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The New York City Carriage Horse Controversy
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The New York City Carriage Horse Controversy

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. 

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I have been riding horses since I was two years old, and started earning money for riding while in my teens. After high school, I went to an accredited riding academy, and have done nothing but work with horses ever since I graduated (in 1973). I have moved all over the country with my jobs, worked with all kinds of different horses, and learned many different styles of riding. Currently, I am working as a pony girl (hence the pen name) on the racetrack in Louisiana. So, as you can imagine, I have had a very well rounded (still ongoing) education in horsemanship. I consider myself very lucky to have met so many knowledgeable people in so many different disciplines over the years. And now, I would like to share some of the things I've learned, with the readers of Of Horse.

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  1. Jeanne Grunert
    Jeanne Grunert
    I worked a few blocks away from Central Park for many years, and got to know many of the horses and their drivers. First of all, they have plenty of water. There are several public horse troughs in Central Park from the early 20th century when horses were the norm, and I have always seen the cab drivers ensuring that their horses had buckets of water as they waited by the curb. I have never, in all the years of staring out my office window down at the waiting lines of carriages, seen a horse abused in any way. Yes, it is tough work. But they do not bring the horses out when the heat and humidity get very bad; they have blankets in winter; the cab drivers truly love the horses and take good care of them. As for standing stalls, with prices in Manhattan what they are, it's about what they can get. They do get turned out inside an indoor arena (I talked to a driver who described it for me) and he also said there is a farm in upstate NY where the horses retire to. (I asked about adopting one.) So that is what I heard, first hand, and saw, first hand. I think banning them is ridiculous.
    1. PonyGirl
      Thanks for the first-hand opinion, Jeanne. That's about what I thought things were like from my reading. I just read a blog suggesting that all the protesters should get together and lobby for donations for a more modern and more accommodating stabling- to try and do something for the horses rather than just try to get rid of them.
      1. Louisiana Horse Lover
        Why should the protesters get together and ask for donations to improve the stabling for COMMERCIAL carriage owners, who are in the BUSINESS of making money by charging for rides in their carriages? The carriage owners need to "pony up" their own funds to improve the stables that they OWN. Most of these carriage owners make a VERY good living off the horses that work for them and the drivers who actually do they long hours in the carriage box driving in all kinds of weather.
        1. PonyGirl
          Thank you for your comment, Louisiana Horse Lover. I don't think the protesters should donate money to improve the stables. I'm sorry if that was unclear in my blog. What I meant was that if standing stalls were still in use and were legal, that it's the city's responsibility to make these stalls illegal. (I later learned that all the horses are stabled in box stalls) The barns are actually well maintained. They have sprinkler systems in case of fire, are heated in the winter, and there is someone on the premises 24/7. I'm sorry I did not clarify my meaning better in my blog, and will attempt to be clearer in the future.
          1. Louisiana Horse Lover
            Actually the stables were built near the turn of the 20th century when standing stalls were considered acceptable. The standing stalls have been removed, but the "box" stalls that replaced them are not adequate for large draft horses, in my opinion. Most of the horses used in the NYC carriage trade are 16 hands or taller and many are full drafts or draft crosses. MOST of the stalls are just 8X10 ft-- NOT 12 X 12!! Many universities with animal husbandry programs have literature that states that 12X12 is adequate for drafts, but recommend 14X14 if the horses are going to remain in them for long periods of time without turn out. BTW the NYC carriage horses do NOT get turnout at liberty. There is NO INDOOR RING or large area available for turnout. There is no outside turnout available. Working 9 hours while harnessed to a carriage is NOT the same as turnout at liberty. I know of one stable that does allow some of the horses to walk around in the downstairs area where they also allow a a therapy group to do assisted rides. But this area is not an arena. The building is very narrow.
  2. Louisiana Horse Lover
    Just this past December right before Christmas, which is one of the busiest times for the NYC carriages, a driver was charged with animal cruelty for working a lame horse put to a carriage in NYC. Animal cruelty statutes in NY, NYC and most states specify that is animal cruelty to work or ride a lane animal, or over work an animal. The driver was charged, but not the horse's owner. There have been several horses to die while working as carriage horses in NYC since the 1980s. Not all were killed as a direct result of a traffic accident, but several were so injured that they were put down soon afterward. Also several have been injured and at least one died as a result of a spooking incident while working. At least one died of possible heat exhaustion and one died on undetermined causes when he collapsed and died in harness while headed out to central park a couple years ago. There are documented lists of these deaths available by using a search engine. the reports are backed up with newspaper clippings or photos taken or videos shot at the time. Apparently enough people who vote in NYC believe that the lives these horses lead is institutionally cruel, that BOTH candidates for NYC mayor had pledged to end these operations, if elected. BTW-- Horses that stand in full sunlight for up to 9 hours a day working or not, are subject to heat-related problems--especially draft horses whose body mass is heavier than light horses. There heavier mass makes it harder for their bodies to dissipate heat. And this is even more true for dark colored or black draft horses. I operate a special occasions carriage livery in Louisiana, and there is NO WAY I would have my horses stand harnessed for 9 hours a day when temps reach the high 1980s.
    1. PonyGirl
