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Sisters' carriage built for commerce

This custom-built set of wheels is loaded with options: convertible top, plush interior and leather trim.

But on the floor next to the brake, there is no gas pedal. Two grain-fueled Percheron draft horses power this sleek buggy.

The inspiration behind Canterbury Carriages came when owner Rosemary Pitt attended a friend's wedding in Jacksonville. The couple had hired a carriage for the occasion. A lifelong horse lover, Pitt struck up a conversation with the owner.

"I had always ridden, but never driven. The lady let me get up and drive the carriage. That was it," Pitt said.

When she returned to Tampa, Pitt told her sister, Diane Graves, her idea to open a carriage service here. Graves took out a second mortgage on her house to help finance the venture. Both sisters already had full-time jobs. Pitt is director of a day-care center, Circle C Ranch, where the horses are kept. Graves is a medical transcriptionist in Clearwater.

Because they both owned horses, they thought the carriage business would help pay for their expensive hobby.

At 1,600 pounds, Meg is built for strength not speed. The 4-year-old black mare was raised on an Amish farm in Ohio, where she was broken to the plow. Pitt bought Meg and her sister, Molly, to pull the hand-built carriage she commissioned from another Amish craftsman. Pitt said the man she knew only as Mr. B. was reserved in his dealings with outsiders. He had no phone, so Pitt wrote him and made an appointment to call him.

Although she knew many brides would request a white carriage, Pitt had the body of the barouche buggy painted light bronze. In her research, she learned that white carriages are traditionally reserved for children's funerals.

"I wouldn't have a white carriage because of that," Pitt said.

After only eight months in Florida, Molly developed colic and required emergency surgery in Gainesville. After the surgery, Molly foundered (the muscles of the hoof become inflamed and fail to support the leg bones). Unable to watch her suffer, Pitt had her put to death. Molly had originally cost $2,000. Pitt and Graves spent $6,000 trying to save her.

During the March "storm of the century," Pitt was driving back from Columbus, Ohio, where she bought Molly's replacement, Hilltop Princess. On the freezing drive back to Florida, Pitt renamed her Hillary after the nation's new first lady.

Although they work strapped in pounds and pounds of heavy harness, the horses listen to Pitt's voice for direction. She said she doesn't use the reins much.

"I can't explain the closeness you get. It's like working with a partner," Pitt said.

Right now, Meg is working solo. Hillary is still a little skittish on the road and has trouble standing completely still while being harnessed. But Meg is a pro. Pitt said if she travels a route once, she knows it.

"I'll say, "Meg, it's a red light,' and she'll stop. I swear she can see the light turn green," Pitt said.

Meg encounters cars, motorcycles and other road hazards while she works, but Pitt said she's calm and steady. The closest Meg ever came to getting spooked was at Lowry Park when a chimpanzee climbed the side of its cage and screeched at her.

Running the carriage service is hard physical work. The carriage must be pushed into the trailer, the heavy harnesses hauled and the horses loaded. Pitt said clients always wonder how the two slightly built sisters manage.

"They always think there's a man around somewhere," she said.

Canterbury Carriages charges $150 an hour for a romantic evening drive and $350 for a wedding. Pitt said her carriage can go almost anywhere, but downtown Tampa and St. Petersburg are popular.

When Graves got married in May 1992, she didn't use the carriage service she owns. She eloped to Jamaica.