Horsing Around

Pat and Cathy Palmer have drafted horses for pulling sleigh rides and collecting trash

by Rosalyn Graham

Pat Palmer of Thornapple Farm in New Haven uses draft horses to collect trash and recycling in Bristol and pull carriage and sleigh rides for area visitors.

It may seem like a quantum leap from driving a carriage along the historic avenues of Shelburne Farms on the shores of Lake Champlain to collecting trash on the streets of the mountainside village of Bristol, but to Patrick and Cathy Palmer, it's all part of what they call the "horse business."

During the last 25 years, the Palmers have been growing a business with its roots in Vermont's agricultural traditions and its branches reaching out to serve the burgeoning tourist economy, the widespread green philosophy, the market for activities that honor history and tradition and the needs of the community. It all began when Patrick was "bitten by the draft horse bug."

The Palmers had been married about six years when Cathy, who had grown up on a farm in Panton and had always had horses, bought three horses, one of them a young Belgian draft horse. The plan was that Cathy would ride and give lessons on the saddle horses, and they would train the Belgian to harness and then sell him. By the time Pat had trained the horse, he was "bitten," he says, laughing, and it's been "draft horses ever since."

Horses weren't pets on the Palmers' farm in New Haven, however; it's expensive to keep horses well, and the Palmers had to find a way to make them pay for themselves. Trail riding with the saddle horses was one possibility, but they found the cost of insurance was prohibitive, a response to the problem of riders coming in a wide and unpredictable range of abilities. Offering rides to groups in a wagon behind a team of draft horses was a less risky option. "With draft horses, I'm in charge," Pat says.

Business picked up dramatically a few years later when the Palmers bought the 180-acre Nash Farm on River Road in New Haven and promptly received a phone call from the Middlebury Inn inquiring whether they would be doing sleigh rides, as the previous owners had. Those sleigh rides for tour groups visiting the Middlebury Inn grew into frequent calls for hay rides for tour groups and for local folks celebrating special events. It wasn't long before the draft horses were paying for their food and veterinary bills.

A sleigh ride or hay ride with Pat Palmer is more than just a leisurely walk down a country road. When tour groups come to Thornapple Farm, the Palmers' 45-acre farm on Hunt Road where they have lived since they sold the Nash Farm in 1986, they are welcomed to a comfortable sitting room in the basement with lots of horse-theme decorations and a player piano. While 15 people at a time go for their hay ride, the rest of the group waits inside snacking on hot chocolate, cookies and fruit.

Cathy Palmer, Pat's wife and partner at Thornapple Farm, launched the couple's business when she bought two saddle horses for riding and a Belgian they planned to train and sell. She's pictured here with Firecracker, one of the farm's Percherons.

Whether it's a ride near the Palmers' farm, a sleigh ride at the Cortina Inn in Killington or a carriage ride at Shelburne Farms, Pat likes to keep his passengers entertained. "I feel them out to see what they are interested in," he says. "If they are interested in horses, I tell horse stories." At Shelburne Farms he often recounts the history of the property and some of the old stories he has heard. On clear nights, especially in winter when it gets dark early, he likes to point out the constellations. "Most people are from the city and don't even get to see those stars," he says.

Karen Polihronakis, innkeeper at the Inn at Shelburne Farms, says the carriage rides were offered for the first time on Saturday nights in the summer of 2002. Pat gets into the spirit of the location, wearing a top hat and morning coat as he drives his handsome dapple-gray team around the property. "He has a beautiful carriage," Polihronakis says. "It's even great in inclement weather because he can put the top up." Rides continue through the fall foliage season.

"Horses and driving were such a big part of the lives of the founders of Shelburne Farms, that it is wonderful to have a chance to experience the property just as they did," says Polihronakis. "The guests just love it."

The horses enjoy it, too. As Pat says, "Horses are animals of movement; they like to move, like to work and are proud of a job they do." He likens their attitude and their individuality to athletes. "Some are more willing than others," he says. "Some are lazy and some like to pull."

In addition to giving tourists picturebook memories of Vermont, Pat has discovered another way to turn his love for draft horses into a way to pay the bills: training others' horses. There are lots of people who think they would like to own and drive a draft horse, he says, but training a ton of horse flesh to step between the traces and pay heed to the "gees" and "haws" is more than an amateur can accomplish. Pat takes an average of two horses a month to live in the little barn behind the Palmers' house and go to school.

A 50-foot diameter pen is their classroom, and there Pat applies a combination of horse psychology and dogged determination to make them understand that they should do what he asks them to do. "Horses are herd animals and the dominant horse, the leader of the herd, is the one who looks out for the others," Pat explains. His strategy when training the horses is to show them that he is the protector, the better athlete, and they'd better starting listening to him. "When they do it right, I praise them."

