When you are a NYC Child Dreaming of Horses

Horse drawn carraiges in Central Park.
Horse drawn carriages in Central Park.

I spent several days between Christmas and New Year’s  in New York City. My father took ill over the holidays and is in the hospital and my daughter and I stayed to visit him.

I grew up in New York, a fact that is hard to believe given my more rural pursuits now. There I was, a horse crazy child who lived on the 17th floor of an apartment building and dreamed of the day when I could have a horse of my own.

Although I never rode in Central Park or rode in a horse drawn carriage, I spent a lot of time walking through the park and inhaling the scent of horses. For me the horse drawn carriages were a link to the romantic past of a city that had run on horse power. I envied the riders from Claremont stables, who I saw hacking near the reservoir and would even cross the street to look at police horses.

Today, Claremont is gone and the era of the carriage horses may soon also come to an end. In 2008 there were 221 licensed horses, 293 drivers, and 68 carriages. This largely unregulated industry came under scrutiny beginning in 2006 when a horse called Spotty spooked, bolted down 9th Avenue and collided with a station wagon. The five-year-old horse had to be euthanized and the plight of the horses was brought into the public eye and the Coalition to Ban Horse Drawn Carriages was formed.

According to the Carriage Horse Action Committee the average working life of a New York City carriage horse is four years, as compared to 15 years for horses in the New York City Police Department’s mounted patrol. Other reports state that some horses work up to 70 hours per week and the long hours of walking and trotting on pavement often result in hoof and joint injuries. They point to cases where carriage horses do not have enough water (there was a famous case when a horse collapsed on a hot summer day), and claim their diets are often insufficient for their needs and that their stalls (they are housed in buildings on the West side of Manhattan) are not sufficient.

From what I read, the neglect may not be intentional — many carriage drivers proved to be ignorant of basic facts about equine health — and some of the protesters may be well-meaning people whose only experience with horses was reading Black Beauty as a child. Looking at the accident statistics from PETA, there have been 20 incidents involving horse drawn carriages since the beginning of 1999 in New York. Several of those occurred when motor vehicles hit carriages. It’s not clear from the PETA sheet how many equine fatalities resulted but other reports place the number at four since the beginning of 2006. In comparison, the Transport.org, a site dedicated to transportation alternatives states that in New York City in 1990, motor vehicles were involved in 187,503 accidents, pedestrians in 15,460 accidents, and bicycles in 3,706 accidents.

There’s one video on YouTube — produced by an anti horse-drawn carriage activist — that underscores the fact that many people don’t have enough knowledge about equine care to put the situation in perspective. Some of the accusations of neglect may also be a result of the well-meaning bystanders not understanding equine care. The video shows horse drawn carriages working during a snow storm this December:

Yes, the weather is bad, but it wasn’t that terrible. Most (but not all) of the horses in that video look pretty sound and are in good weight. None are clipped so they probably are not going to be as bothered by the elements as their human drivers and some are wearing blankets. During that same storm the horses at my barn were all  standing out in their paddocks despite the fact that they had access to shelter. All had icicles dripping off their manes and blankets. The person creating the video pointed out that one drive was feeding his horse wet food. Obviously he is unaware that many horse people soak their horse’s grain at every meal. Was this ideal? Probably not. Was it abuse? Probably not that either.

To show an opposing viewpoint, here’s a YouTube video from the Carriage industry. These folks also have a blog which includes a rebuttal against some of the claims of cruelty.

I certainly think that there are not enough laws to protect the horses and not nearly enough oversight by the state and city to enforce the laws already in place. It is particularly worrisome during the summer when temperatures are high and the asphalt is steaming. Horses are more vulnerable to the heat than the cold and for some, there may not be enough water available nor shade for them in the areas where they wait to pick up fares, and they are subjected to the fumes from automobiles.

There are laws on the books to regulate the Carriage trade. However, the city has not dedicated sufficient resources to either enforce laws nor inspect the facilities. New York City and state laws protecting carriage horses include:

  • Carriage horses cannot be worked when the temperature reaches 18 degrees and below.
  • During the winter, horses must be blanketed while awaiting passengers.
  • Carriage horses cannot be driven faster than a trot.
  • Carriage horses can only be worked nine hours during any 24-hour period.
  • Horses must be given a rest period of at least 15 minutes for every two hours they work.
  • Fresh water must be made available to them during their rest periods.
  • Horses must be provided with enough food and water and allowed to eat and drink at reasonable intervals while they are working. (Carriage horse drivers can carry water on the carriage or make use of troughs in the park. The law does not specify how to provide water–only that it be provided.)
  • Horses cannot be worked when they are lame or suffer from a physical condition, illness, or condition that makes them unsuitable for work.
  • The law prohibits “abuse” of carriage horses which means physical maltreatment or failure to provide the care required by the regulations.
  • Horses are prohibited from working during “adverse weather conditions,” which means any condition that is hazardous to the health and safety of the horse, driver, or the public. This includes, but is not limited to, ice, snow, heavy rain, and other slippery conditions.
  • Carriage horses are not allowed on bridges or in tunnels.
  • Carriage horse operators must obey traffic laws. This includes traffic lights, signs, prohibitions on U turns, etc.

Should horse drawn carriages continue to be a part of New York City? I don’t know During my last trip I saw some beautifully turned out horses pulling spectacular carriages. I was driving near where the horses are stabled and I saw many returning for the day. I also saw two magnificent police horses. It would be a shame to ban all of the carriages because some of the drivers don’t care for their horses; it would be better to make sure they are well cared for. Remember, one of Beauty’s kind owners drove a hansom cab.

To help make a difference to the horses that are currently pulling carriages, consider making a donation to the Humane Society of New York’s Horse Drawn Carriage Adoption Program.


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New York Laws Designed to Protect Carriage Horses

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One thought on “When you are a NYC Child Dreaming of Horses

  1. I was in Amish country in Illinois last December, and they took their horses and buggies out in the bad weather. Frankly, they were the only ones out on the road during that storm. (They passed the house where I was staying.)

    Groups won’t go after the Amish, but they’ll take on the NYC carriage drivers? Do they perceive a vulnerability in the smaller group?

    I’m not nuts about the way a whole group gets judged by the actions of a few. Let alone the demonization of certain groups or equestrian disciplines.

    Plus, there’s this penchant for “scorched earth” policies by various protection groups, as they destroy the village to save it.

    Why not use those powerful tools of persuasion to educate instead of stirring up rage and strife?

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