Junebug was a star at the Chattanooga Choo Choo.
For 14 years, the huge, honey-colored Belgian hauled Choo Choo visitors around downtown streets in a fancy carriage while her pal Nate, a Dalmation mix, perched on the box with drivers Corey or Beverly Neal.
Little kids who took their very first horse rides at the Choo Choo could come back as teenagers and still step up into Junebug's carriage. She transported countless wedding parties, hauled Santa at the MainX24 parade, and "loved every minute," said her owner, Mark Neal, owner of Chattanooga Horse Trams.
"She was really laid back, really enjoyed her job, really loved the people, and she really loved Nate, her dog," Neal said.
And people loved her right back. Junebug didn't work much around the Tennessee Aquarium stand for Chattanooga Horse Trams, but she had friends all around Market and Main streets.
"People would stand on the sidewalk and yell, 'Hey, Junebug!'" Beverly Neal said.
"They didn't know me from Adam; they knew the horse and the dog. The security guards at the Choo Choo were special friends, and they kept her and Nate both in treats."
Junebug retired a few years ago to a farm in Apison, but Neal said she missed being on the job.
"June would rather work than stay home. When I hauled the other horses down she would always be waiting at the gate. She wanted to go, but it was time for her to take some time off," he said.
She was in her third career — helping children with disabilities learn to ride — when she died last week at age 32 of complications from a stroke.
"She was a real pleasing horse. She was a beautiful horse, and her temperament, she just did not give me any problems whatsoever," Neal said.
Junebug grew up as a country horse, plowing fields on an Amish farm in Dahlonega, Ga., Corey Neal said. The animal had some bad experiences and didn't trust people when Mark bought her.
He and Corey worked to earn her trust, then on teaching her to draw the carriage and bringing her downtown so she could get used to the cars, trucks and buses, hear the horns blowing and smell the exhaust.
"We learn things through experiences, and horses do, too," Mark Neal said.
Corey was Junebug's first driver downtown, and then Beverly took over.
"When I first started driving, Junebug had a little bit of an attitude and nobody like to drive her," Beverly said.
"I said, 'I have a daughter with attitude and I can handle it.' Our personalities just clicked, and I loved her," Beverly said.
"Horses are just like people, they all have their own personalities, and Junebug's personality was, 'I don't want you all over me.' I didn't get in her face, but we were good buddies and we got along well. Junebug and Nate and I were a team."
Mark Neal said Junebug was living on a nearby farm where she helped disabled kids learn to ride when she died.
Neal said he recently retired another horse, a Clydesdale named Aragon, who went to a well-off family in New Jersey who will ride him.
He's still got Ringo, the Percheron; Dewey, the spotted draft horse, and Einstein, a standardbred former harness racer who won $90,000 in two years and then was sold to an Amish owner to pull a carriage.
And he has GEM — "Government Enlisted Mule." GEM, 10, is retired from the Army, with a two-year Afghanistan tour on her record. On her right hip are two brands: MP for "Mountain Patrol," and a chevron denoting five years in the service,
Neal said the U.S. government has bought and trained thousands of mules to haul people and cargo in faraway lands. He has a photo of GEM in a train of 100 mules hauling gravel over a mountain pass during her Afghan tour.
Mules have an undeserved reputation as dumb and stubborn, but GEM is smart and a good worker, Neal said.
"She's been a good one," he said.
But Neal said he's thinking of winding down the business he's owned for 20 years after starting out as a driver himself.
The Choo Choo is turning into more of a residential and entertainment district, he said, and he's turned 60 and is ready to do something else.
"It's been 20 good years. It's been a blessing," Neal said.
He's hoping to find a buyer, and said he'll stay on until someone else takes it over.
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at email@example.com or 423-757-6416.