Touring Annapolis at a steady clip

June 05, 2005|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,SUN STAFF

The horse lost its shoe, nearly took down a "No Parking" sign and tripped getting back into its bay. A recent trundle with the Annapolis Carriage Co. wasn't the smoothest ride available in the city.

Princess, a 1,800-pound mare who hauls buggies for the company, foamed at the mouth, sweated profusely and scraped her foot on the ground. Despite being bred for calmness, Princess' behavior matched her name.

"She's been in the barn for too long. She needs some exercise," said Toby Rohrbach, who owns the carriage company. "They are animals, and you have to work with what you have."

Princess is one of two Percheron horses owned by the company.

Annapolis Carriage Co. started taking passengers for rides last week. Staff and beasts alike are working out the kinks.

"We're coming out slow and getting everyone into the routine," Rohrbach said.

Rides, which last about 30 minutes, start at the Historic Annapolis Foundation Museum Store near City Dock. Tickets are $20 and must be purchased at the museum store.

Passengers step into a plush, covered carriage and sink into the red seats. A cheerful driver merges the carriage into traffic and the coach rolls by the harbor.

From the carriage, passengers view boats and the ancient brick buildings. The coachman rattles off Annapolis history for tourists - or keeps quiet for couples seeking intimacy. The carriage moves at a steady 4 or 5 mph.

The pace can be a hassle for cars but is comfortable for the passengers, said Gillian Morton, a coachman.

"It's nice for people to just slow down for a time," Morton said. As the carriage bumps along the brick streets it "just brings a smile to people's faces."

Many Annapolitans - maybe jaded by the city's quaintness - didn't even notice horse and buggy. They were alerted to its presence only after their dogs caught an equine whiff and started yapping.

Princess pays little attention to the barking dogs or to the cars and trucks that pass and occasionally honk their horns. The horse is of a breed known as a cold blood.

"They hardly ever spook," Morton said.

To test their temperament, the company's staff "bomb proofs" the horses. "We actually try and scare them," said Erin Lehner, a footman.

The staff hadn't prepared the horse for a loose shoe, however.

Princess whined and hobbled, and a woman called out that the horse's protective rubber shoe was askew.

Lehner leaped off the carriage and grabbed a tool kit, a black plastic briefcase full of wrenches and hammers. She tried to soothe the annoyed horse and skillfully replaced the shoe, like changing a tire.

Princess nervously moved back and forth, backed up unexpectedly and almost took out a street sign. She was ornery on her trip home and stumbled getting back into her bay.

Annapolis Carriage Co. is the seventh entrepreneurial endeavor for Rohrbach, who has lived in Annapolis for about seven years.

In addition to the carriage business, he works full time as a business development manager at an industrial plastics company in Glen Burnie.

"My main goal is to provide a unique tourism supplement for Annapolis," he said. "It has gotten great reception."

He has ordered a second carriage and hopes to expand his fleet to five or more carriages.

Unlike many in the carriage business, Rohrbach doesn't have much

experience with horses. But that doesn't faze him.

"The way I research, I'll know more about horses than people who've spent 20 years with them," he said.

Most carriage companies are mom-and-pop organizations, said Mike Miller, president of Carriage Operators of North America, a trade association for the industry that has about 300 members, including six operators in Maryland.

Owning a carriage company, "can be a great way of life," Miller said. But "you want to make sure you don't have overly glamorous expectations."

The business relies a great deal on weather. A rainy or cold summer can sap profits.

Steve Podhajecki, a Connecticut carriage operator, said that in the right area there is the potential to make money.

"But you don't do that unless you take care of your animal and your carriage and interact well with the public," he said.

If animal care and public relations are among the criteria for success, the Annapolis company has the right focus.

It pays close attention to the mood of its horses. (To calm Princess after her shoe incident, the coachmen took her to City Dock and walked her around the city. Rohrbach said she calmed down quickly after the exercise.)

Mindful of traffic, the carriages pull over often to let cars pass. The tour route purposely doesn't include a trip across the often-clogged Eastport Bridge.

Rohrbach has developed an elaborate equine sanitation process so that horse manure and urine won't stink up the sidewalks. If the horse urinates, the coachman tosses a clay ball with a flag on it to mark the spot. A footman is alerted via radio and rushes to wash it away.

"We're taking special care to keep Annapolis pristine," said Rohrbach. "We want this to be an asset to the city."

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