Business a change of pace for owners, customers

A horse-and-carriage business will offer an unusual lift to barrel tasters this weekend.

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Amy and Jim Fenley with their horse and carriage used for winery tours at their ranch outside of Prescott. December 2, 2011

PRESCOTT -- Jim Fenley likes to call his horse-and-carriage rides "the most fun you can have at 3 miles per hour."

The Walla Walla County resident and his wife, Amy, are behind the reins of a new transportation company that relies on old-fashioned horse power to usher passengers through the streets of downtown Walla Walla. Specifically in the form of an 8-year-old dapple gray Percheron gelding named Maddock.

Now approaching their first anniversary in business, the Fenleys and Maddock are becoming familiar faces throughout the downtown area.

Just five or six months ago, the sight of a horse and carriage along the streets on the historic homes tour outside of downtown sent neighborhood dogs into frenzies. But by the end of summer "people would hear us clip-clop down the street and come down and wave," Fenley explained.

This weekend brings a new twist to the business. As part of Holiday Barrel Tasting weekend, the Fenleys have partnered with four wineries to transport passengers between tasting rooms free of charge via AJ Carriages vis-a-vis rides. From noon to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Maddock will walk a continuous loop from the Plumb and Mansion Creek cellars tasting room at 9 S. First Ave. to Forgeron Cellars, 33 W. Birch St., and around to Sinclair Estates, 109-B E. Main St.

The event is vastly different than what Fenley calls his usual "panhandling," where he and Amy wait roadside near First Avenue and Main Street for those interested in taking a paid ride. But it's more in line with what the couple had in mind when they first got the idea to start the business.

The Prescott residents, who cultivated their lifelong love of horses as youngsters, envisioned demand for their horse-and-carriage business for weddings, proposals, birthday celebrations, special events, family reunions and the like. And to a certain degree they've been successful. But as they've spread the word about their business, they've also grown popular with families looking for something new, different and fun to do. Half-hour tours runs $35 per couple with discounts for children 12 and younger.

Amy Fenley is typically behind the reins during the rides while her husband serves as the social butterfly.

The business is a stark contrast from his regular job driving a fuel truck for Burns Oil. On the open road he is often alone as he lumbers along the highways between here and Idaho. Behind Maddock, he combines his lifelong love of horses with a slower pace that allows him to be more social with the people riding along, as well as the people on the sidewalk intrigued by the sight of it all.

"I'm kind of a people person," Fenley said. "Me and the horse, both."

A little about the Maddock, the gentle giant: He is 17.1 hands (one hand is four inches, so that means he's more than 68 inches tall). He weighs 1,800 pounds. He is extremely social. He likes children; isn't bothered by dogs or skateboards; and is more than content to have his picture snapped. He's slightly uneasy with flashes, but it's something he's getting used to as his fame grows. His owners are learning that even when he appears to be a little bothered by something, it's usually only a matter of becoming more familiar with it. Such was the case last summer with the live bands performing downtown.

"He amazes me with how mellow he is," Amy Fenley said.

"It's fun to see people's reactions. People who have maybe never been around a horse -- it's fun."

She and her husband had been considering starting a carriage business for about five years. They researched horses and found Maddock on Craigslist from a seller just across the state line in Milton-Freewater. The animal had been part of a team the owner was selling. He had been trained in an Amish community in Iowa. He was perfect for the job. His seller also had the carriage for sale.

The Fenleys launched their business at the start of this year at the airport, where they weren't initially confined by permit restrictions. Tasting rooms provided some business, but with less foot traffic than downtown the couple were eager to move AJ Carriages to the city's retail core. They got the chance to showcase Maddock's charm when Walla Walla was in the running to be named "America's Friendliest Small Town" last summer. The Fenleys chauffeured judges Jason and Nikki Wynn, as well as Mayor Barbara Clark and City Manager Nabiel Shawa. The temporary permit that allowed them on the streets at the time gave them a chance to show Maddock could be on the road without any major disturbances to traffic flow.

"He's as perfect as you can get in a horse," Fenley said.

He said he and his wife are now waiting to see if they can continue operating after dusk with lights on the carriage. In the meantime, they operate on the weekends between noon and 4 p.m. downtown. Reservations are encouraged at 629-2067 or 629-2068.

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 526-8321.

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