Its a curious thing about the modern-day incarnation of the animal rights movement, it appears to be almost entirely an urban and suburban movement – it is most prominent and active where there are few animals and almost all are pets. It has come to exist in almost perpetual opposition and conflict with the people who own, work with and live with animals – farmers, breeders, horse owners, hobbyists, researchers, racing people, trial competitors and sportsmen and women.
I have been writing about the rescue and animal rights culture for some time, they are among the most interesting sub-cultures in America. They are different in many ways, but I think the animal rights culture, ironically, springs from people's disconnection with animals and nature. The further from real animals living real lives one gets, the easier it is to emotionalize and personify their lives, to project our own fantasies, ideas and values onto them.
Some animal rights groups focus on obvious and quite valid targets like corporate farms, where animals are raised and slaughtered in awful conditions, others focus on entering and judging the private relationships between people and their animals, a source of deepening resentment. This, of course is the problem with judging other people, it becomes a kind of psychic drug, it is often hard to know when to stop.
Often, as with the carriage horses, human ideas of morality and quality of life are projected onto animals. Animals like carriage horses do not make career choices, they do not yearn to be on a farm rather than pulling carriages in Central Park. If they are fed and sheltered and treated well, they tend to accept their lives where they are, they prefer what they know, unlike many humans. But more and more people have come to believe – to need to believe – that animals think like we do, that they want the same things we do, and they make judgements for them and about them accordingly.
This widening and increasingly bitter chasm is a sad thing for animals, it has kept anything like a consensus on animal rights from emerging, and many animals – like the New York Carriage Horses – may pay with their lives and well-being for being caught in the middle of a conflict without resolution, a collision of values so wide it seems unbridgeable and non-negotiable.
At stake is the very idea of what "rescue" means, and whether or not any animals but pets can survive in urban areas and live and work with people. At the center of this controversy is the idea that the carriages horses are abused because they work, and that beyond that, they are neglected, overworked, confined in Dickensian spaces, frightened and threatened by New York City traffic. As a result of those things, the horses must be banned from working in New York and confined to rescue facilities where it must be guaranteed that they never work again in their lives. Because they are unhappy.
Happiness is funny concept when it comes to animals, I don't like to use it. It is perhaps the most common manifestation of the emotionalizing of animals that has occurred in recent years. Animals don't have language, they don't have vocabulary, they don't have the kind of narratives in their head that speak to being happy or sad or yearning for other realities. They do have powerful instincts, they seek comfort and sustenance and shelter and attention, they react constantly to their environment. Few veterinarians or behaviorists would use the term "happy" when it comes to describing the moods of horses or animals, they talk in terms of animal comfort, stability, seeming contentment and they use a number of physiological measures to help them determine if an animal is both content and healthy: heartbeat, appetite, eye movement, ears.
At Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, a center for the study of animals, behaviorists say measuring animal welfare is difficult, controversial and confusing. One study by John J. McClone of the school's Department of Animal Science and Food Technology asks: "Do we mean their physiology, behavior, psychology, pain experiences, health and immunity, stress hormone levels, brain development, perception of the world, cognitive experiences, mental state, anatomical problems (bone strength, foot lesions, wounds, etc.) or some other yet-to-be determined term?" Or do we mean human notions of quality of life?
The U.S. Congress attempted to define animal welfare in 1985 by requiring that the more developed animals have their "psychological needs met," but they could not then, nor can we now, precisely define what is meant by psychological needs. There is some common ground on all sides of the animal spectrum about animal welfare – the need for food, shelter, medical care, exercise. But little beyond that. Do the carriage horses mind being in brick structures, living on different floors? Do they mind trucks on New York streets? Do they ache for grass instead of hay, pine for the wild life?
Animals do not think in concepts, they think in images and react according to instincts. They surely think, but not like we do.
They get frightened, anxious, upset, but they are not believed to be aware of these feelings as good or bad things, they simply react to them. Whether they process these feelings as instincts or emotions is just not clear. The people who know horses and love them (dog owners as well) would almost universally say work is essential to animal welfare, especially working and domesticated animals. The people who describe themselves as being for animal rights have come to see work as just another form of abuse, thus the movement to ban the horses from New York. This is a conundrum because most people who love animals would say work is a fundamental right of animals, the animal rights people often say it is a right of animals not to work.
