and chills.
Introducing horse-drawn carriage rides in town was a well thought-out business decision that took months of careful planning and meticulous research. “I’ve been involved with horses, mostly
Thoroughbreds, for 52 years,” Catherine explained. “Since childhood when first seeing a team of sturdy Belgians plowing a field, I’ve been intrigued and captivated with the bigger breeds because of their stature, pleasing personalities and willingness to work. Things fell into place this time in my life with having a draft horse of my own, where we could work and enjoy good times together.”
Thanks to Silver Lining, Catherine realized that dreams do come true. She knew she wanted to work with draft horses, but didn’t necessarily see herself farming or competing in competitions and shows around the country. Driving a wagon was something she knew, so it made sense to investigate the carriage business. Like everything she does, the horsewoman studied hard, met with other operators and researched all the logistics involved. Once her business plan was in order, she met with the City of Asheville, reporting that the experience was a positive one in getting approval, licensing and encouragement from every department.
Earlier in the year, a referral from friends with draft horses led the way in finding Silver Lining. He had recently been retired from pulling carriages due to a foot problem that had his previous owners mystified: they thought it was a permanent injury that couldn’t be helped. They simply wanted to see the animal find a good home where he could enjoy green pastures and a happy retirement.
Right from the start when first meeting Silver Lining, Catherine was impressed with his disposition and handsome presence. While observing him with her eyes and hands, she had a gut feeling the problem with the foot could be rectified, so she brought her farrier, John Banks from nearby Black Mountain, North Carolina, to check out the situation. Sure enough, the mystery was solved after a thorough examination; it was a deep subsolar abscess locked behind the wall of the hoof. John prescribed draining the abscess, followed by a regimen of antibiotics and rest.
Trusting her farrier sealed the deal, so Catherine wrote a check and gingerly led her new horse into the trailer for the journey home. It didn’t take Silver Lining long to recover; soon he was frolicking about the pasture with his newfound Thoroughbred stablemates. A new adventure was about to start.
A Life with Horses
A love and respect of animals, especially horses, is as natural as breathing for Catherine, thanks to her mother, a trainer and riding instructor from their hometown of Huntsville, Alabama. At age 15, the enthusiastic equestrienne had saved her babysitting money to buy a horse of her very own. What a thrill to venture north for the January yearling sale at historic Keeneland Thoroughbred Racing and Sales in Lexington, Kentucky. It was all Catherine could do to contain herself, walking into the iconic auction pavilion with its richly paneled walls where magnificent Thoroughbreds have dazzled people the world over since the first yearling sale in 1943.
Several of the horses sell for millions of dollars, but Catherine heard there are bargains to be found, so she sat patiently, waiting for one particular filly to step out on the carpet. The horse’s name was Swaps Fair Countes, the granddaughter of the famous racehorse, Swaps, a descendant of Man o’ War through his dam, Iron Reward, a granddaughter of the Triple Crown winner, War Admiral. Swaps won the Kentucky Derby in 1955 ridden by popular jockey, Bill Shoemaker, and went on to win many races and beat all sorts of records. He was named “Horse of the Year” in 1955.
One would think a fine filly with such an admirable bloodline would command top dollar, but fortunately nobody gave her a second look, except for Catherine out in the paddock before the sale began. Countes was a beauty, but she was high-strung and temperamental. The two-year-old had never been trained, broke or even handled.
It was love-at-first-sight for Catherine; she knew with her mother’s help, this spirited animal could change. It would take plenty of time and persistence, with a good measure of love and devotion. She was ready for the challenge. Once back in the pavilion, the young woman raised her hand and the gavel came down with a fair price. She had her horse.
For 31 years, Catherine and Countes shared many an adventure together, cementing a bond from the beginning as the young horsewoman lavished her newfound friend with plenty of attention, kindness and bagfuls of carrots. Countes was instrumental in helping pave the way to a lifetime devoted to the care and training of horses. “Thanks to Countes, I’ve learned so much about the equine world," admits Catherine. "Beneath that rough exterior at Keeneland that morning, was a giving and most amazing animal. She just needed to be appreciated and given time to show her true colors. I’ll always be grateful for the gifts she gave me, especially her legacy in producing a very special foal, Count of War, born in 1985.”
Thoroughbreds are known for their vigorous and high-spirited personalities. Not only are they fast on their feet, but they are extremely alert and quick thinkers. Count of War is all that, but he’s also easy-going and unflappable much like a typical draft horse. Nothing seems to rattle him; he’s calm as a cucumber even if a sudden loud noise or unexpected movement comes along.
