The velvet seat is high, the pace is slow and the view of the parks and monuments is spectacular when seen from a horse-drawn carriage. Long famous in New York City and Charleston, such fancy buggy rides are a little-known attraction in the nation's capital -- where they offer an introduction to Washington for tourists and a new way for local residents to see the familiar federal landscape.
Michael Schauer, wearing a black top hat, and his horse, Blue, wearing sleigh bells, can be seen crisscrossing the Mall most afternoons and evenings when the weather is good. Schauer, a 46-year-old former government computer analyst, left his job two years ago and started his own carriage tours operation.
His Old Vet Carriage Company, launched without much fanfare, has just added a second carriage and driver.
"This is happy work," he said as he hurried Blue through a yellow light. "I can make a living and I meet a lot of people. When people get into the carriage, they are all set for a nice time and I enjoy giving it to them."
Schauer's buggy, correctly called a cabriolet because it has a hood that folds down, is easily spotted among the cabs outside the Hyatt Regency Hotel at 400 New Jersey Ave. NW, the starting point of the tour. His rates are a bit higher, however.
For $25, the carriage takes passengers on a half-hour tour, which includes a look at the west side of the Capitol and about half the Mall. For $50, there's an hour-long tour of the Mall, the Washington Monument and the south side of the White House. The carriage holds up to five passengers.
Schauer's tours feature a lively discourse on the contents of the Smithsonian buildings, pauses for photographs of the dramatic vistas, jokes about past presidents and a contagious enthusiasm for the beauty of the federal city.
The slow pace, about eight miles an hour, gives the passenger time to study the dozen statues along the way, admire the sharp-lined architecture of the East Wing and even chat with pedestrians and motorists who wave as the carriage passes by.
And the open carriage gives a panoramic view of the city without the usual car roof cutting off the tops of buildings.
Schauer said he spent 20 years working for the government and before that was employed as a chimney sweep, auto mechanic and refrigerator and air-conditioning repairman. He said he likes his current job best.
"I bought my first horse in 1976 when I decided to form a Civil War cavalry regiment," said Schauer, whose unit participated in the 1981 inaugural parade and would have been part of the 1985 parade if it had been held.
He said he bought his first carriage in 1979 so that his wife and daughter could be part of the Civil War reenactments he and his unit, the 1st Maine Cavalry, perform for the National Park Service.
"At some point, someone at the office pointed out that I could make some money using the horse and carriage for weddings," he said. "I did that and then I got to thinking it would be fun to take people on tours with the carriage."
Schauer said that it took two years to lay the groundwork for his carriage tours in Washington. There were no regulations governing his type of business, and various documents had to be drawn up by both the city and federal government to cover his tours. He said there was no license for a carriage driver so he and his assistants had to get limousine licenses.
He's been "driving" people around the Mall ever since.
Late one recent evening, two women visiting the city from Los Angeles approached Schauer for a tour. They carried a blanket from the hotel and a bottle of champagne.
"We've got one day here and we want you to show us the city," said Linda Maghan.
Schauer tipped his hat, the women climbed in and the tour started.
His passengers asked about Metro stops, the rotunda in the Capitol building, the height of the Washington Monument, safety on the streets, funding for the Smithsonian and where government workers park.
Besides showing them the government buildings, Schauer pointed out two statues with naked men (The Boy Scout Memorial on the Ellipse and the Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade Monument at Third Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW); the zero mile stone at the north end of the Ellipse; the Redwood trees growing near the Ellipse and the flowers planted in a giant numeral one in front of the 1st Division Monument near the Old Executive Office Building.
Maghan said after the tour that she "loved the horse, loved the carriage and this is the way to see Washington."
Her companion, Cathy Spehar, agreed.
Schauer said that when he worked for the government it was the rush hour commuting that bothered him.
"I think it is good for my nerves to be slowed down like this," he said as he and Blue waited patiently for traffic to clear near the Monument. "I'm a history buff and this is the old way. This is the natural way to travel."