The carriage horses of New York would probably not be facing banishment if this radically different concept of animals rights did not exist. A characteristic of anthropomorphic animal fantasies has animals living out their lives in nurturing and safe environments, never working or suffering in any way, eating plentiful food in sylvan fields. This, of course, is no more the natural life of animals than it is of human beings.
Experts argue about what we mean by animal welfare, but in the end it is public perception that decides. This is especially true in the battle now coalescing around the carriage horse trade, one of the oldest continuous businesses in New York. It is not the experts who will decide, it is the public and the pressure they put on their politicians.
The animal rights movement – mostly a political, rather than an animal movement per se – focuses mostly on issues relating to what they perceive as rescue, mistreatment and abuse, what they believe animals like the horses feel rather than what horse owners and experts say. Many of the animal rights groups are deeply suspicious of mainstream"experts" like most veterinarians, who they often believe are part of a vast and corrupt conspiracy to support the mistreatment and exploitation of animals. They trust their own experts, veterinarians, writers and animal advocates who share their view of animal life.
In New York, the argument over the horse's "happiness" is intensifying. This is strange, as the term has little real meaning when it comes to animals. I think of animals as being healthy and safe, as not suffering, or as suffering. It is a concept that makes sense when it applies to them and our understanding of them. Happiness doesn't really apply, as we use the term. We consider options, make choices, are aware of possibilities. They can't.
Horse owners – increasingly alarmed and aroused and organizing over the carriage horse controversy – argue that the carriage horses are content, healthy and safe and work has saved their lives. In other words, they are happy. But it is public perception that will decide, this is now a political issue, and it is by no means clear how ordinary people are supposed to reach their conclusions, especially when the mayor makes no pretense of objectivity or due process or open-minded judgment. Without credentialed experts, it's most a question of who can shout the loudest and make the most emotional arguments on Facebook. Most of the information on the Internet is dubious, if not demonstrably false, and the city's media has largely abandoned fact-gathering on their own (they mostly relay arguments) when it comes to the lives of the horses. There are also people to consider, the carriage trade, which has existed for generations, and the horse drivers, who may lose the work many of them love.
What does it mean to be happy if you are a horse pulling a carriage? The mayor of New York has accepted the animal rights position, he doesn't want to talk to experts, he says he came to his position after his then 16-year-old daughter saw stories on the Internet about how abused he carriage horses were. It seems his daughter is the only expert he needs. So far, the mayor has refused to see the horses for himself, he said this week he will go visit their stables but will not change his mind about the ban no matter what he sees.
For the mayor and the animal rights organizations, work is all the evidence of abuse that is necessary. If you work a horse, you are abusing it. (I assume this is true of me and my border collie or guard donkeys and the owners of seeing eye and search and rescue and police dogs). This argument is a surprise to me, even shocking, given the long history of animals working with and for human beings. There would hardly be a New York City without working and carriage horses.
Did George Washington abuse his big white horse by riding him all over the colonies in brutal winters?
If you do believe in experts rather than ideologues – I do – then it seems clear enough that the psychological and physical well-being of many animals – often their very lives – depends on work. I consider providing meaningful work to my animals to be one of my primary responsibilities to them, to do otherwise would be abusive in my mind. Anyone who has owned a horse or a donkey or a working dog or sheep or chickens as I do – think of those sheep herding trials on TV – knows and sees that they need to work to be healthy, to be content. The people who visit Ireland and return with wondrous tales of border collies remind me of the people who come to New York and talk about their rides in Central Park.
Why is one thing beautiful and inspiring, the other abuse?
All around the country, there is growing anguish and bewilderment among working animal owners at the idea that the carriage park horses will be "saved" by being deprived of work, especially when some of them – many, given the glut of horses in America – may go to slaughter. They are definitely making their presence felt in the New York City debate over the horses.
I believe many animals are doomed if they cannot work. Confined to animal ghettos like rescue farms and preserves, they will simply disappear from our world. Working carriage horses are not different from working dogs, they are just much bigger. Consider the fate of donkeys, who have largely disappeared from the lives of most Americans. There are many millions elsewhere in the world, existing and surviving because they have work to to helping people live their lives.