This was especially true during the production of the 2005 movie about the American Civil War, "The Last Confederate: the Story of Robert Adams," on location in Wilmington, North Carolina;Columbia, South Carolina; and Atlanta, Georgia. Count of War had a starring role in the film based on the true and tumultuous love story between Captain Robert Adams, a man of honor dedicated to the south and his love for Eveline McCord, his sweetheart from the north.
This story is close to the heart of a young and aspiring actor, Julian Adams from Columbia, South Carolina, the great-great-grandson of Captain Adams. Since childhood, he relished hearing each tale of adventure that members of his family shared, jotting down notes that eventually turned into a manuscript written together with his father, Weston Adams, founder and partner of Solar Filmworks, former United States Ambassador and Mayor General in the South Carolina Military Department.
The project took on a life of its own, as father and son watched it evolve into a major motion picture, collaborating with screenwriters, Joshua Lindsey and Gwendolyn Edwards. Julian took on another role as co-director, working tirelessly with A. Blaine Miller, a writer and director with the same values and goals in sharing American history with moviegoers today.
Taking on the role of Robert Adams was an honor and very special time for Julian, who felt even closer to his great-great-grandfather getting into costume and holding onto his antique gold pocket watch that survived the war. It’s an heirloom that’s been passed down from father to son throughout the years, bringing authenticity and a sense of pride to the project.
Catherine was the lead wrangler and logistics coordinator for all the horses and riders in the production. She was responsible for transportation to and from the set, feeding, stabling, grooming, saddling, hot walking, safety, health and well being of each animal.
She was also the head re-enactor coordinator, making sure all individuals showed up on time at the right location, in proper attire with the right equipment. As the authenticity consultant, she made sure everything was correct with costumes, camp scenes, props, equipment and horse tack. It was a big job, but thanks to fellow actor and assistant re-enactor coordinator, Henry McMillian, each scene came to life as if time-traveling back in history.
His quick thinking and creativity saved the day one morning when the script was changed, adding a camp scene to the filming schedule. The re-enactors hadn’t expected to set up a camp and didn’t have their tents and other paraphernalia. Catherine credits Henry with producing an authentic looking late-war Confederate camp, complete with shelter halves (simple pup-tents), shebangs (temporary shelter made from tree branches), bedrolls and more. The producer and directors were amazed and very pleased. So was Catherine. Working with professionals who care deeply about authenticity and doing things right makes such a difference.
It was also great fun for Catherine, who relishes any opportunity to join a group of American Civil War re-enactors, fulfilling her love of history and getting to playact in costume out in the field. During the filming, she worked as an extra, riding with the re-enactors during camp and battle scenes and getting to dress up in a fancy gown during a party. This certainly kept her on her toes–one moment concentrating on a particular scene in character, while anticipating the next camera shot, lining up horses and actors to be ready when the director called “action.”
Having Count of War in the production made things easy for Catherine. “He’s a natural, working well with both seasoned riders and those who have never been near a barn or pasture. I remember one actor who claimed to be an experienced rider, describing with great gusto his many feats of agility and talent on horseback over the years. The first clue that something was amiss was watching him approach the mare we had ready for a battle scene from the right side, struggling to hoist himself up in the saddle. Holding the reins seemed foreign to him and getting the mare to move even more of a struggle. She simply stood there, refusing to budge.”
Time is money in the film business, so Catherine had to act fast, switching the actor from the mare to Count, knowing her horse could take direction well. “Sure enough, as soon as the actor was situated and ready in the saddle, Count cantered up to the mark, stopped, giving the fellow his moment to say his lines, and continued on as planned. As soon as the director said 'cut,' Count dropped his head and bucked the actor off–exactly as written in the script,” she recalls.
Catherine’s faithful horse has plenty of experience working in films and commercials, with an intuitive ability to understand verbal directions such as “roll sound,” “rolling” (being ready to react) and “action.” Together the duo have credits with many productions, including "The Tempest," starring Peter Fonda, "The Class of ’61," produced for TV by Steven Spielberg, "Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All," with Diane Lane and Donald Sutherland, and "Gone for a Soldier," a New York University documentary.
Count is a favorite steed that directors and actors appreciate, remarking enthusiastically about his intelligence and professionalism. They praise his stature, talent and patience, especially when it comes to standing quietly on his mark when lights, cameras, loud music, pyrotechnics, people, other horses, dogs, mules, chickens and more make a racket around him. He’s a pro.
