OCONOMOWOC — There is perhaps no sound more sobering than the clip-clop of a horse’s hooves on a city street as the animal pulls a hearse through an otherwise silent funeral procession.
That sound was heard on a much more regular basis in days gone by, but Mary Jane Swedberg is bringing back some of that tradition with her Hoof Beats Express horse-drawn services in southeast Wisconsin. About twice per month, Swedberg is called on to carry the casket of a recently deceased person from a church to a final resting place with her horse-drawn hearse. She uses a team of draft horses to pull the hearse and for other services, such as weddings, hayrides, sleigh rides and at community events.
Swedberg has been hooked on horses since the early-1990s, when she and her husband, Bob, first went to Montana to go on a wagon train ride. She learned to harness horses on that first trip and soon wanted more horse-related experiences.
“I will never forget that first experience — the teamster who taught me to harness had a great sense of humor, a wonderful handlebar mustache and team of Quarter horse-size animals that made handling them easier.
“I had such a great time that I convinced Bob to go back again the next year, and the second year, I got to drive a little team on a buckboard. That’s when I fell in love with the whole idea of driving horses.”
Swedberg, an elementary school counselor at the time, said the experience made her admire her ancestors, who had left everything behind and come to the Midwest in a covered wagon.
“I am so grateful they did that,” she said. “(With a wagon), I had one of the major tools they used.”
The first two teams of horses the Swedbergs bought were too spunky for her taste, but she eventually attended the Sparrow family horse-driving school in Zearing, Iowa, where she learned to drive one to six horses at a time. Dick Sparrow, who owned the school at the time, was known for driving a 40-horse Belgian hitch.
The third team she purchased — a pair of full-size Percherons — had good spunk but were manageable, Swedberg said, and helped turn her passion for horses into a business.
She bought the third team in March 1995, and by July, she had them ready to lead a wagon in the Milwaukee Circus Parade.
Swedberg said it took all of her strength to handle the two-horse hitch back in 1995, but since then, she has built her strength with a personal trainer. She can now drive teams on all types of wagons and at all sorts of events, although sometimes it takes a crew to manage some of her bigger productions.
Swedberg found the hearse she uses at an amusement park in Grand Rapids, Mich., and had it refurbished to be ready for the road.
It is now used for a funeral about every other week, primarily in the Milwaukee area for African-American families.
“I once asked a funeral director why she thought I hadn’t been able to break into Caucasian funerals, and she said I probably never will,” Swedberg said. “The African-American funeral celebrates life and honors that life with special parts of the service. Family members will often dress up in special clothing as we would for our weddings. It’s a different culture than we are used to.”
Swedberg said the most poignant funeral she ever participated in was for a young girl who died in her grandfather’s lap, the victim of a random bullet piercing their home.
“To look at that family, to know they lost their child because someone was not thinking about anyone but themselves — it just broke my heart,” she said. “It made the experience even more special because I was able to be a part of a memory for this family.”
Other funerals honor an elderly parent or grandparent, or sometimes a member of the military.
“That’s why I do this, to create a final lasting memory as they celebrate, with dignity, the life of their loved ones,” Swedberg said.
Swedberg also uses her horses for other special occasions, such as Indian and Pakistani Baraat weddings. At a Baraat, the groom arrives on a large white horse with decorative costuming, amidst music and dancing by other attendees.
“It’s really fun to do that,” she said.
She said draft horses “handle the stress and strain of being in somewhat unpredictable environments” very well.
“But still, it’s always anxious for me until the horses are back in the trailer,” she said.
She recalled one experience when she entered a six-horse hitch in the draft horse show at the Wisconsin State Fair, and a rear wheel of her cart clipped a steel gate post entering the Coliseum.
“That noise was enough to send the lead team racing across the Coliseum,” she said. “We rounded the corner and stopped with the wagon banked up against the sidewall. The right lead horse went up the wall of the show ring and came back down. We didn’t hit anybody and no one was hurt, but it put a scare into us and people in the audience.”
Swedberg also occasionally uses their 115-acre farm near Oconomowoc to give people sleigh rides on crisp winter evenings.
“To me, that is as close as I can get to being my grandparents or great-grandparents, sliding over the rolling ground through the trees without a trail,” she said. “If you were going to church, you made your own trail if you had a sleigh. It’s magical to me. I never tire of it.”
Swedberg said one of her favorite memories is of a sleigh ride just a couple of days before Christmas, with the snow falling slowly at dusk.
“I felt like we were in a snow globe, it was absolutely beautiful,” she said. “The only thing you heard were the horses going through the snow and the crunch of the sleigh gliding along. I’m grateful for the sleigh rides because I go out on days when I otherwise wouldn’t take myself out.”
Swedberg recently added part-time help when a retired farmer joined her team. Chris Winkelman has been helping around the farm and with special events for about three years.
“She’s not afraid of big horses and she’s willing to learn,” Swedberg said. “She’s great with people and has an awesome sense of humor. She has good patience and loves being out in the country. She expanded the things that are happening here on the farm.”
Swedberg’s favorite team of horses, Bud, 26, and Bob, 25, full brothers and Percherons, have been working with her for many years, but she is worried about how much longer they will live.
“Mid-20s is the life expectancy of Percherons,” she said. “It will be a sad day when something happens to one or both of them.”
Swedberg said there used to be more of a prejudice against the idea of women driving draft horse hitches, but that has changed over time.
“That kind of attitude only exists now in old, cranky guys who couldn’t do it themselves or never got there,” she said. “There are women now who own hitches and there are many more driving hitches. You don’t often see women driving sixes on the real competitive circuits, because you’re talking six tons of horses and potentially even more. It takes someone who’s seriously got some strength to hold onto those lines and be able to drive those horses.
“All of the wagons I have here on the farm, two horses can easily pull. I still occasionally hook up four abreast for some parades, but otherwise, I do almost all of my jobs with a two-horse team.”
Swedberg was recently hurt when one of her 2,000-pound horses crowded her against the wall of a stall, but she isn’t letting her injuries slow her down for long. She is making plans to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa in February.