The clomping of a 2,000-pound horse is a familiar sound on the crowded streets of Cape May, one of the few New Jersey towns with regular horse-drawn carriage rides.
But there's another side to the job of carriage driver - one apart from controlling a massive animal in bumper-to-bumper traffic while giving a 30-minute historical tour.
"You know when you see someone and think, what a cool job they have?" said Chantel Semanchik, co-owner of the Cape May Carriage Co. and a carriage driver in New Jersey and New York City for a decade. "We have that cool job."
They are witnesses to hundreds of marriage proposals, some ending with an uncomfortable silence and a surprise rejection, some with a particularly amorous "yes."
They need to be aware of the bodily functions associated with draft breeds such as Percherons and Clydesdales that can drink 20 gallons of water a day.
And there are the daily interactions of the horses with the public, particularly curious children.
"One time this horse was standing there sound asleep and this young kid was doing everything in his power to get the horse to look at him. He was doing ninja moves right in front of the horse's face, saying 'hii-yaa' in front of the carriage stop," Semanchik said. "The mom was like, 'Get over here and knock it off.' And slowly the kid would wander over and start again."
The Cape May Carriage Co. employs about 15 drivers in the summer. Semanchik and partner Mario Lattuca Bonamico, both 36 and living in West Cape May, purchased the business in 2011 from former owner Beverly Carr.
Their experiences go back much further.
Semanchik was a carriage driver in New York City's Central Park and at Ocean Grove in Monmouth County, she said.
Lattuca Bonamico is a second generation driver in Central Park, who has been doing the job for nearly 20 years and still owns a carriage and horse in New York City.
"The horses get a little celebrity status. … Today people are so focused on technology, it's a fun job as a whole where you have people who just want to take time with their family and just clear their minds," he said.
Of course, knowing how to handle and drive these horses is a major function of the job. So is finding horses that will not be rattled by horn honks, noisy beach-goers and vehicles with much more horsepower than them.
"Our biggest problem is finding good drivers. A lot of people want to do the job, but only a handful can do it," Semanchik said.
"It takes a person with horse sense and skill," Lattuca Bonamico added. "Understand the body language of a horse, how they act and react to your handling, physically, vocally. You have to work together as a team. … If a horse doesn't trust you, he will never trust his surroundings."
Horse-drawn carriages are popular settings for wedding proposals. Often, drivers are notified the question will be popped. The answer is another story.
"In some, the ladies don't expect it or they'll just scream," he said. "Or the others will stay there silent - you hear the guy's voice but you don't hear the girl's voice. And you wonder, well, what happened?"
"Not every one ends in a fairy tale. I haven't experienced it here, but I have in New York, where I guess they get thrown off guard. They were taking a romantic ride, the ring pops up. Then she goes her way, and he's stuck in the carriage all by himself," he said.
Others tell drivers of the impending proposal but nerves stop them.
"Other times they get cold feet, don't know what to do, and the ride's over," Semanchik said. "Now they're in the carriage stop proposing in front of all the people and the audience. So she says yes and everybody screams and hollers."
Dealing with a horse's bodily functions is another unique feature of the job, one that requires a 5-gallon bucket. Horses are trained to relieve themselves at the carriage stop.
They also have diapers that catch the other function, often to the "ewwws" of children, she said.
Working in Ocean Grove, Semanchik said, photos of that end of the business were among the most popular taken during class field trips.
"When you stare at a horse's (behind) for as long as we have, you start to know all these things," she said.
Semanchik and Lattuca Bonamico acknowledge the job has come with controversy, particularly in Central Park. There, horse-drawn carriages have drawn the ire of animal rights advocates who want them stopped.
The couple says their horses are well cared for and are doing what they were bred to do, although people will sometimes walk up to them and say the horse looks thirsty, Semanchik said.
"I've bet people. I tell them if my horse will drink, I'll bet you every penny you have my horse isn't thirsty. … I know because the horse just drank five minutes ago. I know that because I know my horse," she said.
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