Riding through the woods
Hoof Beats Express recreates the magic of horse-drawn sleigh rides

By Kelly Smith - Special to the Enterprise

Nov. 22, 2017

Mary Jane Swedberg drives the Percheron horses pulling the four-seat bobsled,
which seats up to 12 people.

Submitted photo

MAPLETON — Although she owns Waukesha County’s only horse-drawn winter sleigh ride service, Mary Jane Swedberg does not fret over whether there will be a white Christmas.

Regardless of the weather, Thanksgiving to New Year’s can be a busy time for the eight Percheron draft horses at Hoof Beats Express.

“Horses and carriages are unique in the Midwest,” Swedberg said in a recent interview with the Enterprise.

“Community groups have recognized that horses and carriages can help attract people to their events,” she added.

The horses and their uniquely designed sleighs, carriages and wagons are also used in parades, community events, weddings, birthday parties, hay rides and on other special occasions throughout the year.

Hoof Beats Express offers a romantic ride for two in an antique Minnesota country sled.
Submitted photo

A nostalgic experience

But, when the winter weather is right, they carry kids and adults, bundled in blankets, across a rustic trail of evergreens, woodlands and grasses on the 115-acre Swedberg farm in Mapleton, a few hundred yards north of the intersection of highways P and CW.

“During Christmas, families are looking for something nostalgic; a horse and carriage driving through the snow like in the move ‘White Christmas,’” Swedberg concluded. The sleigh riders share the winter wonderland with hawks, ducks, geese, turkey and deer that Swedberg said are often spotted along the trail.

Swedberg’s husband, Bob, described each of the three slides used on the sleigh rides.

There is a large four-seat bobsled for groups of up to 12 people.

There is an antique Minnesota country sled for smaller groups that has been in the Swedberg family for generations.

There is an antique Canadian sled that provides a private ride for two.

“Because of the way the runners are articulated, it feels like you are gliding over the snow,” Bob Swedberg said about the smallest sled.

Mary Jane Swedberg advises her customers to dress very warmly for the 35-minute ride.

If the temperatures dip below 15 degrees or the wind is stiffer than 9 miles an hour, the rides are called off because the conditions can become uncomfortably cold, she said.

A family enjoys a ride in one of the sleighs used by Hoof Beats Express in Mapleton.
Submitted photo

A love of driving horses

Mary Jane Swedberg started the business in 1989 with four Percherons and a small carriage for weddings.

She has gradually expanded the business.

“We have learned to diversify. We even have a (horse-drawn) funeral hearse,” she added.

Swedberg said one of her most unique experiences was driving the hearse at the funeral in Milwaukee of a Hmong military general who had served as an advisor to American troops in southeast Asia. She explained that the survivors and grieving friends walked behind the hearse in a short procession from the church to the cemetery.

Her husband drove a horse and carriage down a Milwaukee street for the filming of a television commercial that was later displayed on the giant screen at Lambeau Field.

“Occasionally we would go to a Packers game and sometimes we have looked up and saw Bob and the horse on the giant screen,” Mary Jane Swedberg quipped.

Bob and Mary Jane met about 47 years ago in Randhurst, a small Chicago area community about half way from his suburban home in Rolling Meadow and the farm she grew up on in Antioch.

Although she spent much of her life riding horses, her passion for driving teams came after she and Bob participated in wagon train trips in Montana.

“It was a whole different experience than I had as a rider. It is hard to explain how it feels to have those two little lines in your hand trying to control all of that power in front of you,” she said.

She has received professional training in driving teams, has appeared with her teams in the Milwaukee Circus Parade, and frequently competes in driving events.

According to her husband, she had to go through an intense fitness program to build muscles in her arms, hands and fingers to control the horses.

Her horse of choice is the Percheron, a breed of draft horse whose origin dates back to the 17th century in what is now western France.

These huge horses are known for their intelligence and willingness to work.

Swedberg’s Percherons weigh between 1,700 and 2,100 pounds and range in height from about 5-foot, 8inches to 6 feet, or between 17 and 18 hands high which is how horses’ height is usually measured.

She prefers Percherons over other draft horses such as Belgians and Clydesdales because the Percherons have a quicker and more spirited gait.

Her two favorites are Buddy and Bob. They are semi-retired and have been with her almost since the beginning of the business that has given her the joy of being with her horses and sharing them with others.