Behind the Scene: Riding the Tournament of Roses Parade

Marjorie Puckett and Mariko ride in the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Parade.   - Marjorie Puckett
Marjorie Puckett and Mariko ride in the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Parade.
— image credit: Marjorie Puckett


Editor's note: Marjorie Puckett of Friday Harbor and her Haflinger, Mariko, rode in the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, Calif., on New Year's Day. Here is her account.

It’s been one year since I rode my Haflinger horse, Mariko, along Colorado Boulevard in the Tournament of Roses Parade, better known as the Pasadena Rose Parade. Heralded as “America’s New Year Celebration,” the annual parade began in 1890 under the sponsorship of the Pasadena Valley Hunt Club when it consisted of horse-drawn carriages covered with flowers, hence its name. The Rose Bowl college football game was added in 1902.

Today, the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Association, in keeping with the parade’s origins, continues to acknowledge the importance of horses by including 24 equine groups from across the nation each year. With the help of volunteer White Suiters, a force of 900-plus volunteers, around 350 horses are blended between floats and bands. Keeping horses and one million-plus spectators safe along the 5-1/2 mile parade route is one of their specialties. To do otherwise would be folly as a home viewing audience of 50 million-plus across the United States and interested people in 217 countries watch the live coverage.

The Internet offers limitless information about the parade but little about the equine participants and volunteers who give more than 80,000 hours combined manpower to make the parade safely unfold. Having ridden the parade last year I continue to be asked by islanders and friends what it was like. If anything, I can say it is “organized.” With the ushering in of 2011, here are my most-asked questions and their answers.

Question: How did you get invited to ride in the Pasadena Rose Parade?
The Haflinger Group Marshal for Western Haflingers phoned me in early March 2009, asking if I would join California Haflinger owners in the parade. My Haflinger gelding, Mariko, was well known within the breed along the West Coast, having achieved two National Haflinger Awards the prior year. I was told this would be the group’s first application to participate, giving us an excellent chance to be selected. Our golden-coated horses with flaxen manes and tails, easily recognized as the “cream-colored pones” from the Sound of Music, pulling carriages and being ridden would add a new element to the parade. It took a couple of days before I answered “yes” after considering the transporting, time and cost.

Question: What were the requirements and deadlines?
Although the parade was nine months away from when I accepted, I had three weeks to complete the application and send it to our Group Marshal. She in turn prepared our official portfolio, sending copies through the post office as registered mail and by Federal Express, as a safety precaution. The parade’s judging committee would select 22 equine entries and we would be notified by August.

Besides needing to show proof I was over the age of 18 and had current liability coverage, there were forms to fill out about my costume and tack besides information on my horse and required photos. The application made it clear that if we were accepted no change of rider, horse or costume would be allowed. We must arrive at the parade as shown in the photos.

Getting a good costume together was my most urgent concern. I didn’t relish the idea of riding in Lederhosen as some suggested. Having lived in Southern California, I knew typical January nightly temps can fall into the mid-30s, then climb to the mid-80s by noon. After scouring the Internet to view historic Tyrolean costumes, I ordered a black formal wool dinner jacket with velvet trim and embroidery from Austria. It arrived as promised 10 days later. A stag-footed skinning knife would be fastened to my riding boot.

An Edelweiss Chari Vari and additional antique silver Tyrolean coat buttons were added for glitz. I already had white antique petticoats to wear over my white breeches, high black riding boots and a Tyrolean style felt hat.

Mariko’s costume was not a problem, as the prior year for some unknown reason I had ordered a hand-made Tyrolean bridle from Italy with embroidered nose and brow bands. Documentation was needed proving Mariko had participated in two prior parades. This was easy, as I had newspaper articles and photos showing him in harness with Dodie Gann, grand marshal in our Friday Harbor Fourth of July parade, and his former owners in Arizona had also introduced him to parades. Friday Harbor resident Pamela Williams took only close-up photos, so all safety pins holding my hastily assembled costume wouldn’t show.

We received our letter of acceptance the 1st of August and only then did I finish sewing the costume. Our selection was based on the novelty or rarity of our horses and costumes, on how we would blend with the float’s and parade’s theme. We were a natural. The parade's theme was “Over the Top” and Haflingers originated in the mountains of Austria. We were to be placed in the middle of the parade in front of an Alpine winter scene float featuring a tall mountain with bulldogs sled boarding down an ice-covered slope. Sponsored by Natural Balance Pet Food, it set a Guinness world record as the longest single-chassis float.