This rang true when the two took a 900-mile journey together in 2004 from South Carolina to New York’s Ground Zero, including a stop in Washington, DC at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the National World War II Memorial. “I wanted to promote peace and also honor our troops giving their all for our country. It was an experience I’ll never forget, stopping along the way to talk with people from all walks of life. It was especially touching to visit with veterans, thanking them for their service. All along the route, people were fascinated with the sight of a lone woman and her horse. Some thought I was protesting the war, but once I explained I’m simply an advocate for world peace, they understood and shared their own thoughts. It was a very humbling journey that helped me focus on my own life and place in this world."
Since childhood Catherine has kept her mother’s words of wisdom about respect and building trust with animals close to her heart: One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself. “Before anything else, it’s paramount that one’s horse feels safe. It’s equally important that an animal is free of pain with a feeling of well being. No one, animal or human, wants to cooperate and move if they’re uncomfortable or hurting. Sometimes all it takes is adjusting a saddle or strap on a horse. It’s about observing and looking at the situation through their eyes. It’s also about being fair, consistent and clear when communicating. Like raising a child or training a dog, horses need boundaries with a balance of discipline and love.”
This philosophy has blossomed into a 35-year career working with horses and helping individuals develop their own skills and talents in the arena and out in the field. Her experience includes working as a trainer for the Atlanta Police Mounted Patrol, developing and teaching an equine-based curriculum for technical schools and colleges, film and commercial credits, judging horse shows, and as a host and consultant for the cable TV show “Horse Talk” in Atlanta, Georgia.
She has studied with international experts in the field of equine osteopathy, the science and system of healing that uses physical techniques to remove tension and restrictions in the body, encouraging structural and physiological harmony in the joints and muscles, improving blood flow and regulating nerve supply. She’s also interested and continues research in cranio-sacral therapy, a gentle hands-on approach that releases tension deep within the body to relieve pain and dysfunction, improving whole-body health and performance.
Catherine is certified in Axiatonal Alignment Therapy, a treatment that reestablishes the connection of the primary/secondary chakras (energy centers in the body) through the meridian system, using all the acupuncture, acupressure and shiatsu points in the body, allowing one to feel whole, balanced and focused. She’s also a pioneer in the field of equine energetics, the relationship between body weight and energy and expenditure requirements in horses.
She owns and operates Whole Horse Journeys, a beautiful horseback riding and training facility tucked in a pastoral valley north of Asheville, providing lessons, training, holistic retreats, workshops and boarding services to riders of all ages. Her Divine Riding System creates a foundation of non-interference with the animal’s natural movement, balance and rhythm, giving the rider and horse an opportunity to build trust, self-confidence, a safe environment together and an enlightened sense of communication.
Catherine’s new book devoted to this same subject, "Divine Riding: Connecting the Horse and Rider through the Chakras" is soon to be unveiled. “Many of my students and others involved with horses across the country kept asking me for an in-depth look at equine energy and natural communication between the rider and horse. Writing is something I’ve always enjoyed over the years, submitting articles to local and regional equine publications, so working on a book seemed like a good idea. It’s an honor to help others learn and discover more.”
Reaching out to others is something Catherine relishes, especially observing a timid rider gain confidence with a new-found relationship with an animal. She takes pride in helping horses and mules grow into healthy and happy animals, especially those coming from a situation of neglect or abuse, believing wholeheartedly that all creatures deserve an opportunity to blossom and be all that they can be.
“Working outdoors and getting to spend the day with animals warms the heart like nothing else for those of us in the equine world,” explains Catherine. “I’m delighted that I can provide a livelihood for others with the same passion. Presently, we’re just three individuals keeping both Whole Horse Journeys and Asheville Horse and Carriage Tours going. Hannah Borababy, my assistant, wears many hats, working directly with the horses, driving a carriage, coordinating marketing and public relations, and keeping me on schedule. She’s a gem.
"I’ve just hired a new driver, Austin Corley, an experienced horseman with great people skills. The carriage business is thriving, growing steadily since beginning in April of this year. We’ve added another horse, Gypsy Gold, a sweet-natured Standardbred-Percheron cross, and in August we bought another carriage to meet our busy schedule downtown Thursday through Sunday evenings and for special events."
Every carriage ride is an adventure, especially seeing what joy Silver Lining and Gypsy Gold bring to folks along the way, and a wonderful opportunity for each driver to share information and the history of draft horses with children and grownups. Catherine smiles, recalling three marriage proposals that have taken place on the ride so far. “It’s so romantic knowing the groom-to-be is about to present his intended with flowers and a ring. What a happy place to be, driving the carriage and sharing all this with the horses and our guests. It’s a fairytale come true!"