Occasionally I have seen a news item with some celebrity saying that New York City's carriage horses are abused. In the past, I always wrote it off as the opinion of some extremist who thinks that almost any interaction between a person and a horse is abuse. But then one of my friends from high school posted an article on facebook about the new mayor's plan to completely do away with the city's carriage industry. My friend posted that it was about time they did away with this cruelty. This really surprised me. I remember my friend from school as being a very level-headed, down-to-earth girl. She is definitely not some extremist nut. So how did we come to such differing opinions?
I realized that, on my part, I had just ASSUMED that what I was seeing in the media was unfounded, without actually doing any research. While I certainly don't agree that it is cruelty just because a horse is pulling a carriage or wagon (the Budweiser Clydesdales are some of the most pampered horses on earth), maybe there was something going on in NYC. I decided to read everything I could find on the issue and see if I could discover what the facts of the matter are.
Both sides of the issue agree that NYC has some of the most stringent laws anywhere which govern the carriage horse industry. The people who wish to ban the carriages maintain that the laws are not enforced. This may be true, but the article did not give any actual proof of this; it just listed the statutes and stated that there was no one to see if the laws were being obeyed. Even if true,I don't see how this is a valid argument to get rid of the carriages. If the drivers and owners are taking good care of their horses, why should they be held accountable for the city's negligence? Okay, well maybe the article is trying to say that abuse is so wide-spread due to lack of supervision, that at this point it can't be cleaned up. I can see how that might be possible, but what are the facts? The horses have been under scrutiny for years and are in plain sight of the public, but I haven't seen one picture of an underweight horse, one picture of a horse straining in his harness, one picture of a horse with neglected feet, or one picture of a horse with rub marks from the harness. From this lack of pictorial evidence, I have to believe that the horses are being well-fed and well-maintained. But what about things you can't see in the horses' pictures?
One issue that has been brought up is stall size. The actual law (which must be very old) says a stall only has to be 4-foot wide, which makes it an old-time "standing stall". A standing stall is not big enough for the horse to be able to lie down in a prone position. Since horses can sleep standing up, this stall size was thought to be adequate at one time. We now know that this is not the case. Horses need to lie in a prone position for short periods of time, in order to get their necessary REM sleep. The fact that these type stalls are still legal (whether they are used or not) is unfortunate. However their legality is due to the city's negligence, not the horsemen's. The only picture I've seen posted pertaining to this issue shows a horse lying down in a roomy box stall deeply bedded with straw. Since standing stalls are still legal, and since at least some (if not all) of the horses have box stall accommodations, I don't see why the whole industry should be banned. The stalls themselves should be made illegal for stabling, and only those owners who don't comply with the new law should be penalized.
Another issue is that the horses work out in the heat. On the Marine base where I worked, our trail rides were cancelled if the temperature reached 100 degrees F. I've lived most of my life in the southern U. S. where all kinds of horse activities (shows, racing, trail rides, etc.) go on in 90+ degrees F. weather on a daily basis. The NYC horses are not allowed to work in temperatures 90 degrees F. or above. I don't understand how their working in heat under 90 degrees could be considered abusive. I read an account stating that the horses were not provided with adequate water. Now this would definitely be abuse, especially in the heat. On further examination, I discovered this article was from 1991 and the problem was that the city was not maintaining the public water troughs provided for the horses. Again, this was negligence on the city's part, not the horsemen's. The drivers were carrying water in the carriages for the horses. And it is my understanding that at this time, the water troughs are properly maintained.
A third issue is that NYC's traffic (pedestrian and vehicular) makes unsafe conditions for both people and horses. I found one major accident cited that happened in NYC. Since this controversy has been going on somewhere between 15 and 20 years, one incident seems like a freak accident rather than proof that the carriage industry needs to be done away with. I have seen other accidents cited, but they come from all over the nation and the world, where safety may not be regulated at all and can't in fairness be held against the drivers and owners of the NYC horses.
I've read quite a lot of articles against the carriage industry. I saw a lot of opinions. I saw a lot of allegations. But I didn't see what I expected to see in an abuse case. I didn't see any pictures or videos of underweight horses straining in their harnesses. I didn't see any pictures of horses with obvious leg or feet problems. I didn't see any actual statistics about accidents in the city. I saw no statistics on cause of death in the carriage horses. (It's a law that they must be necropsied after death). I saw no statistics on how often the horses are watered. I saw no statistics on how many hours they actually were pulling a carriage as opposed to standing around waiting for a fare. I saw no statistics of dehydrated horses. (This is extremely easy to check). In short, I didn't see any actual, documented proof of abuse. This issue has been ongoing and the horses under serious scrutiny for quite some time. The horses are in plain sight of the public everyday. If the horses are being abused, where is the proof? And if they aren't being abused, why is this matter still going on?
The groups supporting the carriage industry say that the issue isn't about the horses's welfare at all, but about the valuable land that their stables stand on. Steve Nislick, the founder of the anti-carriage group, New Yorkers for Clean, Livable, and Safe Streets is a land developer and contributed heavily to the new mayor's campaign. So is this whole thing a propaganda assault fueled by ulterior motive? All the media hype and the lack of documented proof of abuse makes me think it's a real possibility.
I also wonder why PETA is so strongly for the banning of the NYC carriages. If they are against any horse pulling a carriage or wagon, why go after the NYC horses who (due to the city's laws) are the best protected harness horses worldwide. PETA is an international organization, yet I haven't seen a campaign to do away with harness horses for hire in the rest of the country, where the horses are under much less supervision. I haven't seen a campaign against the Budweiser Clydesdales or the Belgian hitch the Coors company maintains. I haven't seen any protests against harness racing, competitive driving, or show driving. So why only the New York carriages?
The facts that I've seen about the problems with the New York horses point to the failure of the city to provide adequate facilities and supervision. So why go after the horsemen? Why doesn't PETA go after the city itself to make sure the horses are provided with proper supervision and adequate water and housing?
I find this whole issue very troubling. While I certainly don't wish to support any kind of animal cruelty, I also do not want to see anyone unfairly persecuted due to misunderstanding and misinformation fueled my media hype and possibly greed. What is the answer? I don't know. I'm not in NYC where I can see the horses and stables for myself. I have no first hand knowledge of what's going on. But as someone who has made a living with horses and been immersed in horse culture my entire (60 year) life, I have to say from what I've read so far, I see absolutely no reason to ban the NYC carriage horses. Unless new evidence comes up, it is my personal belief that the horses, drivers and owners should be left alone.
I would be very interested in hearing the opinions of the Of Horse readers. I would ask, however, that all comments be respectful. I know this can be an emotional issue. Please keep in mind that everyone here at Of Horse, no matter what conclusions we've drawn, are all horse lovers and wish the best for these horses.