Carriage horses get drawn into animal-rights fight

A row of horse-drawn carriages lined Central Park South on an afternoon last month. The workhorses ate grain from buckets while drivers dozed in their carriages, top hats keeping the sun's glare out of their eyes.

7 July 2013
By Annie Karni

A row of horse-drawn carriages lined Central Park South on an afternoon last month. The workhorses ate grain from buckets while drivers dozed in their carriages, top hats keeping the sun's glare out of their eyes.

On a sunny day, the carriage-horse industry appears as unassailable as apple pie. Tourists cough up $50 for a 20-minute ride, or $130 for an hourlong clop in Central Park. The horses look healthy and clean. The drivers, members of the Teamsters union, take pride in their status as a guidebook staple.

"We're as iconic as the Empire State Building," said driver Ian McKeever, who owns four horse medallions and has been driving for 27 years. Indeed, the horse-drawn carriages of Central Park, which have been around since the mid-20th century, have been featured in New York City-based television shows like Sex and the City, Seinfeld and 30 Rock.

But as the Bloomberg administration comes to an end, stable owners and drivers see their industry at risk. Several mayoral candidates support banning the industry on the grounds that the 182 registered carriage horses in the city are treated inhumanely. The political pressure is being fueled by animal-rights organization New Yorkers for Clean, Livable and Safe Streets, or NYCLASS, a nonprofit dedicated to electing anyone but City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.

A spokesman for the Quinn campaign responded, "Although she disagrees with the organizers' goal of banning carriage horses, Ms. Quinn has a strong record on animal rights, including expanding funding for spay and neutering programs through an overhaul of licensing fees, increasing safety measures for kennels and passing laws cracking down on the abuse of animals."

Carriage drivers and stable owners, meanwhile, have opened their industry to politicians and the press (it is already highly regulated) to prove that the allegations against them are unfounded.

On a recent morning, Crain's visited the Clinton Park Stables on West 52nd Street near the Hudson River, where workers readied the horses for their workday. The animals sleep on straw beds inside 80-square-foot stalls that cost owners $1,300 a month to rent. Their coats appeared shiny,their hooves well shod. Fans and fresh water cooled them as the temperature rose. Stable hands led the preternaturally skittish animals down walkramps to a ground-floor garage, where they were harnessed to carriages and sent with their drivers on a one-mile trot to Central Park.

NYCLASS has made a name for itself by decrying the horses' "nose-to-tailpipe" life navigating around cars through city streets to and from the park. The occasional spooked horse tearing through traffic helps feed the campaign to ban the rides.

The horses get a minimum of five weeks' vacation every year. Many are shipped off to fields in Pennsylvania for leisure, often for three months at a time.

Still, that's not the kind of rest they need, animal-rights activists say. "Anyone who knows anything about horses should know that carriage horses don't need three months of consecutive vacation," said NYCLASS Executive Director Allie Feldman. "They need daily turnout"—time beyond the animals' daily work regimen to frolic in fields to ward off lameness.

Again, the city's horse industry disagrees. But no matter: Ms. Feldman and her organization have the carriage trade on the defensive. "We know that they're with us," she said of the mayoral candidates. Three—Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and Bill Thompson, both Democrats, and Republican Joseph Lhota—have vowed to ban the industry. Democrat Anthony Weiner has yet to declare a position, but "when he was in Congress, he had an excellent record on animal protection," Ms. Feldman said. "I'm confident that if anyone but Quinn is elected, we'll finally get these horses off the street. Our time has come as a voting bloc."

NYCLASS wants the horse-drawn buggies replaced with vintage-looking electric cars. A City Council bill to do that failed in 2010, but now the group is building a prototype vehicle, a 1909 Pierce Arrow buggy that seats eight, and advocating for a pilot program to launch in the spring. A study conducted for NYCLASS by HR&A Advisors claims the buggies will bring in $33 million in annual economic activity; the carriage-horse drivers would be guaranteed jobs driving them. The same study valued horse tours at $19 million annually.

The activists say 32 council members are in favor of the pilot, but not Ms. Quinn, whose support is needed to bring the program up for a vote.

Regardless, the group believes it has become a political force, garnering so many headlines that it is now emboldened to take on more causes. "In the past year, we've made the decision to work on other animal issues because we discovered we're pretty good at organizing and lobbying," Ms. Feldman said.

NYCLASS helped pass a bill in Albany targeting puppy mills and is working on a local housing bill to empower tenants with pets. "If a pet dies, it would allow a tenant to adopt another pet regardless of what the landlord says," Ms. Feldman said. The group is also trying to reform the city's shelter system, push pet stores to stop selling dogs and cats that come from what NYCLASS describes as abusive breeding facilities, and ban the commercial use of circus animals. "We're for an animal-free circus," Ms. Feldman said.

Stable owners suspect those causes are a front. "If they were successful in shutting down the carriage horses, I bet they would wind up their operation after that," said Clinton Park Stables manager Conor McHugh.

For now, he and his colleagues enjoy the backing of City Hall. "We believe that a safe, regulated horse--carriage industry should continue to be a part of the fabric of our great city," said George Fertitta, CEO of NYC & Company, the city's official tourism arm.

The drivers say their love of horses brought them to the job in the first place. "Maybe the electric car will be fine, but people like the real horses," said Ilyas Arln, who has been driving a carriage horse here for five years. "I'll drive an electric car, but I prefer the horse."


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