A recent bill passed by the City Council (Intro 35) granting 5 weeks vacation to NYC carriage horses received a great deal of attention in the press, with news anchors chuckling over such an extravagant benefit. It's easy to see why your average overworked New Yorker would feel a touch of envy, but the harsh reality of life for a carriage horse working in New York City is no laughing matter.
They routinely work at least 9 hours a day, pulling a vehicle that weighs hundreds of pounds, on hard pavement, while breathing exhaust from cars, buses and taxis. Unaccustomed to the urban environment, horses can be "spooked" easily, by anything from another horse to a plastic shopping bag to a pedestrian, and cause accidents that inflict great damage on vehicles, drivers and most often, the horses themselves.
At the end of the day the horses return to their tiny stalls in stables housed in former tenement buildings on the far West side of the city, or as Jon Stewart once called it, "The sad-eyed horse carriage district." The cramped space doesn't allow these enormous animals to lie down or to move about freely and get the daily exercise that equine veterinarians agree they need.
Once a horse hits the streets of Manhattan, its life expectancy is cut in half. After a few years of work, injuries and illness usually force the horses into retirement, not to a farm or pasture but to auctions in Pennsylvania where they can be sold to kill-buyers, transported to Mexico and Canada and slaughtered for meat.
As for the 5 week vacation promised in the bill (Intro 35) recently signed into law by Mayor Bloomberg? It sure sounds nice, but don't expect to be running into a horse at the Jersey Shore anytime soon. The minimal regulations already in place are frequently ignored by carriage horse owners and drivers, with no repercussions. The NYC Department of Health and the Department of Consumer Affairs simply don't have the resources or the expertise to fulfill their oversight responsibilities for the 211 carriage horses.
According to a 2007 audit by former NYC Comptroller Bill Thompson, the Department of Health's veterinary consultants spent an average of only 25 minutes inspecting each stable - and that 25 minutes included traveling from one stable to the next, inspecting the condition of the facilities, reviewing paperwork maintained by the horse owners, and completing their own paperwork, not to mention checking out the physical conditions of the horses.
It is no surprise then, that when comparing the 2005 health certificates of the horses with the 2006 certificates, investigators from the Comptroller's office found that 42% of them had conflicting descriptions of the same horses, including age, color, breed, name and gender. With such shoddy record-keeping, who will ever know if the horses get their much talked-about vacation?
The workers in the horse carriage industry don't fare much better. They are independent contractors and their daily income is based on how many rides they sell. They certainly do not get any paid vacation or sick days, let alone any other benefits, like unemployment, health insurance or workman's compensation despite the frequent injuries incurred on the job.
The New York City Council should pass legislation that supports the welfare of humans and animals. A bill currently before the City Council, Intro 86, would phase out the horse-drawn carriages and replace them with green horseless carriages. This new industry would create well-paying jobs with full benefits, and would allow for the retirement of the over-worked horses to farms and sanctuaries.
For more information on how the 21st Century alternative to the horse carriage industry solves not just the humane issue, but the traffic, safety, economic, and quality of life problems caused by the horse carriages, please visit www.NY-CLASS.org.