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The Complex Carriage Horse Question

By Leslie Potter | Tuesday, January 21, 2014

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We're three weeks in to 2014 and we've already had major events take place on two of the hottest hot-button issues in the horse industry. One is the recent passage of a budget that places a de facto ban on horse slaughter in the U.S. This is essentially the same ban that was in place from 2006 through 2011, and since no horse slaughterhouses opened up since the ban was lifted, nothing has really changed yet. It's an important issue, sure, but honestly? I don't want to write about slaughter today.

I do want to talk about the other big horse-industry happening: the impending end of carriage horses in New York City. This is an interesting topic to me because I can see both sides of the issue, and I'm always sort of interested to hear what other people think.

Carriage Horse

 

In case you missed it, the newly elected mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, announced that he would be ending the carriage industry in the city. It's been a controversial issue for years. Here are the main arguments of both sides of the issue, as I understand them.

Pro-Carriage:
  • Good for tourism
  • Provides good jobs
  • Horses enjoy having a job and it's better for them to work than not
  • Banning carriages means horses are at risk of being sold to slaughter or neglectful homes
  • The horses are protected by laws restricting the weather conditions in which they can work, giving them limited hours, and providing a mandatory five weeks of vacation per year
Anti-Carriage:
  • Horses working on the same streets as cars and pedestrians puts all three populations at risk of accidents
  • Horses shouldn't have to work in traffic, breathing exhaust, spending hours on pavement
  • Horses are kept in high-rise stabling and don't get regular turnout
  • Horses leave manure on the streets. New Yorkers hate manure.

Just to deal with it up front, there is another argument that comes from the pro-carriage side that I don't think is relevant. Supposedly the stables where the carriage horses live is prime real estate, and those who oppose the mayor say that he doesn't give a hoot about the horses, but has friends who are gunning for their home. I don't know if that's true, but regardless, it's got nothing to do with what's best for horses, so I'm leaving it out.

It's a well-established fact that horses do best if they are allowed to have time outdoors with enough space to move around freely and interact with other horses. Unless I'm mistaken, NYC carriage horses don't get turnout time when they're not on their mandatory vacation. That alone is enough to push me over to the anti-carriage camp. Except that I know that there are show barns all over the place that don’t give their horses daily turnout and I while I think the owners of those horses should reconsider their decision to keep their horses that way, I don't it should be mandatory that they do so. So that pushes me back to neutral.

The argument that I hear most from knowledgeable horse people is that horses enjoy having a job and are physically better off working than standing in a field, which is generally true. But that argument assumes that this is a black-and-white issue: Either the horses are pulling carriages around Central Park or they're standing in a field. I have to believe that there's a market for the well-broke, probably bombproof horses currently working in NYC. Certainly some of them could find gigs giving hay rides or as trail mounts for dude ranch guests (once broke to saddle, of course) or even as urban carriage horses in more hospitable cities.

We have a few carriage horses here in Lexington, Kentucky, and I think it makes sense to have them here. This town markets itself as the Horse Capital of the World. Unlike New York, tourists do come here specifically to see horses. But more importantly, it's not as congested or busy as NYC and the idyllic countryside is right over there. The horses that work downtown also have a real farm with grassy fields to go to when they're not on duty. I'm sure the same is true in other smaller cities.

Maybe if they fenced off a hundred acres of Central Park and gave every horse a few hours of turnout time, I'd be securely in the pro-carriage camp. And maybe if they phased out the carriages instead of deciding that the entire industry would be here one day, gone the next, the change would be easier on the horses and the drivers. But they don't seem inclined to either of those things.

 

It's not a horse welfare issue, but it is important to mention the issue of the drivers losing their jobs. Supposedly they will be gainfully employed with the vintage-style electric car tours of Central Park that are planned to replace the horses, but I'm skeptical. It's a nice thought, but I really can't imagine that riding around in a car will attract as many customers as the horses do. Less business means fewer job vacancies for drivers. On the other hand, there's a reason that "buggy-whip factory" is used as a synonym for "dead industry." Just because it provides jobs doesn't mean it's inherently good or necessary.

Even with the mayor stating his opinion on the matter in no uncertain terms, the situation is unresolved. I'll be interested to watch it play out from my perspective here on this metaphorical fence. What do you think? Is there a compromise that could satisfy both camps? Are horses really that important to a city like New York? And where can I sign up to adopt one of those horses when they retire? Click "Submit a Comment" below and share your thoughts.

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Reader Comments

kygal    rural, KY

1/26/2014 1:07:50 PM

Its all about the manure isn't it.

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