By Edith Honan
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The Central Park horse and buggy ride, for decades an iconic New York experience along with a Broadway show or a visit to the Empire State Building, is facing extinction.
Animal rights groups that had long argued horses do not belong in a congested, urban environment like midtown Manhattan suddenly find themselves with the upper hand.
Three weeks before the city's November 5 mayoral election, the top candidates both support ending the practice and say they are open to alternatives, like replacing the horses with 8-seat electric cars.
"We are in the biggest, densest urban area in North America. It is not a place for horses. They are not meant to be in traffic jams," Bill de Blasio, the Democrat front-runner said at a press conference with New York Class, an animal rights group. "It's obvious. There are better alternatives."
But Christina Hansen, a carriage driver from Kentucky who has become the face of the industry in New York, says de Blasio and his Republican opponent Joe Lhota have it all wrong.
"It's all a bunch of hysteria," said Hansen, 33, as she guided her horse, Sara, through Manhattan traffic toward Central Park. "Their agenda is not animal welfare. It's animal rights."
"We bred horses to be powerful, willing partners in our civilization," said Hansen, who wore a long coat and feathered felt hat. "They project their own human emotions onto horses."
Like many New York classics, the Central Park carriage ride was immortalized in cinema. In Woody Allen's "Manhattan," Allen's character kisses his young girlfriend, played by Mariel Hemingway, in the back seat of a carriage. The image has been used again and again in TV series such as "Sex in the City," "Seinfeld" and "30 Rock."
"People come to us for the clip-clop," said Hansen. "Nobody wants to pet a fender."
'VERY NEW YORK'
Clinton Park Stables, home to 78 horses, sits on the far west side of Manhattan, a 20 minute ride from Central Park. It was built in the 1880s for street sweepers' horses.
"Because this is an urban stable, every square foot is used for something," said Hansen, as she led a tour past old-fashioned carriages, manufactured in Indiana, and a blacksmith working on a horseshoe along a row of 80-square-foot stalls.
The rules regulating the carriage industry are set by the city. Horses work no more than 9 hours a day, and every year spend at least five weeks on a farm. A veterinarian examines every horse twice a year and city inspectors visit regularly.
Hansen, a former doctoral student in French history, jokes that the stable has more inspections "than a day-care facility."
Over the last 30 years, three horses have died in traffic accidents - in 1985, 1990 and 2006. New York Class counts 19 accidents over the last two years that resulted in injury, but the carriage industry says most of them were minor incidents.
For Allie Feldman, executive director of New York Class, the solution is simple: Horses don't belong in traffic and an eco-friendly motorized alternative could catch on with tourists.
"It retains the romantic, classic, nostalgic feel that you would get in a horse-drawn carriage, only it doesn't have the smell, it doesn't have the cruelty and it's much more safe," she said. "We think we're offering a really fair compromise."
On Central Park South, across from the Plaza Hotel, Charlene Dertinger, 46, a native New Yorker celebrating a new job with a ride around the park, said it would be a shame to lose that tradition.
"I want to treat myself," said Dertinger. "I'm just going to sit by myself and enjoy the scenery."
A few strides away, Hazel and Terry Watkins, retired visitors from Australia, were disembarking from their trip, which included a stop at the John Lennon "Imagine" memorial.
"We felt very New York," said Hazel.
(Additional reporting by Luke Swiderski; Editing by Dina Kyriakidou and Gunna Dickson)