The little girl gazed up in delight at Old South Carriage Company's barn on Anson Street in downtown Charleston.
Frank, a 2,250 pound Belgian draft horse, towered above her. She touched his leg. He mussed her hair with his nose.
From 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, three carriage companies — Old South, Palmetto Carriage Works and Charleston Carriage Works — held an open house where visitors could see the horses up close, talk to staff and enter a drawing for a free "VIP carriage experience." Visitors were also encouraged to donate in support of two local nonprofit horse rescue groups — H.O.P.E. Acres Rescue and LEARN Horse Rescue.
"We're very public," said Broderick Christoff, owner of Charleston Carriage Works. "We want to use that to invite the public in."
But the open house came amid ongoing controversy about working conditions for Charleston's carriage horses.
Animal advocates and concerned residents point to several recent incidents — a person in a T. rex costume that spooked a horse, two runaway carriage incidents within a month in which a horse named Luke threw his driver and a horse that tripped and collapsed in the middle of a busy street — as evidence that change is needed.
Around 11 a.m., while the carriage companies had opened their doors for the open house, 55 people gathered nearby on the steps of the U.S. Custom House on East Bay Street for an event organized by Charleston Carriage Horse Advocates. They brought signs calling for humane treatment of the horses and held a brief, peaceful march around the City Market.
The horses work in extreme heat, humidity and the chaotic traffic of downtown Charleston, said Elizabeth Fort, who spoke at the march.
"I live downtown, I'm a mother of two, I'm just driving the streets ... it's very unsettling to see so much construction, large vehicles, traffic, and then you have a carriage cloppin' along in front of seven cars that are stacked," Fort said. "I've seen cars try to pass all seven cars and the carriage into oncoming traffic."
While organizers did not plan for hot and humid conditions, she said Saturday's weather gave people a small taste of what the horses go through regularly.
The National Weather Service's Charleston office recorded a high of 84 degrees, humidity around 89 percent and a heat-index, which measures how hot conditions feel when humidity and air temperature are factored together, of 91 degrees.
"It made me think about the horses that are pulling these tremendous loads out on days like this, and actually even more extreme days," Fort said. "In my mind, what needs to happen is ... the powers that be ... need to come together and agree to doing a third-party, scientific, unbiased review. Let the facts speak for themselves."
Carriage operators say they're not trying to hide anything.
At Old South Carriage Company, people were able to view samples of the hay and other feed given to the horses. They could meet the horses in person and view log books detailing their medical care. Another binder contained details on the training they receive to acclimate them for working in an urban environment.
"We take seriously our responsibility for excellence," said John Mulherin, a tour guide for the company.
And Christoff said industry leaders have always been supportive of an independent study, but ask that animal activist organizations not be involved in sponsoring such a study and that researchers be allowed to choose the horses used.
The industry takes extensive precautions, he said. Horses work on hour-long routes and get rest and water after. Their temperature is taken at the beginning of each workday and after every route they work.
"We've never had a heat-related incident," Christoff said. "I encourage anybody with questions to just come by and ask."