At dusk, Brian and Karli Cook, along with their son Bryson, push and pull two carriages out of a storage barn on the Umatilla County Fairgrounds. They lug the heavy carriages through the ice and snow to their three draft horses trained to pull the carriages through the Festival of Lights.

Although it could cramp most people’s holiday plans, the Cooks dedicate their weekends to the festival.

But it’s worth it, Karli said.

“Christmas is an exciting time for most people, especially little kids,”?she said. “And kids love horses. They always ask to pet them or get a picture. They’re just mesmerized.”

Karli enjoys seeing reactions from kids and grown-ups alike. For some people it’s tradition, and Karli looks forward to seeing them each year. For others it’s a novelty, and they can’t wait to pay the $3 for a ride.

Karli likes to listen and talk to people as they wait to board the two carriages. Drivers, she said, get to hear all the “oohs” and “aahs” as they tour the light displays.

While his wife is a people person, Brian is a horse person.

He started working with carriages because it was a way to work with horses and his wife.

“She’s more inclined to do this than go on a pack trip with me,”?he said with a smile.

Brian trains the horses, draft horses called perchrons, by first getting them to listen to him. Then he hooks them up to a harness and gradually increases the weight they pull. When they get to a point Brian is comfortable, he hooks them up to a carriage.

Then the horses get a new teacher: Duke, their most experienced draft horse.

“Duke knows more than any of us,” Brian said.

Aside from carrying people during the Festival of Lights, the Cooks take the carriages and horses to weddings, funerals, proms and wine tours as part of their business, Equine Elegance. But the Festival of Lights is the most continuous gig.

On Friday, they took three trips from their home in Irrigon to bring the two carriages and three horses.

During the week, the horses stay at home and the carriages stay at the fairgrounds. Come Friday of each week, the Cooks spend five hours getting the horses clean and prim for the weekend.

Then they take the half-hour drive to Hermiston. When they arrive the horses get a snack, while Brian and Karli prepare the carriages and Bryson gets the ticket booth ready inside Thompson Hall.

Fifteen minutes before the Festival of Lights opens, the family wheels out the carriages, bringing them to the horses. They harness the horses to the carriages, climb aboard and walk around to start picking up passengers.

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