      I'm glad to see a comment from someone who actually has carriage horses. I'm based on the racetrack in Opelousas and I have a friend who's an outrider who also has a small special occasion carriage business. He has also said that the drafts have more heat related problems than riding horses. There are Belgians and Percherons in this area, but there aren't any Shires or many other draft breeds for just this reason. The New Orleans carriage trade has gone to using all mules since they're less heat sensitive. When I wrote this I was not aware of the heat tolerance difference between the breeds. I ponied for years in Shreveport and Dallas during the hottest part of the summer days without any problems for my horses. That's why I thought 90 degrees seemed very lenient. But that's what I like about writing. I learn a lot while researching and from the comments I get as well. Now it's true that I wouldn't use my pony horse for 9 hours straight. The work they do is fairly strenuous. If I used them that hard, they would soon start showing signs of fatigue, become body sore, and develop pressure in their legs. If the NYC carriage horses show such signs, then I would say that these hours for months on end would certainly be abusive. However, if the horses show no such signs, then although 9 hour workdays would not be my choice, the work time is not harming the horses. What bothers me about this whole thing is the media campaign. I have found it to be full of exaggeration, sensationalization, and outright lies. I found the list of carriage horse "traffic accidents in NYC", put out by PETA. It was 3 or 4 pages long, and looked terrible at first glance. On closer examination, I discovered that the majority of fatal accidents were taken from all over the country with no way to know if professionals like yourself or amateurs were involved, what kind of regulations they were driving under, whether the horse was green or not, or any other pertinent information. The list also included problems that were not linked to the horse pulling a carriage, and were certainly not caused by traffic. After wading through the entries, I found 3 traffic-related deaths in the last 30 years and one or two incidents of bolting most years. The number of bolting incidents seemed rather high to me, but I would think higher training standards would be a better solution to the problem. But my point is that PETA didn't put just the facts out. They threw in a bunch of unrelated statistics to make what they did have look much worse than it actually is. I also saw a video talking about how "cruel it was to make the horses walk up a steep ramp to go to their stalls" and how they lived in "old barns that were death traps full of flammable hay". I store hay in my barn and it doesn't have a sprinkler system or someone staying in it 24/7, I would imagine the same is true for you. The latest thing I've read is that the horses are "abused" because they are lonely since they aren't with other horses. Their stalls are screened in half-way up. All their neighbors are in plain sight, and they can touch noses with the horses next door. There have also been two recent newspaper polls that found that 78% of business owners want to keep the carriage horses and that 61% of the residents want them to stay. What bothers me about all this is that if people can pad statistics and make up "facts" about how cruel some of our regular practices are (like keeping hay in a barn), what's happening to the NYC carriage industry could happen to my business and could happen to yours. I find the whole thing very worrisome. You and I may not agree on everything, but I think it's safe to say we do agree that just the act of pulling a carriage is not by itself cruelty to a horse. The more things I read by the people wanting to ban the horses, the more it seem that they think any horse pulling any carriage is being abused.
      1. Louisiana Horse Lover
        You need to realize many of the people who are opposed to how the NYC carriages are currently operated are not members of PETA. Many people who believe the NYC carriage horses are not being properly maintained and handled are horse owners themselves. To characterize everyone who has concerns about the NYC carriage operations as "Radical Animal Rights Activists" or "PeTA members" has been the constant lie spread by some carriage operators to try to deflect attention from the deficiencies in the way they operate regarding the WELFARE of their horses. Also, after years of hard work, many of these carriage owners send their "beloved partners" to kill auctions or sell them directly to kill buyers. But they don't like that to get any mention any more than the many accidents, or incidents that have resulted in injury of death to the horses who work there--they are sort of like the racing industry in that respect.
        1. PonyGirl
          Louisiana Horse Lover, your last reply is very troubling to me and I have thought long and hard how to respond. If all the people who wish to ban the carriage horses were PETA extremists I would not have written this article. As I said in the beginning of my piece, it was an ordinary animal loving friend who got me interested in the subject. She has (as do you), very strong feelings on the matter. And you're right; many other horse people feel as you do. Many other horse people believe as I do as well. All of us interested in this issue, no matter what side we're on, want what's best for the horses. The problem, as I see it, is that the vast majority of us are basing our opinions on what we've read, rather than first-hand knowledge. Until recently, almost everything I could find on the subject was put out by PETA, HSUS, or NYClass, or people who, when I investigated their backgrounds, turned out to be connected to these organizations in some way. Until recently, I found almost nothing from the carriage operators themselves. And until recently, I certainly found no unbiased reporting. It was very difficult to sift through everything to find actual, concrete facts. So being able to have any opinion completely free of bias is almost impossible. But what I found most troubling in your reply is the issue of what happens to the horses after they reach retirement age. It may be true that "many" of the horses go to auction after they retire. There are retirement homes these horses can go to. Blue Star Equiculture is one of the places that takes in the retired NYC horses. I have not seen any statistics, so I don't know if "many", "some", or "just a few" go to auction after their service. But even if it is "many", I don't think that is a justifiable reason for banning the industry. You have a carriage business here in Louisiana, and you obviously care for your horses and make sure they are well-provided for after retirement. However, you and I both know that at least some of the people in the carriage business in our state, send their horses to killer sales when they are no longer useful. I'm sure you would not think it right if the State of Louisiana stepped in and shut down your business and confiscated your horses because not everyone was as conscientious as you. I believe that all breeds and disciplines face the problem of what happens to their retirees. I think it is a serious problem that needs to be addressed, but is not grounds for penalizing a whole segment of our industry. At any rate, thank you for your comments. I appreciate hearing your professional opinion, even if you and I don't share the same views.

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