Let Carriage Horses Run Free: It’s Time to Ban the Practice in New York City

Carriage Horseby Elizabeth Forel (reprinted with permission)

It seems like a lifetime ago that I first became aware of the carriage horses in Central Park. I recall being struck by how dispirited and bedraggled they looked – so unlike the horses I had known as a child on my uncle’s farm. Those horses could run and buck, play with each other and still have time to nuzzle and become a young girl’s best friend.

Not these, and no wonder.

Years later, the beautiful but downtrodden animals are still there. We have the power to free them. So why don’t we?

Think objectively for a moment about the concept of a 19th-century mode of transportation, the horse and carriage, operating in the heart of a very modern, congested 21st-century city. It’s a time warp. It makes no sense. These unhurried carriages impede the flow of traffic and present a real danger to pedestrians, cars, buses and emergency vehicles. At 1,500 pounds or more, the horses are unwitting weapons; they can spook at the slightest provocation and can cause havoc.

And that’s to say nothing of the harm done to the horses themselves by the arcane practice.

In 1990, when a driver forced his horse between buses and cars, it created a situation in which there was no escape. The horse, named Tony, was trapped, hit by a bus and killed. The image of a beautiful horse lying on the ground helpless is one that you don’t forget.

Romance? Tradition? Maybe for some. But the horse carriage trade only began officially for tourists in the late 1940s, when 68 medallions were issued by the city of New York. Although the number fluctuates, there are now about 200 horses in the business – owned either by individuals or small companies.

Are these hardworking people? Sure. But the industry does more to offend people than to charm them. Read some of the comments on the online petition started by the group I founded, the Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages.

From Wisconsin: "It’s time to put an end to this outdated tradition." From Australia: "Please show respect and compassion for the horses and ban this inhumane and unnecessary industry." From Italy: "New York and Rome share the same cruelty against horses. Italians are asking the mayor of Rome to stop this cruelty. It is time to stop it forever in Europe and in the USA."

Our petition drive has amassed almost 12,000 signatures online and 35,000 signatures overall.

So why, in the face of this growing opposition, does the city allow this business to continue? Some suggest that the carriage horses are the reason people come to New York. But that’s ridiculous. This city has so much to offer in its museums, theaters, restaurants and shopping. Tourists take carriage rides because the tour buses dump them at the hack line.

Aren’t we a better, more compassionate people than to continue to allow these horses to be exploited for profit? Horses are shy, prey animals – meaning, they are programmed to flee from a frightening noise or situation. It is abhorrent for them to work in noisy traffic, breathing in car exhaust. In these conditions, they have no opportunity to graze in pasture or even to scratch an itch, instead they are being worked between the shafts of their carriage for nine hours straight.

The repetitive pounding of the hard pavement day in, day out often causes concussive injuries. After a day’s work, they go back to a stable on the far West Side of Manhattan, whose stalls are reached by a steep ramp. Many do not have the room to lie down and stretch out – something they must do on occasion to get REM sleep.

It’s a wonder some do not go mad, as captive elephants sometimes do in reaction to abuse.

Later this month, [on January 30, 2009] the City Council’s Consumer Affairs Committee will hold a public hearing on Councilman Tony Avella’s bill to ban the industry. More than animal rights advocates should support the ban. This is a cause worthy of any and all ethical New Yorkers.

Elizabeth Forel is president of the Coalition for New York City Animals. The Coalition to Ban-Horse Drawn Carriages is a project of that organization.


For more information about this issue and the laws governing NYC horse drawn carriages…