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Horse-Drawn Carriages: Don’t Get Taken for a Ride

Images of horse-drawn carriages ferrying newlyweds and vacationing families down city streets belie the truth of an industry that is a danger to horses and humans alike.

Only weeks after being transferred to New York City from an Amish farm, a horse named Charlie collapsed and died while pulling a carriage from the stable to Central Park. An autopsy revealed that he had been suffering from stomach ulcers and a cracked tooth.(1) A 12-year-old mare named Smoothie panicked when she heard loud drumming in New York City’s Central Park and galloped onto a sidewalk. As she darted between two poles, the carriage she was harnessed to became lodged. She struggled in vain to keep running, and she eventually collapsed and died. Another horse startled by the same noise bolted into the street and collided with a car.(2)

Driving Horses to Ill Health
Despite the public outcry over Charlie’s and Smoothie’s tragic deaths (and others before them), little has changed for the 1,000 to 2,000 horses forced to pull carriages in cities across the country.(3)

Because they are constantly walking and standing on hard streets, “lameness and hoof deterioration are inevitable” in horses who pull carriages, says veterinarian Holly Cheever. “The problems are worsened by the inexperience of the gross majority of the owners and drivers, who are either incapable of recognizing lameness … or are unwilling to suffer financial loss by removing a horse from service for a few days.”(4)

The smoke and exhaust fumes from urban traffic are also dangerous for horses. Horses walk with their heads lowered, usually at around 3 to 3 1/2 feet above street level, so these animals are “truly … living a nose-to-tailpipe existence,” according to Cheever.(5)

Weather conditions sometimes prove fatal for working horses. The horses are exposed to bitterly cold and scorching-hot weather. In summer months, horses suffering from dehydration or heatstroke can die in just a few hours. Some cities outlaw carriage rides when the temperature reaches a certain level, but often the official weather bureau reading does not accurately reflect the temperature on the streets. A study published by researchers from Cornell University found that the air temperature recorded by the weather bureau can be nearly 50 degrees lower than the asphalt temperature.(6)

Most cities have only minimal regulations governing working conditions for horses who pull carriages, and these regulations are rarely enforced. In an audit of the New York City carriage industry, the city comptroller found that horses in the field were not examined by a Department of Health and Mental Hygiene veterinarian for an entire year and that during scheduled inspections of the stables, the veterinarian only spent 25 minutes at each location, including the time it took to travel between stables. The comptroller’s audit found that horses on the street did not have ready access to water or and had insufficient shade during hot weather and that because of poor street drainage, “the horses are left to stand in pools of dirty water.”(7)

Accidents Waiting to Happen
Horses and heavy city traffic can also be a deadly mix. Despite carriage operators’ claims, most horses are not comfortable working among cars and trucks, and many accidents, injuries, and even deaths—to horses and humans—result from horses who have become “spooked” in traffic. Former carriage driver Angie Pheiffer says, “Anything can spook a horse because a horse has black-and-white vision and can only see two-dimensionally. To a horse, a manhole can look like a bottomless pit.”(8) Dr. Cheever adds, “Horses are herbivores whose unique response to stress is to run their butts off. Because of that, in a split second you can have a horse go from being half asleep to being 1,200 pounds crashing through traffic.”(9) One person died and two dozen were injured in 2010 when a pair of horses pulling a carriage during the Heritage Days parade in Bellevue, Iowa, bolted from the street into a crowd of people and then slammed into a minivan.(10)

What You Can Do
People around the world are increasingly recognizing that it’s the carriage industry—not just the horses—taking them for a ride. Never patronize carriage rides, and explain to family and friends why they shouldn’t, either. If your city allows carriages on city streets, urge your legislators to propose legislation that will ban it.

1) Mark Duell and Hannah Roberts, “Central Park Horse Dropped Dead After Suffering Severe Pain From Chronic Stomach Ulcers,” The Daily Mail 1 Nov. 2011.
2) Anahad O’Connor and Kai Ma, “A Carriage Horse Dies After Bolting Onto a Sidewalk,” The New York Times 15 Sep. 2007.
3) Jessica Bennett, “Tradition or Cruelty?”, 27 Sep. 2007.
4) Holly Cheever, letter to legislator, Sep. 1991.
5) Cheever.
6) Nina Bassuk and Thomas Whitlow, “Evaluating Street Tree Microclimates in New York City,” Proc. 5th METRIA Conference, May 1985.
7) William G. Thompson, “Audit Report on the Licensing and Oversight of the Carriage-Horse Industry by the Departments of Health and Mental Hygiene and Consumer Affairs,” The City of New York Office of the Comptroller Bureau of Management Audit, 27 Jun. 2007.
8) Lauren Beckham, “Charge Stirs New Debate Over Carriages in City Traffic,” Boston Herald 6 Aug. 1997
9) Bennett.
10) Monica Davey, “Small City in Iowa Reels After Parade Accident,” The New York Times 5 July 2010.