Randy Clayton brings horses back for a holiday ride
By Everyone has their holiday traditions—family dinners, Christmas tree shopping, menorah lightings. For downtown Santa Cruz, horse and carriage rides are one example of those traditions: they’ve been part of the holiday season here since 1990.
Randy Clayton, the man behind the carriages, will be giving rides this year for the last two Saturdays and Sundays before Christmas.
It takes work bringing a carriage and two horses downtown, but Clayton does it every year because people in the community have made it a fixture of the Santa Cruz holiday season, and he sees a lot of repeat riders. Not to mention that the sound of the horses’ jingle bells provides some downtown ambiance—a soothing distraction from frantic holiday shopping.
“It’s a modern downtown street, and then all of a sudden, there’s these horses, drawing a carriage in the middle of downtown, and it’s so out of place, in a really sweet way,” says Chip, executive director of the Downtown Association. “All of the sudden you’re transformed into another world. You’re riding on top of a Victorian carriage with these two magnificent horses. It’s very extraordinary.”
The horses will also appear in the annual holiday parade on Pacific Avenue, which starts at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 6. The animals mean the world to Clayton, who has utmost respect for them.
“You build an individual relationship with the horses. You have to earn their trust. You have to show them what’s going on. You feed them, and they attach to you, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they accept you just because you feed them. You have to earn that,” Clayton says.
For the second consecutive year, riders on the Christmas carriages will reserve tickets in advance online.
Clayton’s horses are famous locally, but many people may not know what they do the rest of the year. The horses live at Wilder Ranch State Park, just a few miles north of Santa Cruz on Highway 1.
“The horses are very popular in town,” Clayton says. “Everybody knows them. We do a lot of stuff with them.”
The horse and carriage rides are part of Clayton’s regular business, the Santa Cruz Carriage Company. Clayton and his horses are hired for carriage rides for special events like weddings, funerals, and quinceañeras. He always looks for ways to bring the horses to the community, like the Santa Cruz County Fair, schools and to charity events.
Schoolchildren often take field trips to Wilder, and Clayton is more than happy to educate young students about farm life and how people lived during the gold rush, and of course, everything there is to know about horses.
“Randy considers the horses to be the community’s horses and he’s merely the steward,” Chip says. “He really uses his role and the horses’ role in the community, especially with kids, but all people, really educating them. The horses love to work, and he gives them a lot of opportunities, and they’re very social.”
Clayton also owns and operates a second business that revolves around the horses—Draft Horses For Hire. It focuses on manual labor jobs like logging, cleaning up forests and tilling soil on farms that don’t want to use tractors. He and the horses work hard together. For example, the horses often pull debris out of the San Lorenzo river, as they did last August.
“Horses are smart and strong,” Clayton says. “They work very hard, but they’re slow. They might take a half day or all day to pull logs, but they get the job done.”
As inseparable as Clayton is from his horses, he actually didn’t grow up with any, and he never worked with the animals until he was an adult. In the late 1970s, while in Oregon, he found a cheap cabin for rent. It was on an old commune that had fallen to disrepair. They had draft horses, cows, sheep, and an herb garden. He soon began work at the commune.
“A bunch of people started this commune in the Haight-Ashbury days in the late ’60s to get away from the establishment, go back to the land, raise your own food—self-reliant is what they were really trying to be,” Clayton says. “They had all the infrastructure, but nobody was there. They were limping along. I just kept the horses fed, milked the cows, made cheese, made bread, that kind of thing.”
After a while, Clayton realized that he loved working with horses. He moved to Vermont, where he began logging with horses, and later did the same in New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oregon and California. Clayton started the Santa Cruz Carriage Company in 1989, and Draft Horses For Hire in 1991.
Clayton is very careful not to overwork his horses, which is why he is bringing the horses down for only four days this year, for about three hours each day.
“His horses come first. He has a relationship with his horses like a parent. He really knows them individually,” Chip says. “He really takes care of them. He’s really in tune with his horses. They’re his kids. He takes really good care of them. He knows them really well.”
Clayton’s wife, Chris, will be downtown with him, helping out with the carriage rides. Clayton says she’s a major part of the business, even though she has a whole other career as a realtor.
There’s one other thing Clayton and his horses do, and that is bring Santa to town on the annual Christmas parade.
“Santa is the last in the parade, and Santa comes on Randy’s horse and carriage,” Chip says. “That’s probably the most important thing that those horses do. Santa’s important.”
For more information on carriage rides, including how to order tickets, visit downtownsantacruz.com. PHOTO: Randy Clayton gets pulled by his horses at Wilder Ranch, where they provide lessons for children on field trips. CHIP SCHEUER