What’s the difference between a sleigh ride and a hayride?

Well, for starters, only one of them happens on Martha’s Vineyard — these days.

Fred Fisher Jr., the longtime owner of the iconic West Tisbury Nip 'N’ Tuck farm, has been giving hayrides through downtown Edgartown, Oak Bluffs and now Vineyard Haven, for most of the past 25 fall and winters. Although there is often no snow on the ground nowadays — hence the hay, rather than the sleigh — the horse-drawn trips up Vineyard Haven’s Main Street in Fred’s carriage still evoke romantic memories of the timeless holiday tradition.

And there’s no fear of sliding.

“I’ve probably given thousands of rides,” Fred said. “It was a thing my father was always into. He just liked to be able to use the horses, especially in the holidays.”

Even for non-riders, meeting the Belgians is a treat. Tim Johnson

Fred’s father, Fred Sr., died 20 years ago. Since then, Fred has taken over the hayride business, transporting both the horses and the carriage (actually a wooden wagon filled with hay) to the Island’s three downtowns for the winter festivities. He started doing hayrides in Edgartown, has spent some time in Oak Bluffs, but does the majority of his rides in Vineyard Haven, where the main street is wider.

The routes used to start at The Net Result, traveling through Five Corners and up the hill before circling back. Now he begins at Bunch of Grapes bookstore, and goes around the block. Whereas the carriage used to seat close to 20 people, Fred said he’s downgraded to 12.

“To tell you the truth, it’s not as popular as it used to be,” Fred said. “I used to have long lines. Twenty-five years ago, when I’d drive up, there would be huge lines at The Net Result. They’d already be on the wagon!”

Now, most of the hayride customers are holiday shoppers who have come to the Island for day trips. Fred said he is always surprised by the number of visitors in the winter. What doesn’t surprise him is their interest in the ride.

Fred Fisher Jr. (right) took over the hayrides from his father, Fred Fisher Sr., 25 years ago. Tim Johnson

“Some of them are excited. Some of them are quiet. Some of them want to sing,” Fred said. “They sing Christmas carols.”

Every once in a while, Fred admitted that he’ll put on a red onesie (he’s already got the beard). Most of the time, though, he’s dressing for comfort. It’s cold riding around on a wooden box all day in the dead of winter, with the wind whipping through the air and hands nearly frozen on the reins. But the top of a horse provides a unique view of Vineyard Haven, and allows Fred, and his passengers to slow down their lives and appreciate the season.

“That’s another reason people like it, too,” Fred said. “You just slow down and take things in. You notice it a little more. When you’re in your car, you’re not seeing everything like you do from a horse or a wagon.”

For years, Fred used his dappled gray Percherons to carry the hayride. It takes a particular beast to be able to navigate the Vineyard Haven streets, with impatient drivers honking at the carriage even though it’s against the law. Recently, he’s used a duo of sturdy, brown Belgian horses named Dick and Dock. But Dock died last year, meaning that Dick, at age 17, has a new partner. His name is Whiskey.

“There’s 100 Belgians for every one Percheron,” Fred said. “They’re a little bit quieter and very quick learners...and Belgians are the strongest.”

Despite the dreamy nostalgia associated with the rides, Fred said that it can be quite boring doing the same small loop for days on end. There’s always the goofy antics — like the kid who brings a ferret on the carriage every year — but for the most part people are quiet, asking polite questions about the horses and content to enjoy the Vineyard’s holiday solitude, the clatter of horseshoes on asphalt an eternal reminder of the season.

“Some people don’t even ride,” Fred said. “They just like to hear the sounds of the shoes on the pavement.”

If riders are lucky, snowflakes will cake the road, the carriage and horse hooves creating momentary white tracks on Main street. By the time their ride has finished, the tracks will often have disappeared, the snow already melted — or better yet, ready for a new impression to be made.

“No one’s ever gotten scared on a ride,” Fred said. “Sometimes, they don’t want to get off.”

Noah Asimow is a reporter for the 
Vineyard Gazette.

For dates and times of this year's 
hayrides in Tisbury and during Christmas in Edgartown, visit 
the Vineyard Gazette calendar.


Carmel Gable, from the Vineyard Gazette Archive


...On a One-Horse Open Sleigh


Sleighing as a Pastime is Revived as Snow Lingers Long

From the Vineyard Gazette, December 1940

Real sleighing, accompanied by all the music of jingling bells, the snorting of restive horses, the shouts of men and the giggling of girls, well wrapped in buffalo robes, has been the recent program at Wayside Farm, Chilmark. The snowfall, exceptional both in its depth and the length of time it had remained, supplied the finest of sleighing on the bridle-paths of the Fenner ranch and adjoining properties, and the Vineyard descended upon the scene, eager to enjoy this rare sport.

In double and single sleighs, with single horses and pairs, the snowriders have flashed through the Quenames woods and out upon the low country of Quenames, day after day. The horsy group which has been riding for months through these same paths has found recent days somewhat cool and comfortless in the saddle, but submerged in the depths of a cutter, half-filled with robes, the weather exerted no effect whatever and the gay winter program has continued.

Sleighing as a pastime, sport or recreation is something that the Vineyard has not known much of for many years. Time was when virtually every horse owner possessed a sleigh, livery stables always had several, and even carried runners which could be fitted to the heavy surreys and other types of heavy carriages, simply by removing the wheels. Thirty-odd years ago, up-Island mail often arrived at Vineyard Haven by sleigh, and even the freight transported over Island highways was sometimes carried on sleds.