Holidays with Horse-Drawn Carriages

Posted: December 15, 2021

The Blanchard’s bring joy with their carriage rides.

The clop, clop, clop of a horse on main street turns heads to the proverbial sound of a bygone era. This dapperly-dressed Percheron horse is pulling a white carriage embellished with green garland and red bows for the holidays.

Holding the reins is Lyla Blanchard, dressed as Mrs. Claus, who guides her gray gelding around town bringing smiles to her riders.

“We enjoy the smiles and it gives us satisfaction,” said Lyla. “We consider ourselves ambassadors, bringing joy to one another.”

Lyla and her husband John own Royal Carriage Ltd. They provide horse-drawn carriage rides for communities and private events throughout northern Illinois.

Lyla refreshes the garland and bows on her carriage.

This time of year is especially busy for them with the Christmas season. They recently escorted Santa Claus to downtown Geneva and participated in Aurora’s Festival of Lights parade. They were also part of their hometown holiday celebration providing rides in Genoa earlier this month.

For the past 30+ years, the Blanchard’s have been in the horse carriage business. They love everything about it, especially their horses.

They currently have five Percheron cross and North American Spotted Draft carriage horses ranging in age from 14 to 18 years, – Beau, Fiona, Lady Pickles, Maggie and Mandy. Plus there is Meyer, a 17-month-old Spotted Draft colt, and Kolah, an American Quarter Horse. And don’t forget Stella, a miniature donkey (disguised as their holiday reindeer).

The rural Genoa couple has spent their lifetime caring for horses.

The Blanchard horses like their carrot treats at home and during carriage rides. Lyla’s horses are always in training.

Lyla, a Chicago native, was born with a passion for all things equine. As a kid she was drawing stick horses and dreaming about them. When she was old enough she took the Metra commuter train from the north side of Chicago to a horse barn in the northwest suburbs where she worked. On the return train trip home, “I would reek like the barn and some would complain I smelled,” she chuckled.

She bought her first horse when she was 25 years old, a Belgian cross named Ginger, after the mare in Black Beauty. Ginger was her carriage horse for 11 years in Chicago.

Lyla started driving horse carriages in the 1980s for the Sampson’s, who established the Royal Carriage Ltd Company and were licensed with the City of Chicago. As a coachman, she would drive the horse-drawn carriages in the heart of the city, on Michigan Avenue.

Escorting Santa into town has been a long standing tradition for the Blanchards on Main Street in Geneva.

Lyla managed the carriage business for several years and eventually she and John bought the business in 2007.

Lyla is an accomplished equestrian, riding and driving professionally, since 1982.

“My horses are my family and I am truly blessed to have them in my life and be able to share the joy of them with the people we meet,” she said.

John grew up on a horse farm in the St. Charles area. The Blanchard family raised and sold American Quarter Horses. John rode horses and drove teams of horses for many years. Working in the family business, Blanchard’s Feed and Stable Supply, John apprenticed with his father learning the art of leather repair.

Bright lights in the city make carriage rides festive in downtown Geneva.

John is a skilled craftsman and experienced horseman who enjoys the diversity of the business.

“Our business has grown through the years,” said John. “We started with one horse and one carriage and now we have eight horses and six carriages.”

Their carriages include three white Vis A Vis carriages, a People Mover and hay ride wagon, an open white Caisson, and black glass enclosed hearse. Their carriages are used for all types of events, weddings, funerals, parades, festivals, and ethnic celebrations like Quinceaneras (Mexican 15th Birthday celebrations) and Baraats (Indian wedding processionals).

Stella, a miniature donkey, is dressed like a reindeer bringing smiles to nursing home residents in McHenry.

The Blanchard’s have a regular presence in Geneva, under contract with the city for 30 years. The Chamber of Commerce hires them to provide free rides for local residents and they are also licensed so that they can charge for rides. “By working for hire we can keep the horses working,” said Lyla.

“We rotate horses for carriage rides, so they all get worked. It’s good for them,” explained Lyla. “Our horses trust us and they love the attention.”

Last year the Covid-19 pandemic impacted their business, like it did other businesses. But this year has been one of their best years.

“People want normalcy. They are looking beyond Covid,” stated Lyla. “So many families thrive on our rides and interaction with the hores.”

Lyla treats servicemen to a horse-drawn carriage ride in Barrington.

What helps their carriage business is that the rides are outdoors so they get some fresh air and don’t have to wear a face mask.

From Geneva to Genoa, these communities have been supportive of their business. “It’s the best part of living here, in farm country,” said the Blanchard’s, DeKalb County Farm Bureau members. “People here are ok with horses, (unlike the City of Chicago).”

Both Lyla and John were disappointed when Chicago terminated horse-drawn carriage rides in 2019. Animal activists were behind the decision to shut down the carriage rides suggesting that horses were being mistreated.

“Animal activists always gave us a hard time,” said John. “It’s really too bad (they brought an end to a popular venue).”

“Our horses are a valuable part of our family,” stated Lyla. “We take good care of them. And we love sharing our horses with others.”

During their carriage rides you will see Lyla and John feeding them treats like carrots, apples and horse cookies. And you might even see horses Beau and Fiona giving kisses to Lyla.

The Blanchard’s work their horses daily to keep them healthy and trained for the carriage business. When the horses are young they take them to Amish country in Indiana to finish their training. The horses are trained for five to six weeks by the Amish. There they also get their drill-tech horse shoes ideal for traction on pavement and to protect their hooves.

As coachmen during the holidays, John dresses in formal attire sporting a black jacket with tails and a top hat. Lyla wears her holiday red cape and furry hat.

Ellwood House in DeKalb was a perfect backdrop for the Beth Fowler School of Dance to film their Nutcracker Ballet movie complete with horse and carriage.

As for the horses, they naturally have a thicker coat and have their own defenses to stay warm. If it’s really cold the Blanchard’s will put a blanket on them. For the holidays they are all decked out with red bows, plumes, red accent pieces intertwined within their harnesses and of course sleigh bells.

The best part of the horse carriage business is “doing something to bring joy to others,” say Lyla and John.
The Blanchard’s elicit unconditional happiness with their carriage rides. “It makes people feel good, which brings us satisfaction too.”