How do I know my border collie Red is never happier than when herding sheep? Because I love and know my dog better than political people living in other places know him. He watches for my boots, he rushes to the door, he races to the pasture gate, his eyes are wide, his ears up, his tail tucked under his body, he is focused, intelligent, lean and healthy. I have a million photos of him that make his state of mind clear. He is a thriving animal in every way, as are my donkeys, who guard the sheep from coyotes, stray dogs and predators. Last year my donkeys charged a fox attacking a chicken, knocked the hen out of his mouth and chased him up the hill. The idea that these animals should only be eating and dropping manure is simply unfathomable to me, a great loss to them and me.
I am not a political person, I dislike animal politics just as much as I dislike the human kind. But to me, animal advocacy is not banning animals from our world, it is finding ways to keep them in our world.
Our equine vet says the happiest horses she ever sees are those with work to do: "sure, absolutely, working horses are lean, well muscled, alert, they love attention from people, treats, grooming, even hugs and kisses. I see it all the time, they are healthiest animals I ever see. Horses with nothing to do are sluggish, out of shape, they founder, get colic, gain weight, get skittish and sometimes mean, they do not live nearly as long as the working ones…"
I try to step outside of my prejudices, I don't always succeed, I sometimes do. I keep trying. There are two sides to everything. Are the animal rights people correct? Are the horses being abused? Is work cruel? I decided to root around and get some thoughtful and convincing answers. I spent the last few days poring over behavioral journals and talking to several equine vets and reading books by horse trainers and lovers like Buck Brannanman, the inspiration for Robert Redford's "Horse Whisperer" and a life-long trainer of horses – he has written a dozen books about them. Brannaman is a passionate advocate for compassionate horse training. In his very compelling book "The Faraway Horses," which I read this weekend, I was surprised to come across this anecdote, which I did not know would be there:
Brannaman recounts a visit to New York where he was approached by two young women from MTV and Rolling Stone Magazine. One of them asked "what about those poor horses in Central Park? Don't you think it's awful how they have to pull those heavy carriages all day?"
"No, I don't, said Brannaman. "I explained that the Central Park horses are content. Pulling carriages on rubber-rimmed wheels on paved streets is a low-stress job, and the horses are calm and relaxed, not anxiously laying their ears back or wringing their tails. Plus, these horses get lots of attention and affection from passersby. And horses love attention and affection as much as we do."
Brannaman is one of the most respected horse trainers in America, known for his love of horses and empathy for them. He doesn't make his judgements from apartments in Manhattan and Brooklyn, he has known and trained thousands of horses. He is not one to condone or advocate abuse or mistreatment. I wondered why a conscientious mayor wouldn't pick up the phone and talk to him about the carriage horses? Brannaman echoed my equine vets view: "the horses we should be concerned about are the neglected ones that, after the "newness" of ownership wears off, live in box stalls all day. These horses have no purpose, no jobs to do. All they do is eat and make manure. Even prisoners get to exercise more than these horses, and the horses have never done anything wrong. If they had the choice, these horses would choose to be carriage horses rather than stand in their stalls."
I have frequently written about this fate when it befalls dogs like border collies or Labrador Retrievers, working dogs who need work and who become overweight, sluggish and neurotic and often develop severe behavioral problems without the work they were meant to do. New York City is full of dogs like these, apartments are not natural environments for most dogs, yet no one is yet recommending banishing them. Work is not abuse for Labs or border collies, it is their purpose. They need more of it, not less.
Brannaman's horse nightmare will be the fate of the carriage horses if they are banned from working in the city and go to stalls and farms where they have no jobs to do, to spend their lives eating and dropping manure so people in New York City can feel good about rescuing them from lives where they are protected and engaged and around people and cared for. Brannaman has been working with horses since he was 12, he travels across the country holding clinics to train and understand them. Horses need work, he says, it is often life and death for them, especially when so many horses are being sent to slaughter.
If the carriage park horses had a choice, as Brannaman suggests, they would almost surely endure the risks of living in New York City – one carriage horse has been killed in 20 years in New York traffic, 22 people have been killed in New York City in the first two months of this year – rather than be forced onto the "rescue" farms the city and the animal rights movement has in mind for them.
On the animal rights sites in New York like NYClass, the millionaire-funded group masterminding the horse ban, I see nothing that suggests any knowledge of horses or animals at all. The site's motto is "get political for animals," and that, perhaps is the biggest problem with groups like this, the motto ought to be "learn what animals are really like." Animals don't need people politics, they desperately need to be understood for what they are, not what people need them to be. We need a new and wiser and more mystical and spiritual concept of animals if they are to survive in our world.
