OK, so it’s only five times a year, including three times this month, but Bo and Honey are happy to have the work whenever they get it. (Sound familiar?)
“These are big, strong horses, and what I ask them to do (pulling a wagon for four hours) is something they enjoy," Novato's Gary Sello says. "They could do it for 20 hours! OK, well maybe not 20 ..." he pauses for a laugh ... "but this is nothing like pulling a plow from sun-up to sundown in 100 degree heat.”
Sello, the proprieter of Indian Valley Carriage Company, chats with me one recent morning while getting his pair ready for their gig with the Noe Valley Merchants Association.
Bo and Honey stand 16.2 hands high (5-foot-6 at the withers), meaning their owner's head comes to about the top of their shoulders. They are half-brother and half-sister, sharing the same sire with different mothers and born in the same year. Gary drove to Nebraska to pick them up four years ago after purchasing them sight unseen from a stable in Virginia. At the time, the gelding and mare were 3 years old. It was love at first sight.
“Their sweet dispositions were obvious,” he says.
More than good personalities, they also happen to be gorgeous. Bo and Honey are half Percheron (a draft horse originally bred in France) and half thoroughbred. They are big, strong and powerful while also classy and elegant. These two have a soft dove-gray color that sets off the red and black of the Christmas decorations affixed to their tack at this time of year.
I watch as Gary approaches his horses in their corral, easily sliding a halter over each, one at a time, as they wait patiently while he talks to them quietly. I have to admit I had images of great whiskery muzzles and hairy legs when I anticipated coming to meet these horses, but they’re as sleek as panthers.
“I feed them well,” Sello says while sliding a padded yoke onto Honey’s neck. “They get lots of love and attention.”
Sello honed his carriage driving skills on Fisherman’s Wharf years ago. He grew up in the city yet spent part of his teen years working at a dairy ranch in West Marin. Work in Novato led to him moving here 35 years ago.
“I used to hang out with guys who would drive 10-12 horses at a time,” he tells me with a glint in his eye. “It’s a lost art!”
Elaborating that he’d love to have more horses, more land and bigger carriages, he sighs and says, “I’m really happy with driving my nice pair.”
I tell him I think it’s great when animals have work they can do, and he readily agrees. ”I’m just happy to have horses in my life, and the fact that they can generate a little income is great, too,” he says.
We peruse a barn containing his collection of buggies and carriages. Dominating the entrance is the covered wagon known as a “people-mover” with glossy mahogany sides fitting an average of 12 adults. There’s also a three-seat surrey topped with Victorian fringe that Gary says is his favorite because all the passengers are facing forward on the same level as the driver with a good view of the horses. Nestled in between is a two-seat spindle-seat buggy from the 1890s that he acquired a couple months ago.
“Look how thin this is,” he says while gesturing to the material that forms the carriage. “This is so light and so much fun to drive because the horse hardly knows it’s there.”
Sello also has a formal carriage known as “vis a vis” that fits six people who sit face to face.
“When you take the horses to the city, you see the kids change, from the way they walk to get in cadence with the horses and the big smiles,” he says.
Sello has been president of the Novato Horseman's Association for three out of the past five years. Last weekend he stepped down from his most recent term while friend and long-time Novatoan Art Yee ascends to the saddle, so to speak, for his first year-long term.
“This used to be a cow town,” Yee says. “Growing up, the highlight of my life was Western Weekend.”
Yee and Sello pose for a quick photo together, and Sello realizes he needs to get changed. Before he goes, he pauses to ask his assistant, Jana Hefner, if the second diaper bag is in the wagon. It seems like a funny question to ask until you realize what kind of diaper bag he’s talking about.
"It's very rare for any to fall out," Gary assures me. "Well even if it did, it shows you tried."
That's good for a laugh.
Sello nods toward Hefner, saying, “Besides being a great driver and having her wonderful charm, she’s the major decorator of my horses and the carts and does an outstanding job.” Hefner just smiles and continues sticking poinsettias in the harness.
It’s time to get out of their way so they can be on their way — two trucks, one hauling a wagon, the other hauling an extra large double-sized horse trailer. The horses don’t do coffee during the commute but they do nibble from a huge bag of carrots all day long.
I call to my little terrier, who doesn't want to leave Sello's spread, either, and I marvel at how nice a neighborly visit can be to start off your day.
Neighborly! Get it?? (I know, you can't pay me enough to come up with this stuff!)
HOLIDAY CARRIAGE RIDES IN NOVATO
Indian Valley Carriage offers 55-minute tours of decorated houses, highlighting the Rombeiro Christmas House on Devonshire Drive. Mondays through Wednesdays, Gary Sello uses the six-person carriage; Thursdays through Sundays he drives the 12-person wagon. Guests are encouraged to bring adequate blankets, jackets and hats. Pricing is $150 for the six-person carriage and $300 for the 12-person wagon. Kids on laps don't count on the headcount. For more information, call 309-8618.