Now that the new mayor has pledged to end the carriage horse industry, the drivers are fighting back. Most recently, carriage horse spokersperson Christina Hansen published a piece in Thursday's New York Post titled, "Eight Lies 'Advocates' Told About Carriage Horses." The drivers have gone so far as to hire The Cavalry Group, whose mission is to "advance the constitutional rights of law-abiding animal owners, animal-related businesses, and agricultural concerns... by shaping the debate in the media." The drivers aren't going down without a fight. I don't blame them.
Yet their efforts to demonize the opposition are distracting us from the question at the heart of the issue: is the impact of the industry on the horses cruel, or is it not?
The conditions under which these iconic horses live and work are widely known, having been reported for years not only by organizations like Friends of Animals, the ASPCA, The Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages, and NYCLASS, but by the media as well. I offer them here because the industry's public relations efforts are deflecting our attention away from them.
1. The work is dangerous and relentless, and there's no reward for a hard day's work.
New York City has the highest horse-drawn carriage accident rate in the entire country. The horses work as much as 63 hours a week in extremes of weather and challenging traffic conditions. After their shifts, they are taken not to a pasture to graze and relax, but to a tiny stall, where they remain until they are removed to begin this cycle again. While they theoretically receive "5 weeks' vacation" per year, many return underweight, according to Elizabeth Forel, president of the Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages. "No one knows where the horses go during these "vacations," she explains, "and many return thin and exhausted."
2. Their best barn feels like a prison, and the public is not allowed to see the other 3 barns.
I recently visited the Clinton Park Stable at the invitation of a driver. Having been in and around barns much of my life, I have never been in a barn remotely like Clinton Park. Despite Ms. Hansen's protestations to the contrary, the stalls are tiny, large enough for the horses to turn around in only by standing in place to do so. Hansen's article indicates that the city only requires 60 sq. ft per stall, a size suitable for small ponies, not for animals who weigh 1,200 to 2,000 pounds or more. Standard box stall size is 12 x 12, or 144 sq. ft., well over double what is mandated for these giant animals.
It is also notable that the Clinton Park stable is the only one that the public and the media are ever allowed to see. We'd like to see the other barns.
3. Old and/or sick horses are forced to work.
The night I visited, one of the horses in the barn was gravely ill. He was thin, drenched in sweat, and his breathing was labored. He likely had a condition called Cushings, should have been under a veterinarian's care, and should not have been pulling a carriage. In December, a driver was charged with cruelty for working a horse named Blondie, visibly lame and in pain. The mandatory retirement age of 26 means that horses can endure this life until they are 78 years old in human years. In other words, for every practice that the industry can cite as evidence of its caring, its opponents can cite practices, policies and situations that suggest a different reality.
4. According to a study done by the Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages, there is a turnover of an average of 71 horses (one-third of all carriage horses working at any given time) per year, a number confirmed by the Dept. of Health. Where do they all go? Ms. Hansen asserts that opponents, who are concerned that a large number of carriage horses go to slaughter, lie about their disposition. How, then, does the industry explain Billy, a carriage horse tracked to Pennsylvania's notorious New Holland auction, where his life was saved when he was purchased by animal advocates and rehomed to an animal sanctuary?
Most of us would agree that industries which control every aspect of an animal's life, depriving that animal of freedom to engage in behaviors that it would in a more natural environment, are cruel. Animal experimentation is cruel -- not by intent, but by design. Greyhound racing is cruel -- not by intent, but by design. Circuses that use animals are cruel--not by intent, but by design. In each case, animals go from a cage to "do their job" -- whether being shocked, injected or cut open, or chasing a fake rabbit around a track, or performing stunts in a ring -- back to their cage -- over and over again. They lead these drudgery, stress and sometimes terror-filled lives, deprived of play, of friendship, of time to enjoy the outdoors, for our benefit. When they are no longer "productive," they rarely meet a happy end. When profit is the driving motive, the animal invariably suffers.
How is the carriage horse industry fundamentally different from those described above? I certainly don't demonize the drivers. I don't think they're bad people. I don't think their intent is to be cruel; in fact, I'm sure that some of them love their horses. I understand completely their alarm at the fact that their livelihood is being taken away. None of this, however, negates the industry's inherent cruelty.
Assisted by the Calvary Group, the industry is certainly painting a pretty self-portrait. But if it wants to convince the public and the mayor of the horses' quality of life, they should let us see all the barns. They should address the long list of carriage horse accidents. They should explain why they feel lack of turnout for 47 weeks out of 52 is acceptable. They should produce records of where horses go during their vacations, and of where all of those who can no longer work for a living have ended up.
We're waiting. We've been waiting a long time.