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Cascade Stables and the horses of Mardi Gras

A horse at Cascade Stables, in it's stall for the night.

A horse at Cascade Stables, in its stall for the night.

When you’re watching a Mardi Gras parade, what gets you most excited? The floats? The throws? The marching bands? One New Orleans native has loved Carnival since she was a little girl, but not for any of these reasons. For the horses. 

Hear Laine Kaplan-Levenson on WWNO

A horse is tied to four corners of a stall from each limb over at Cascade stables. She’s getting "shoed" by one of the blacksmiths, which seems like a brief, yet uncomfortable process. This is one of a few necessary steps the staff goes through in preparing their horses for Mardi Gras season. Assistant trainer Scooter Sherrik explains.

"First things first, we take care of their feet; the blacksmith here goes through and shoes all the horses. We put barium shoes so they don’t slip on the concrete. We’ll go through and body clip so we take off the hair so they’re more comfortable. Then we bathe them, ride them, and they're good to go."

A horse getting 'shoed' to protect the hoofs hitting the concrete during the parades.

A horse getting shoed to protect the hoofs hitting the concrete during the parades.

Cascade Stables is one of the top 20 show stables in the country. For most of the year, the focus is trail rides, lessons, and attending and hosting horse shows. But for one month out of the year, as is the case for most people and places in this town, the usual routine is put on hold. Especially for Barbe Smith, Scooter’s mom. She runs Cascade Stables.

"We will put probably 300 horses collectively on the street Mardi Gras; we do all the parades." Barbe's been connected to the institution since before it was in Audubon Park, and before she owned the place.

"I started riding at Audubon stables when I was 6 years old. I took lessons here for years and I remember standing on the streets at Mardi Gras not really caring about the beads or riders, but I knew every horse that came through that parade and that was really cool, and it's just a long-lasting tradition. My father put me in business in 1981 when we bid on the stables and we’ve just held the tradition."

Barbe provides all the horses for every old-line parade, from Babylon to Chaos to Hermes to Rex, as well as a few new-line parades like Bacchus and  Endymion.  And some of these parades need more than 30 horses, which is why Barbe calls in backup.

"Every year we buy approximately 20 horses for Mardi Gras, some of which have been rescued, and we try to give ‘em good homes after Mardi Gras. And we even have six or seven that I shop to show stables around the country; they use them for lessons all year, and then send them back for the week of Mardi Gras. And then I send ‘em back. We’ve got horses in Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, all over."

Testing which horses to use for the parades, and which ones to keep after the festivities is easy. Put a young rider on the horse, and see what happens. Well, not really … but kind of.

"Its really fun. I was watching some kids ride today and they’re all riding Mardi Gras horses," says Barbe. "We give our lesson kids all the new horses to ride -- they get familiar with them, they take care of them and brush them and fall in love with them, because we always keep three or four or five of them as our lesson horses. So they’re all kind of vying for that position."

Test riding the Mardi Gras horses

Test riding the Mardi Gras horses

What’s interesting about the tradition of krewe lieutenants and other officers riding horses today is that most of them don’t have any experience riding horses at all -- except for their one parade. That’s why each horse has a walker, or groom, to accompany the often-inexperienced royal rider. Barbe’s son Scooter takes on this task.

"We put a walker with every horse that goes in the parade no matter what. I usually do the captain of Rex, because it's Rex, and it’s the main guy, so you gotta have somebody trustworthy for that. I walk his horse and if he needs me to do anything, I’m there to do it for him."

Still, Barbe brings along backup horses, in case one of them gets spooked in some way, and needs to be pulled from the parade and replaced.

"We always worry about the crowd; we worry about guys falling off and getting hurt, but it’s a risk … they’ve outlawed the snap and pops this year -- those things they throw in front of the horses -- thank god! So that will help us greatly, because that will get guys thrown, the drum beats coming out of nowhere when the horses don’t see it coming … that can be kind of scary. But for the most part the horses do really, really well."

They all do well, but of course there has to be a star. The captain’s horse is the one that’s up at the front of each parade. It’s always a white horse, and for the past 16 years it has been Cascade Stables’ General de Gaulle. But he died just this year.

"We all took it pretty badly," says Barbe. "He had been the captain's horse all these years. We just bought a new horse and named him Mystic; he’s from Shelbyville, Tennessee, and this is going to be his first year as the lead. So he’s got some big shoes to step into and we’re hoping he does good."

But some things will remain the same. After the horses are bathed, clipped, and shoed, there’s one final step that is essential in order to roll: looking pretty.

"We paint their feet gold, we French-braid their tails with gold ribbons, we clean the saddles and bridles. It's just something I came up with when I started doing Mardi Gras and we try to make a great presentation. And the gold feet are just something special and a lot of people on the street comment on how beautiful they are. And the braids are something I developed and something we’ve always done."

So now you know what to look for when you’re out on the parade route -- and what it took that horse, and its staff, to get there.

Laine Kaplan-Levenson is a producer at WWNO, The Moth and Listening Post and cofounder of Bring Your Own.