Kelly Arnold has been involved with horses all her life but it was only when she was studying to be a teacher at Flagler College, a small, private college located in the nation's oldest city - St. Augustine - that she first considered the horse and carriage business.
“I just fell in love with the horse-drawn carriages there,” she said. “Carriage rides take you back to the Victorian era and a more elegant time and that’s when I knew what I wanted to do.”
She and her mother, Lucy Salyer, bought a “fixer-upper” carriage and they began to renovate it.
“My mom is amazing,” she said. “She replaced all the upholstery and worked on it until it was completely restored.”
Arnold’s love of everything equine started when she was a small girl. She was born in Germany and she and her family lived in Munich, and then latterly in Villingen. When she came to the U.S., she thought she was destined to become a teacher and enjoy her horses at the weekends.
“But buying that first carriage allowed me an opportunity to enjoy work and also be around the things I love the most, like my family and children and horses,” she said.
With two Standardbred horses and the newly renovated white carriage, Arnold and her mother launched the carriage service in 1998.
The pair started doing small charity and neighborhood events and then more and more requests came in from prospective brides dreaming to arrive in style at their weddings.
''When a girl gets married, it is the most important day of their lives,'' Arnold said.
Now making those bride’s dreams come true from the driver's seat of a wedding carriage is Arnold’s specialty.
“Almost twenty years on, we’ve graduated to five horses and three wedding carriages — along with an additional two pleasure driving carriages,” said Arnold.
As well as Arnold and her mother, Lucy, the Avalon West carriage team includes Arnold’s husband, Donnie, and two full-time assistants Kristin Jacobsma and Kelly McDaniel.
Arnold’s two sons, Jesse and Jacob, also help out on occasions bedecked out in tuxedos.
“Jacob, 3, is a little small to wear a tuxedo, but he's learning,” added Arnold.
Jacobsma is the full-time carriage footman and driver for the business. Kelly McDaniel also acts as a driver.
“They're both amazing women who are super competent with horses and we're so proud of them,” said Arnold. “My mother, Lucy, has driven for almost 20 years now.”
Arnold’s husband, Donnie, is a farrier and takes very good care of Arnold’s five horses - Marlow, Sherlock Holmes, Watson, Maxi, and June Bug.
“Our horses are important team members also and we ensure they are healthy and happy employees too,” he said. “Proper care of a horse’s hooves is critical to their overall health.”
The carriages weigh about 800 to 1200 pounds each, but are not heavy at all for a horse to pull. They actually push the carriage (much easier than pulling) by leaning against the collar across their chest, explained Arnold.
“It takes only about 80 pounds of pressure to get the carriage rolling and after that the carriage continues to roll easily with very little effort from the horse,” said Arnold.
Arnold’s horses are not put into the business until they are fully mature - about 8 years old - and they complete nearly two years of training in order to work in big events like weddings.
Arnold explained that each horse is extremely important to her because they’re tough to find.
“They have to be calm, friendly, settled, quiet, and they have to enjoy the excitement of the event without getting excited themselves,” she said.
Preparing for an event is a lengthy process too.
“On any event day, we would be up at the crack of dawn cleaning and bedecking out the carriages,” said Arnold.
“Then at least another two to three hours shining the horses, harnessing them and adding their finery, depending on the occasion,” she said, adding “whereas the horses only work for two hours.”
The Arnolds offer wedding and special event carriages with a single horse or a pair of horses, and with decorations that match the bride's wedding decor. A "Just Married" sign adorns the back of the carriage.
There’s also anniversary rides, Cinderella birthday parties, romantic or moonlit rides by the lake, unicorn-themed pony rides, Sweet 16 parties and (maybe not so common in the U.S.,) a baraat. A baraat is an Asian custom where the groom is transported ceremoniously by horses to the bride’s house.
Other events enjoyed by Avalon West customers include Downton Abbey High Teas at The Tilted Teacup Tearoom in Brooksville, delivering Santa at Christmas or a leisurely ride around the neighborhood.
The carriage drivers always wear formal attire, either a tuxedo for men or the more feminine lace "jabot" for women, and a top hat with a sparkling hat band.
“It’s those details that set your wedding or occasion apart,” Arnold said.
The horses too are dressed in 18-inch long ostrich plumes, ribbons and sparkles - making them a huge part of the wedding itself.
And Arnold’s horses look magnificent when wearing their finery.
Editor’s Note: The Avalon family lives on a farm in Brooksville. Their horses each have their own stall with a built-in run for sunshine and shelter. The business only operates a maximum of three days each week. Each horse is pastured with friends in the evening or during the day, depending on schedules. They have access to fresh water and food at all times and farrier and veterinary care is provided as needed. The Avalon family states, "We consider our horses members of our family. "