Pat typically spends a month training a draft horse to obey commands and put its great strength to work. He also spends time with the owners so they will be able to handle the horses when they take them home. "They need to learn what to do or the horse can't be successful," Pat says.

The segment of Thornapple Farm's horse business, though, that has captured the most attention, caused the most comment and made the biggest difference in their annual income is a service the Palmers believe is unique in the entire United States. Every Tuesday, Pat and his helper, Lynda Malzac, with the draft team Chief and Spud, collect the trash and recycling along the streets of Bristol and take it to the Bristol Landfill. From early in the morning until mid-afternoon, in every kind of weather, the team of Percherons pulls a custom-built wagon along the streets of the town, and he and Malzac hop down from the high front seat to pick up plastic bags of household trash and all the cardboard and glass and plastic that Bristol homeowners have accumulated during the previous week.

About six years ago Pat saw a story in a 15-year-old copy of Draft Horse Journal about a trash hauler in Oregon using draft horses to supplement the service he provided with the traditional big trucks as a bit of a gimmick during the tourist season. When Pat heard that the town of Bristol, not far from the Palmer Farm in New Haven, was seeking bids for trash haulers to replace the town crew that had been providing the service, he collected free of charge a couple of times to see if he could do it and then submitted his bid.

The Selectboard received bids from four or five contractors including Pat Palmer, recalls Bob Hall, Bristol's town administrator. Although his bid was not the lowest, but only by a tiny margin, Hall says, the Selectboard decided that the idea was unique and probably good public relations for the town. They were right about that, Hall says. There were stories about the unusual new service in TheNew York Times, the Wall Street Journal and on Good Morning America.

"People liked the idea that this was not a big old clanky garbage truck, and that was very much in minds of the Selectboard when they gave the contract to Pat," Hall says. "It was an environmentally friendly way to do things."

For Pat and Malzac, a Bristol native who trains horses and gives riding lessons at her mini ranch in the village, the trash collection ride through town is the best way to see the town, a town they agree is very beautiful snuggled against the cliffs of Deer Leap Mountain. On a sunny summer morning, children on bikes ride alongside the team and the big black and white trash wagon. Neighbors wave as they stop to pick up the trash and sort the recycling into the appropriate containers.

The system is simple: Bristol Village residents who want curbside pickup buy white tickets at the Town Hall for $4 each and put out their trash bags with ticket attached along with their recycling. Pat picks it up and takes it to the landfill. About 300 residents take advantage of the service; the rest take their trash and recycling to the landfill themselves and pay a $2 fee.

The team and the wagon do attract lots of attention. Occasionally visitors from far away seek them out, often as a result of having seen a story about them. "Just the other day some people from Kansas stopped to watch us on Mountain Road," Pat says. "They said they had seen us in Draft Horse Journal."

On the Tuesday before the July 4th weekend, Diane Greco, who grew up in Bristol but now lives in Virginia, was standing in front of her father's house with her 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Ivy; her father, Paul; and a camera when Pat, Malzac, Chief and Spud came along. "Nobody in Virginia believes me when I tell them that they use horses to pick up trash in Bristol," she said, snapping a picture to take home as proof.

Of course, not all Tuesdays are warm and sunny. "We've had snow, sleet, rain, sunshine," says Malzac. "Sometimes all in one day." Pat recalls the time they had to wait under a tree for a hailstorm with marble-sized hailstones to pass. In January they joke about how many layers of warm clothing they are wearing.

When Pat began collecting trash in Bristol six years ago, he used one of his ride wagons with big cartons in it for the recycling materials and buckets along the side for the trash. Based on what worked well and didn't work well with that rig, he designed a special wagon, which he has now used for 51/2 years. It's a 22-foot-long, steel-frame wagon that weighs 2,900 pounds empty and 6,000 pounds when filled with Bristol trash. Pat and Malzac sit on a high drivers seat with a canopy protecting them from the elements and a clear view over the horses.

Percherons Spud (left) and Chief help pull the Palmers' custom-built trash-collection wagon through Bristol's streets.

Cathy says she is mildly surprised that other small towns haven't "jumped on the bandwagon" and looked for draft horses to add some color and charm to their streets while removing trash. The Palmers say their Bristol trash collecting enterprise is "a really nice business," but are quick to point out that they never think of themselves as trash collectors. "Nobody seems to get it that this is a "horse business," Pat says. "Occasionally someone who is in the trash business asks me questions about the trash collection, but that's not what this is about."

The Palmers credit the success of Thornapple Farm to lessons learned growing up in Vermont. On Pat's father's farm in New Haven, Pat took care of the chickens. "I know that if I didn't have animals to take care of, I wouldn't have a sense of accomplishment at the end of each day," Pat says. He quotes an old farm saying: "The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man."

Originally published in August 2003 Business People-Vermont