Knott’s Keeps Faith in Coach : An Anachronism? Maybe, But Stage Ride Still Packs Them In


In an age when theme parks are judged by their latest roller coasters or computerized simulators, a perennial favorite at Knott’s Berry Farm is an anachronism.

The stagecoach ride--an enduringly popular attraction that features authentic vehicles pulled by real horses--draws guests willing to stand in line for the opportunity to travel in the style of the previous century.

“Being in the city, you don’t get to do this very often,” said Kevin Norris, whose rumpled hat, dusty jeans and worn boots make him look every inch the stagecoach driver and horseman that he is.


Norris joined Knott’s in 1978 as a stagecoach loader and worked his way up to riding “shotgun,” then to driving. Today, he is the attraction’s chief horse trainer, with a crew of 27 wranglers, and is in charge of the entire stable of 51 horses.

“It’s a pretty complex operation. People don’t understand what it takes,” the 34-year-old wrangler said.

The stagecoaches are originals that were bought by park founder Walter Knott from movie companies in the 1950s. Only one is a replica, and it is nearly 40 years old.

For safety, the 19th-Century wood-paneled coaches are equipped with the same kind of hydraulic brakes found on cars. Norris said the coaches are regularly inspected and repaired.

Each is pulled by a team of four or six horses. Part of Norris’ art is knowing how to line up the animals. The more aggressive are put in the lead, while the more docile follow them. A good horse follows commands and seldom looks back or to the side.

Because of all the noise in the theme park--squeals from roller-coaster riders, tooting horns of kiddie rides, hissing from the steam train--the horses are taught to respond to gentle pulls on the reins rather than to voice commands.


“It sometimes can be tough,” Norris said. Drivers are taught to keep their eyes focused 30 feet in front of the team, he said: “You’ve got to see what’s ahead.”

Occasionally there are mishaps. Horses sometimes take a spill even though their shoes are specially treated to prevent slipping on the pavement. That may result in consternation to the animals, Norris said, but seldom causes serious injury.

The teams typically spend four hours a day, three or four days a week pulling the stagecoaches, which can weigh more than 2 1/2 tons each when fully loaded with a dozen passengers.

The horses need time to adjust to the activities around them, though, so only a single inexperienced animal is allowed on a team.

Watching a new horse learn the ropes is one of the real pleasures of his job, Norris said. He typically buys young quarter horses or mixed stock. The oldest horse in the Knott’s stable now is Little Joe, a 14-year-old.

As proof of the attraction’s lasting appeal, park guests sometimes wait as long as an hour to take the 5/8-mile journey around the park. Knott’s officials acknowledge that the ride is one of their slowest.