My maternal great-grandfather had many hobbies. One of the things he was known for was his horsemanship skills. Hector Lasserre was a small man even for his time and he did well for himself as a gentleman jockey.
[Hector on the left with his father Ernest on the right, France c. 1920s]
Hector and Ernest were part of the French cavalry and trained at the elite Saumur school. Hector is here below in his cavalry uniform. His children, grandchildren, and even great grandchildren have played dress ups with that helmet. That’s horse hair across the back of the metal and sits like a horse’s tail on the back of the head.
[Hector Lasserre, France c. 1920s]
[Hector Lasserre, Libourne, France c. 1930s]
Hector must have been charming, too, because he was famously good with the ladies.
Anyway, years ago I was desperate to raise some cash for my school fees and I found that most of the decent-paying work in the small southern seaside town where I was residing required you to be of legal drinking age. I was only fifteen so I felt pretty aggrieved by this situation. I did learn there was one job that had a good hourly wage and you could also earn tips. This was the job of playing tour guide to the antebellum historic district whilst driving a horse a carriage.
Please understand that I do not condone lying, but a girl did what she did and she did it by hustling the management. They asked, “Do you have experience with horses?” and I said, “Yes, but only on horseback so you’ll have to show me how to hitch the carriage.”
I think I’d touched a horse on the muzzle once or twice.
Where did I find the confidence? The sheer cojones? I thought of great-grandfather Hector and I decided that being a horsewoman was in my blood. Those horses would sense my filial authority and respect me.
There is one other minor wrinkle. Carriages do not operate with regular-sized horses. They use giant horses like Percherons and Clydesdales. Horses like this:
Do you see that harness he has on the horses in this photo?
It’s my first day at work. They hand me one of those harnesses and tell me to go into the paddock and put the harness and lead on my horse for the day. Now, sometimes these horses are called gentle giants because of their disposition. Not mine, though! The horse they gave me, Tony, was a former circus horse who’d been teased so badly over the years he was notoriously bad tempered. He tried to bite everyone. Especially children.
I went into that paddock and I faced Tony and he reared up trying to avoid the weird new girl with the harness. His front hooves soared over my head as he tried to dissuade me from taking him to work. I managed to catch him that day, and the next, and we worked together for two consecutive summers, Tony and I. And everyone at the stables agreed that I had a magic touch with that horse.
[Samantha Chardin with Tony the horse, Beaufort, South Carolina 1990]
You’ll note in the photo above how the driver is keeping their body between Tony’s head and the small child touching him. Tony would like nothing better than to eat that child.
Although the management didn’t always like it, I put that horse’s needs ahead of everyone else, including my own. I tended to his sores and made sure he was well hydrated and I occasionally suffered heat stroke myself because I was too busy worrying about Tony. I think this was probably the reason why Tony preferred me to the other drivers and why he “behaved” with me. I’m not saying carriage tours are necessarily abusive, but it is easy to overwork a horse and not take notice of it. They don’t complain.
The way I got this job demonstrates the power of privilege. Deciding you have the right to be in a particular place and taking your position there and making it work. And people let you do it because you seem to think you belong there. My self confidence was all thanks to Hector’s legacy.
The horses sometimes did get spooked and start trotting with the carriage, which is quite dangerous. You’re at risk for jackknifing the carriage. A jackknifing happened to another new driver when I was on the job. You can permanently “ruin” a good horse by making them skittish after a jackknife. Tony was bulletproof in this regard and I appreciated his plodding quality. Once he got into the hitch and on his route he was like a tank.
Except for garbage trucks.
The combination of rotting organic material stink and the metal-on-metal screeches was too much for poor Tony. On morning tours that coincided with the garbage truck pick ups I had a few instances where Tony panicked and took off at a near gallop with a carriage full of tourists. Not wanting to panic the tourists, I’d maintain a breezy manner and continue talking through my spiel in between “Whoa, Tony!” tugs on the reigns. He was also not overly fond of thunder.
[A house locally known as “The Castle,” a highlight of the tour in Beaufort, South Carolina]
The job was hard work but it was fun. I did object to being told to describe former slave quarters as “the carriage house” though. Painting over unpleasant aspects of recent history is none-to-charming. But between you and me, if I felt like the group and I had an understanding I told them the truth about those carriage houses. And a lot more besides. I’ll talk more about that another time.