Horse drawn sleigh rides a time-honoured Cariboo Christmas tradition

Karen Sepkowski drives her team of horses, Hope and Grace, through freshly fallen snow recently as she and her husband Kim prepare to give sleigh rides this season. (Monica Lamb-Yorski photo - Williams Lake Tribune)Karen Sepkowski drives her team of horses, Hope and Grace, through freshly fallen snow recently as she and her husband Kim prepare to give sleigh rides this season. (Monica Lamb-Yorski photo - Williams Lake Tribune)
Kim, left, and Karen Sepkowski with their Suffolk Punch horses Grace and Hope are looking forward to offering sleigh rides this winter after having to cancel last year’s season and part of the season the year before due to COVID-19 restrictions. a(Monica Lamb-Yorski photo - Williams Lake Tribune)Kim, left, and Karen Sepkowski with their Suffolk Punch horses Grace and Hope are looking forward to offering sleigh rides this winter after having to cancel last year’s season and part of the season the year before due to COVID-19 restrictions. a(Monica Lamb-Yorski photo - Williams Lake Tribune)

For almost 25 years Karen and Kim Sepkowski have been providing a bit of winter magic with horse-drawn sleigh rides in the Williams Lake area.

“Many of our repeat clients have become friends,” Karen said of their hobby-turned-small-business, Cariboo Carriage Company. “We have had people from China, France and Australia.”

Giving Santa a ride in their sleigh during the Santa Claus Parade has been something the Sepkowskis and their mother-daughter team of Suffolk horses have done for years, pre-COVID.

“A funny thing with the Suffolks is that Santa would stand up and go ‘Ho, Ho, Ho,’ but we finally had to ask him to stop doing that because when he did, the horses stopped because they thought he was saying, ‘whoa, whoa, whoa,’” Kim said.

Often they have taken foreign exchange students on the rides and in the case of a group from Southern China, the students had never seen snow before and were very excited.

“It is nice to provide something for people from out of town, especially an outdoor adventure,” Kim said.

A local daycare normally books two times a year and brings an elder along and one year, Karen said, the elder had lost most of his eye sight.

“We went on a ride in a meadow west of here and he told me where we were and what direction we were going. When I asked him how he knew that, he said he could tell by the direction of the wind and sun. He’d grown up riding horses and he was amazing.”

The Sepkowskis have lived on Anderson Road in the outskirts of Williams Lake for 15 years.

Nearby they have access to several trails on Crown land where they take their guests on the rides.

“It is very magical when there is snow covering the branches. People love it,” Kim said.

When COVID-19 halted the sound of their sleigh bells part way through the season in 2020 they were disappointed, so they are looking forward to offering the rides again this year.

“We have submitted the documents for our insurance and once that is accepted we will be offering limited bookings,” Karen said.

Some aspects of the ride are changing because the Sepkowskis will have to sanitize after each ride.

They will not be able to offer hot chocolate, hot dogs and goodies, although customers can bring those for themselves to enjoy around the bonfire after a sleigh ride.

Normally they reserve Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day to spend with family and if the temperature is right that will include a sleigh ride together.

Karen has owned horses since she was a teenager and has been driving draft horses for more than 20 years.

The Suffolk Punches who pull the sleigh are Hope, 18, and her daughter Grace, 10.

“Suffolks are critically endangered,” Karen said. “There are only about 2,500 of them left in the world. In our area, I think there are three out west and I know of a breeder in Prince George. When I first got these guys there wasn’t a breeder in B.C. We are lucky to have them.”

High school sweethearts, Karen and Kim met in Prince George, got engaged at graduation and have been married 47 years.

They have four children and five grandchildren.

Their property is also home to more horses, a pony, goats, donkeys, four dogs and one cat.

A transfer with Save-on-Foods for Kim in 1985 landed them in Williams Lake and it didn’t take long for them to ‘feel like it was home.’

“Here we have four definite seasons, and we actually have more sunshine than anywhere in B.C.,” Kim said.

He worked at Save-on-Foods for 25 years, but in 1996 also formed his own company Air and Water, which does bottled water and water treatment for commercial and residential clients.

Karen has been working at Williams Lake Veterinary Hospital since the fall of 1991.

Recently the Sepkowskis have started working part-time, which will give them more days to offer sleigh rides.

“It takes at least three people because I’m driving the horses, somebody has to be on the sleigh when we take people out in case there’s a tree across the trail or something, and somebody has to be back at the property watching the fire and making sure everyone is OK there,” Karen said.

A memorable experience was the time they transported former B.C. Premier Christy Clark during the Stampede Parade.

Karen also had one of Clark’s security team personnel riding in the front seat of the carriage, which was a first for her. Additional members of the security team were walking or standing along the parade route.

“I could hear the guy riding with me checking in with others — he had an ear piece in to communicate,” Karen said. “It was kind of stressful.”

As the parade headed down Oliver Street with crowds on both sides, Karen saw a man in front of The Open Book and his arms were full of water balloons.

“I’m always watching for anything that can spook the horses and I just knew at some moment the man was going to start tossing the balloons and I thought, ‘it better not be at the horses or Christy,’” Karen recalled.

She quickly alerted the security guy beside her, saying ‘we’ve got a guy with water balloons at 11 o’clock.’

“I hear him say, ‘check, check,’ and then watch another guy go and push the man with the water balloons off the street. It was so cool,” she said.

Kim described another incident in that parade where they were stopped on a hill.

“When it was time to go the horses started making lots of noise on the pavement— they had shoes one — and it sounded like they were going crazy, but they weren’t. They were just scrambling a bit,” Kim recalled. “I remember, Christy’s son yelled ‘yahoo,’ because he thought it was cool.’”

Later the Sepkowskis were watching the TV news and it was reported ‘there was a runaway with the premier’s wagon,’ and the Sepkowskis were curious how the truth got stretched.

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