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Montreal’s 300-year-old tradition of horse-drawn carriages has come to a halt, and some drivers remain in limbo as the history fades away

Former calèche horses, (from left) Prince, King and Jessy, outside Lucky Luc stables in the Griffintown neighbourhood of Montreal.Lea Beaulieu-Kratchanov/The Globe and Mail

After years of public debate and mounting concerns over animal well-being, Montreal’s 300-year-old tradition of horse-drawn carriages came to a complete halt in 2020.

The industry had acquired a bad reputation over the years when accidents involving horses were caught on video. In 2018, the city passed legislation prohibiting the practice, leaving coachmen and their horses without work and with few professional prospects.

Stable-owner Luc Desparois was one of the big names in the business of horse-drawn carriages, also known as calèches in Quebec. In the 1990s, he rented an old industrial property in Griffintown – a neighbourhood in southwest Montreal – with a metal structure large enough to store his horses and his carriages. He called the stable, Lucky Luc.

At the height of his career, Mr. Desparois had 28 horses and managed about 30 drivers. After the ban, he sold most of his herd and explored different ways to make ends meet. He now subleases part of the property as a parking lot to construction workers building new condos across the street.

During the week, one might walk by and mistake the stable for a garage. But on weekends, when the cars have gone, King, Prince and Jessy – the horses who used to pull carriages in the city – have free rein.

Former carriage driver Dan Leclair shares a moment with King, a former calèche horse, at Lucky Luc stables.Lea Beaulieu-Kratchanov/The Globe and Mail

On a snowy Saturday afternoon, the horses trot over to a wire fence bordering a bike path. They chase and tease each other, and turn to passersby on the other side of the fence for pats. Sights like this have all but disappeared from Griffintown, a neighbourhood with more than 200 years of history that was once the equine hub of the city. Lucky Luc stable and the three horses are some of its last relics.

Former carriage driver Dan Leclair worked his entire career at Mr. Desparois’s stable and currently resides in its old office. In exchange for housing, he continues to watch over the remaining horses.

For him, working with a calèche was a calling that aligned with his love of history. “If I could time travel, I would,” he says. Making a living by harnessing a horse and driving a carriage around the cobblestone streets of Montreal’s Old Port was the next best thing.

Mr. Leclair liked to dress up for work and rarely drove without his top hat. He says he always made sure he and his mount looked the part. “I cared a lot for the horses I worked with. I made sure they had everything they needed.”

Though coachmen were given a year-long grace period before the ban on horse-drawn carriages came into effect, Mr. Leclair says he had hoped until the very last moment that the city would reverse its decision. Then in his 40s, he did not make arrangements to find a new career.

(Above) Dan Leclair worked his entire career at Lucky Luc stables in the Griffintown neighbourhood of Montreal. Lucky Luc is the last stable that continues to house horses since Montreal banned horse-drawn carriages.Lea Beaulieu-Kratchanov/The Globe and Mail

“I would have done things differently,” he says. “When it all came to an end, everything fell apart. I lost my apartment. ... I lost a lot of things.” When his income began to decrease dramatically, Mr. Leclair had to give up his two-bedroom flat and adapt to a frugal lifestyle.

Some of his former colleagues have since moved on to different fields of work. But others, like Mr. Leclair, remain in limbo.

The property where the stable is located was bought in 2019 by construction developers Omnia Technologies and their investors, Claridge. A residential project for an eight-storery building is currently undergoing evaluations by the city. Upon approval, the developers would take down the barn, dig up the ground and pour the foundation for a new condo building. Such construction is rapidly transforming the streetscape of Griffintown.

By then, both the coachmen and the horses are expected to be long gone. What is less certain is where they will go. Mr. Desparois says he wants to keep his horses and intends to continue harnessing them for events outside of the city.

Mr. Leclair is scheduled to begin a bus-driving course next year. But he is not completely satisfied with this career prospect. “I don’t see myself integrating into society like that,” he says. What he really dreams of is to train – and maybe one day own – horses to ride.

His heart, he says, remains with the animals.

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