In November, more forms arrived to be returned by Dec. 1. New photo I.D. for each person and horse in our group, plus current equine health certificates were required. Copies of car registration, vehicle VIN # and drivers’ licenses also. Additionally, the width and length of each car/truck and trailer with loading ramps down or in an open position were asked for. Parade rules stated that from that date on there could be no change of horse, driver or vehicle. You could drop out but no substitutions would be allowed.

Question: How did you and Mariko get to California?
I had been saving for two years to take both of us to Arizona so I could ride during the winter. Keeping to my original plan, I trailered Mariko in early November to Mount Vernon where he got a full body clip, updated vet check and a set of special shoes required by the parade committee. I had these put on just before the parade. From there, a horse transporter carried Mariko to M2 Sport Horses in Marana, Ariz., where we would stay before and after the parade. I wanted six weeks of Tucson’s 80-degree temperatures for Mariko to acclimate, muscle up and lose 30 pounds. The day after Christmas, I left Marana for California with Mariko and my dog.

Question: Where did you stay during the parade, and where did you stable your horse?
In May, before we were accepted into the parade, I booked a seven-day stay at a motel in Burbank where dogs were accepted and I would be only blocks from the L.A. Equestrian Center where our horses would be stabled. If we weren’t accepted for the parade, the reservation could be cancelled at no charge.

All equestrian groups in the parade were encouraged to stable at the L.A. Equestrian Center in Burbank, considered the number one equine facility in the Western United States. Situated on 75 acres, the former L.A. polo grounds are tucked into an out-of-the-way area of Burbank adjacent to Griffith Park with its own 50 miles of horse trails. Home to the L.A. Police mounted unit, the center has over 500 permanently boarded horses and another 500 stalls available for visiting horses. It can also accommodate the largest film crews. Location and weather combine to bring many nationally known trainers to its barns. With two equine concierges on hand 24/7, nine full-size arenas and the covered Equidome with 3,500-fixed seats, the facility is a gem.

Question: While watching television coverage of the parade, I heard references to Equestfest. What is that?
Just as the public is invited to view the flower-decorated floats following the parade, visitors can watch all the parade horses perform in the Equidome three days prior to the parade. I think this event also serves to filter out horses that might be less then dependable or unsafe for the parade. Each equine group is required to give a five-minute fast-action performance including narration and music. I volunteered to orchestrate our Equestfest performance with the help of Ernest Pugh who wrote the script. Gerald Woldtvedt of Elan Video edited and recorded the music using selections of late 19th century marches recorded in Russia. Both are well-known professionals who reside in Friday Harbor.

Question: Is it true that all equine participants and their horses line-up New Year’s Eve along an active freeway several miles below Pasadena?
Yes. On New Year's Eve, our group of nine Haflingers and 22 persons loaded up and caravanned to our assigned night-time position on a freeway two miles below Pasadena. With lots of flashing police lights, we were moved to the two inside lanes. Traffic around us was narrowed from four lanes down to the one outside lane. Police matched and tagged our vehicles and trailers against the forms we had mailed four weeks prior. We were also I.D.’d and given wristbands. Finally our assigned White Suiter Scooter man on his white scooter and a police escort guided us to our pre=assigned space on the freeway. Our White Suiter Scooter guy would be with us until the end of the parade the following afternoon.

Question: Your flowers — who arranged them and how were they paid for?
Since no artificial flowers are allowed on the floats or horses, our floral arrangements were prepared the day before the parade. The Pasadena Tournament of Roses Association had selected yellow and orange roses for that year’s theme. Our group marshal hired a florist who took our orders by phone, giving us the prices. She ordered our flowers and floral supplies from wholesale sources in Orange County while the rare edelweiss flowers were shipped air-express from Canada.

Concerning cost, we paid for our own arrangements. I kept my cost down, preferring to put money into my non-perishable costume. Two boutonnières of rose buds and edelweiss — one for my jacket, the other for my hat and with a spray of roses for Mariko’s mane — cost me $80. While the group averaged $550 each, one member spend over $900. Our florist and her assistant arrived New Year's Eve day, setting up shop at our barn in the L.A. Equestrian Center. By 5 p.m. that night, they were still working so the decision was made to take them with us to our appointed parking spot on the freeway. Fortunately, they had been included in our submitted paperwork.

