Horses Don't Belong On the Streets of New York

Tourists who take carriage rides in New York are often unaware of the animal suffering behind the tradition

16 December 2011
Tourists who take carriage rides in New York are often unaware of the animal suffering behind the tradition

This time of year is said to be an interesting time to visit New York City. Cold, of course, but also filled with lights and glitter and preparation for the holidays. One of the stops some tourists seem to feel obliged to make is one that should have been struck from the itinerary a long time ago: a horse-drawn carriage ride. Despite considerable public pressure extending through decades, the city has yet to ban carriage horses, and the industry has lobbied hard against even basic measures to improve the welfare of working horses within the city's boundaries.

The origins of the animal welfare movement lie, in large part, in advocacy for working horses, who were once a substantial part of the landscape. Anna Sewell's Black Beauty, for example, highlighted the plight of horses literally driven to death in an era when the streets of cities around the world were crowded with working horses. With the 20th-century came the rise of the automobile, and a radical decline in working horses. The turn from horse to car was incredibly rapid, and changed urban environments dramatically. Many would argue for the better, given the detrimental effect of urban living on animal health and welfare.But, in New York, as in a handful of other locations around the world, horses still work in urban environments, and purely for entertainment purposes. Carriage horses can spend as long as nine hours in harness in a variety of weather. They're stabled with no access to pasture, and some develop stress behaviours like biting, pacing, and chewing in reaction to their environment. Cities are loud, filled with speeding vehicles, and heavily polluted. They are not a safe environment for horses, and there is something particularly appalling about the idea of forcing animals to suffer for entertainment.

Most of the tourists who take carriage rides in New York are unaware of the suffering behind the tradition. They may think of it as quaint and romantic, an image spurred by depictions in pop culture, where it seems like every other romance set in New York has to feature a Christmas carriage ride. No doubt the industry is delighted by the free publicity. Drivers assure passengers with doubts that everything is fine and the horses are used to it, and perpetuate the idea that passengers are taking part in a great tradition, and keeping something important alive.

The thing is that many people around the world are keeping carriage horse breeds, and driving, alive, so this excuse really doesn't hold water. People are preserving carriage horses in far more suitable environments for horses, like rural communities where there is plenty of room for pasture. Their horses are not forced to work for nine hours a day in harsh conditions, but are instead provided with extremely high quality care and good treatment. In no small part because they are extremely valuable animals. Carriage horses in the city are treated like mechanical objects that can run endlessly, even when they periodically drop dead in the street or spook and collide with vehicles or endanger pedestrians.

Organisations like New Yorkers for Clean, Livable, and Safe Streets are agitating against the use of carriage horses and have slowly grown the ranks of their supporters. Campaigns targeting potential customers have been used to reach horse lovers who might consider a carriage ride in Central Park without thinking about the costs. But these measures have apparently been ineffective, because the demand continues, and as long as it does, people will be there with carriages to meet it. As long as films keep depicting an obligatory carriage ride with the main characters snuggled into the seats, people will continue associated horse-drawn carriages in the city with romance, not animal abuse.

Which it is. And it's telling that the industry has strongly resisted attempts at welfare measures, like the ban on working carriage horses in extreme heat, because these measures would suggest that the industry is doing something wrong, and not caring for the animals it exploits. It's so eager to turn a profit that it's willing to work horses to death, accepting shortened lifespans and behavioural problems as an inevitable business overhead, instead of an indicator of unacceptably harsh working conditions. Horses do not belong in the streets of New York City. This is one tradition with a long history that should be allowed to come to rest.

Deconstructing the romantic associations with carriage rides should also be a critical part of the messaging to put an end to the practice. Imagine a lead being shocked and appalled that the lovely romantic interest wants to go on a carriage ride, or a romantic picnic in the park interrupted by a terrified carriage horse careening out of control.

It doesn't mean the end of carriage breeds; for one thing, most of the really rare and interesting breeds do not work in New York, because they are far too expensive for the industry and too precious for breeders to be willing to surrender them to short, brutal lives in the streets. It also doesn't mean the end of driving; we are in no danger of losing the horse-drawn carriage as an institution, not with so many horse enthusiasts to maintain them, and not with extant communities where it's still the primary mode of transportation. It would, however, mean the end of tormenting animals for no real purpose other than to give tourists a quaint photo opportunity and something to tell the family about when they come home.

There are alternatives to horse-drawn carriages. NY-CLASS has suggested using ecologically friendly replicas of vintage cars, for example, for tourists who want an "experience". It may not be as exciting or novel as a carriage ride, but it's a whole lot less cruel.

By SE Smith
The Guardian


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