Horse doctor

Veterinarian runs a carriage company on an automobile-free island
Published on January 01, 2006
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Winter on Mackinac Island, Mich., is a quiet time for the residents—the humans, the horses, and the veterinarian.

Come summer, though, Dr. William K. Chambers will be busy again as general manager of Mackinac Island Carriage Tours. The island banned automobiles in favor of horses more than a century ago, and the old-time Mackinac lifestyle has long attracted tourists to this northerly spot where Lake Huron meets Lake Michigan.

"It seems to draw people who just sort of need to get away from it all," said Karlene Belyea, executive director of the Michigan VMA. "The environment on Mackinac Island is a slower-paced environment, with the horse-drawn carriages. You go back to a time when you weren't rushing through life at the speed of light."

The Michigan VMA holds a summer conference annually on the island. In 2005, the Michigan VMA also hosted the Nine States Veterinary Conference on Mackinac.

Several AVMA leaders attending the meetings also visited with Dr. Chambers, who charmed them with his stories.

Life of a veterinarian 

"He's quite the good egg," agreed Pete LaPin, who helps manage the horses and refers to Dr. Chambers as simply "The Doctor."

LaPin moved to Mackinac from the mainland just 22 years ago, but Dr. Chambers is a fifth-generation islander. Dr. Chambers, his brother Jim, two of their sons, LaPin, and other employees operate the largest livery service in town. The company keeps 400 horses and 100 carriages for tours, taxis, and freight drays.

"Being born about 50 feet or so away from my dad's stable, I was associated with the horses as long as I can remember," Dr. Chambers said. "That was our way of life; everything was associated with horses. You're drawn into that when you're born into it."

As he was growing up, a variety of veterinarians came to the island for the summer season. He helped handle the horses during medical treatment, which was how he met Dr. John Hutton of Michigan State University—who inspired him to attend the College of Veterinary Medicine.

After graduation, he practiced in southern Michigan, partly with horses but primarily with dairy cows.

"The horse population in 1957 was probably at the lowest ebb that it had been in many, many years," Dr. Chambers said. "It was hard to do strictly equine practice and make a living."

He served in the Army Veterinary Corps during the Korean War before settling in a suburb of Minneapolis, where his practice focused on companion animals. When his father died in 1972, though, Dr. Chambers returned to Mackinac Island to stay.

"I always felt like I was a displaced person," he said.

Back home, Dr. Chambers sometimes helped with general practice on the island. But he devoted himself to horses, which he loves for their mannerisms and personalities.

Dr. Chambers designed polyurethane horseshoes with steel inserts to cushion the horses and to protect the pavement. He created high-fiber feed to reduce the amount of hay that the company transports to the island during the summer.

He also created a high-energy feed to help the horses thrive through the winter, when most of them move to mainland pastures and feedlots.

Life on Mackinac Island 

During the winter, LaPin and Jim Chambers stay with the horses on Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Dr. Chambers visits them even after ice stops the ferries for the season, leaving airplanes and snowmobiles as the only modes of transportation.

"He comes across and visits his brother and looks in on the horses," LaPin said.

Dr. Chambers said Mackinac Island is a small community in the winter—with a couple of restaurants, a couple of bed-and-breakfasts, a grocery store, and a post office. Some horses remain to provide taxis, mail delivery, and other services.

The Mackinac Island State Park maintenance crew does have "horseless" plows, particularly for plowing the airport, but Carriage Tours also sometimes hitches horses to sleighs to traverse the snow.

In every season, the sound of horses is part of the rhythm of life on the island.

"I can tell when a certain team comes down the road," Dr. Chambers said.

He's so attuned to the lifestyle that once, when visiting Toronto, he picked up a piece of paper blowing across the street for fear that it would spook a horse. Back on Mackinac, he feels good when he's doing his job and the horses are doing their jobs in harmony.

"I don't have any plans to retire," Dr. Chambers said. "I'm searching for the right person now to come here in the summer."

Even as he searches for another veterinarian to help with the horses, he has hopes that his son and his brother's son will take up the reins in preserving the Mackinac Island way of life.

"So now it's up to them," Dr. Chambers said. "They've made a commitment to make this thing go. The next generation's already got it."