Question: What did you do for food and sleep that night on the freeway?
I ate hard rolls and Jell-O for dinner, keeping in mind that the next day I would be in the saddle for a long time. After all, what goes in has to come out. In the morning, I drank some Gatorade and carried lots of peppermint Lifesavers in my jacket pocket to suck on during the parade. You can suck and smile and wave at the same time.

That night, Mariko had on his heavy blankets, lamb's wool ear plugs and stood on eight inches of bedding in the trailer. Two buckets of water with electrolytes and plenty of his favorite hay hung in front of him. My car and trailer rocked from the speeding cars and trucks, it was cold and noisy, and I was not in a happy mood. I think around 2 a.m. traffic on the freeway quieted a bit and I slept. Our White Suiter Scooter guy had asked what time each of us wanted a wake-up call. I decided on 5 a.m. since I would be sleeping in the back of my car fully clothed except for my boots and jacket. At 5:30 a.m., we assembled to follow him and our police escort a short distance back along the freeway, then turned onto a closed on-ramp and headed toward Pasadena.

The two-hour uphill climb warmed the horses. Mariko’s body heat started to reach me and I quit shivering. It was still dark. Our White Suiter Scooter guy stopped us twice as we climbed the hill to reach level residential streets. Five other equine groups and their White Suiters were assembled there. Lots of horse pee and poop. The timing had been perfected, and there were Sani-cans. Our White Suiter Scooter guy kept radio contact with the parade and monitored our pace. Since we would be in the middle of the parade, we were not to arrive at the staging area until after the parade started. More walking up the hill, standing on level streets in residential areas, more horse poop and pee. Within an hour, the sun was up and way off somewhere the parade had started. Finally, we reached the staging area. On our right, buses came and left after dropping off the band members. From the left came the floats with their passengers already on board. The staging area was two blocks long and our White Suiter Scooter guy positioned us behind a band. No panic, very smooth, he knew his job. More horses pooping and peeing. A short walk and we were on a commercial street with hundreds of people, seven deep. We still hadn’t reached the official parade route but no more poop and pee, the horses were empty. Now I understood why we did not need to provide poop scoopers or carts.

Question: Did your horse remain calm during the parade?
Since I was sitting on Mariko, I could feel he was relaxed, just taking it all in. He remained calm until we turned the corner onto Colorado Boulevard and faced a canyon of bleachers reaching into the sky with cheering, bouncing people. Mariko felt like he was going to faint, he faltered, held his breath, took a tiny step back, his ears tense, muscles were tight. He was ready to explode but there was no place to escape. With our group of horses behind him and the band in front of us moving off, Mariko took a little step forward. Forget the waving, I thought, I had to pet and talk to him to reassure him he was safe. Finally, a big breath and he proceeded, but continued with an ear frozen toward each side. After that, he was fine. The rest of the parade was what you saw on television. Most of the horses in harness continually tossed and threw their heads pulling on their side walkers. I felt it was safer to sit on my horse than sit in a carriage.

Question: At the end of the parade did your group ride back to the starting point?
No, after we rode off at 5:30 a.m., our five designated vehicle drivers who shared the night with us on the highway moved all the rigs. With guidance from another White Suiter, they parked 1-1/2 miles from the parade's official finish, where we eventually joined up. The drivers had it easy. As we were riding on and on always smiling and waving, they watched the parade on large screen TVs, in a heated tent, were served a free breakfast with hot drinks and had toilet facilities. After riding for 7-1/2 hours, seeing the long line of awaiting sani-cans was a relief. Jack In The Box provided free food and drinks, the horses were watered and it was over.

Question: How long was your total riding time?
I was mounted from 5:30 a.m. until approximately 1 p.m.

Question: Would you do it again? Was it fun?
"No" to both questions. Talking to the other participants in our group the day after the parade, the phrase most often given was “It was an experience,” not fun. Physically and mentally exhausting for horses and riders. Our White Suiter Scooter guy told us that three horses in the parade ahead of us had coliced during the parade and had to be removed. An additional three horses behind us also coliced. These events were anticipated, not unusual, but required immediate medical attention. Prior to the parade, we had been instructed several times that in case of an emergency to signal our White Suiter Scooter guy who would see the horse was removed through the next police barricade, and a horse trailer with veterinarians would be waiting.

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