By Susan DeGrane
Liz Grey strides up a sturdy wooden ramp to the second story of the Noble Horse, the oldest operating stable in Chicago. The smell of hay is sweet in the chilly barn, at Schiller and Orleans, whose stalls are home to 15 riding horses and 35 carriage horses.
Grey stops at the stall of Sunny, a copper-colored horse with a blond mane. Now 22, he’s the oldest working carriage horse in the city. Part Morgan, part Belgian draft horse, part standardbred racehorse, he was bought when he was only two from an Amish bishop.
“There he is,” says Grey. Sunny’s large head swings around, showing the white blaze and crescent on his nose. Grey sets a peppermint on her flat palm, and Sunny takes the candy, bobbing his head. Grey taps her cheek with an index finger, and Sunny nuzzles her face.
Nearby another carriage horse nickers quietly, steam puffing from her nostrils in the morning sunlight. “She wants one too,” Grey says. A riding horse in another stall sticks his head out and nudges me from behind. Him too? Grey nods.
“Sunny’s definitely one of the smartest horses,” says Grey, who’s been driving Noble Horse’s antique carriages down Chicago streets since last August, many times with Sunny. “He gets a little annoyed when you go somewhere not on the regular route.”
Dan Sampson, owner of the Noble Horse, says that many of the horses at the stable have unique and endearing personalities. “But Sunny is really special–he likes doing new things.” In fact, he’s something of a local celebrity. He appeared with John Goodman in The Babe and in several episodes of the cable program The Untouchables, and he’s been in Lyric Opera productions. “At 1,800 pounds, he’s our biggest star,” says Jack Zimmerman, a public relations associate at the Lyric. “He’s an amazing animal–we have singers who haven’t been here that much.” In 1993 Sunny appeared in Don Quichotte, and this season he’s in The Elixir of Love, playing through March 19.
In the January productions Grey was the driver as Sunny pulled a medicine cart containing the elixir. “Sunny figured out that after the break and his last entrance he gets to go home, so he was pawing the floor a bit,” she says. “But other than that, he waits very patiently to go home.” Grey’s mother, who lives in California, ordered a bouquet of carrots for Sunny on opening night, and several actors and singers have since brought him carrots and special horse treats.
During an early rehearsal the hub of the cart’s wheel hooked on a wall of scenery. “Actors and actresses were running to get out of the way,” Grey says. “Sunny’s like, ‘What?’ That’s why he was picked–he’s very calm.”
Before the January 24 show Sunny and Grey missed their ride to the opera house, so Grey had to hitch him to a carriage and drive the two miles. They arrived in the nick of time at the back of the Civic Opera building, where stagehands quickly unhitched Sunny and chained and padlocked the carriage to a fence on Washington. Grey says, “Sunny was very calm for that performance.”
Sunny has an agent, Hoffmann’s Kingdom of Animals, for his showbiz gigs, and he has no trouble finding work. Being part Belgian makes him capable of pulling many times his weight, which helps make him a good carriage horse. Being part Morgan and part standardbred makes him a good riding horse, so he also works at the Noble Horse riding school. He is, says Sampson, “an excellent worker.”
Some of the bigger, younger horses–such as Elvis, who’s around six feet at the withers–work double shifts, pulling carriages weekends from noon until 11 PM. But Sunny usually works just one shift, from 10 AM to 4 PM. Rest is essential for maintaining health, so like most of the horses at Noble Horse, Sunny spends at least one week each month taking it easy at the Triumph Ranch, near Starved Rock State Park. “He has a touch of arthritis,” Grey says. “But he’s OK. We just have to rub him down sometimes.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.