There is not a single word on these sites about the real lives of horses or our common understanding of them. Like other sites such as the Coalition To Ban The Horse Carriage the opinions are ideological, none are experiential. There is no documentation or attribution of any of the numerous claims of abuse and mistreatment of the carriage horses, there is no substantiation of anything. For example, the Coalition site claims the life span of a carriage horse is four years, the carriage horse owners say they will happily produce documentation that the average life of a carriage horse is closer to 20 years.
This new version of the animal rights movement seems an inevitable byproduct of the emotionalizing of animals that has been underway for generations in America as we become more fragmented and disconnected from one another, as we spent more time moving, working in jobs we hate, living in front of screens. Increasingly, we project our human emotions onto these animals because it gives us a feeling of well-being, connection and purpose, the very things that are about to be taken from the horses, many of whom are rescued animals to begin with.
There are countless behavioral journals and experts to quote from, we can all find many opinions that support our own. The smartest equine expert I know is our farrier, Ken Norman, who has devoted his life to horses, he spends his lives around them, owns and breeds and rescues them, lives with them on his farm. Ken and his wife Eil rescue and treat animals all of the time, and has treated our donkeys in many ways for their entire lives. Ken helped saved our donkey Simon's life when we got him from the police, he helped him walk and stand again after months of neglect and genuine abuse – near starvation, sores, rain rot, rotten teeth, dehydration. He knows his horse stuff.
Ken is a man of few words and blunt opinions, I texted him and told him what I was writing about, I asked him how he could tell if a horse was "happy."
"They have a job," he answered. "Anyone who knows horses knows that most of them enjoy their work, they enjoy pulling a carriage. They need a purpose."
If you go to greet your horse in the morning, says Norman, "he greets you back with bright, curious eyes and a nicker – you know he's ready to get on with what the day will bring! He or she is ready to go to work."
Ken (his wife Eli, too) said when he is evaluating a content horse, he looks for soft, unworried eyes, a horse who is "calmly alert," ears quietly flitting back and forth, aware of what's going on and responsive to it, well hydrated and in good, healthy flesh. Also, he said, a well-treated horse will usually stand softly swishing his tail, or with a "quiet tail."
And how, I asked, could he tell if a horse was "unhappy?"
"A horse that is stressed wouldn't be content," he said, "you look for ears back, anxious eyes, he would be skittish and wary, he wouldn't be eating."
I thought of the 30 or so horses I saw in New York two weeks ago at two different stables, everyone one of them was standing with "unworried" eyes, they were calmly alert and responsive, they seemed well-hydrated and in excellent health, they all were willing to be touched, were curious and receptive to the strangers visiting them, responsive to their drivers and handlers. I'm no vet, but they all looked strong, with good coats, ears up.
That was enough for me, I think. Brannaman, Texas Tech, my equine vet, my farrier, my own life with animals, every lover of horses I know. I want to read more, learn more. Monday I'm heading to New York, I plan to take one of those iconic carriage rides for myself, see what the romance is mystery and controversy is all about.
For me the question is not whether animals ought to work – this is the big problem at the core of the argument to ban the horses for me, there are simply too many people out in the world who know better. It seems true that for the horses, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, most cliches are true. The question now is how can we can rescue the horses from their rescuers, help them keep the work they have, so that they can remain healthy and of meaning and relevance, so that we can see and touch and feel and know them, and so they can continue to live among us.
I can't help but think of the children and lovers and yes, tourists of the world, their voices lost in this debate. Will anyone ever ask them if they wish to come to New York and ride on a horse-drawn carriage or an eco-friendly vintage electric cart? Does anyone care about the Nebraska tourist who flew thousands of miles so that he could take a photo of his carriage ride in Central Park with his wife and son. I met him last month in New York, he was staying at my hotel, his son couldn't stop talking about the big white horse in Central Park, he could not believe the horses might be gone one day, I could not make him understand it.
I thought of all the children who will get to have stories to tell of horses that are not on electronic devices, they will never get to see New York to clip-clop of a horse as the skyscrapers rise out of the mists in the park, will they talk in wonder about their eco-friendly vintage electric carts? What an awful loss for them, and for the many young lovers who come to the park to ride the carriages and mark their new lives together.
There are those who believe that magic must die in the world, we don't have room for it any more, they relentlessly work to root it out, but there is still some magic and romance that survives in the old brick stables of New York and on the tree-lined borders of Central Park.
The carriage horses are our magic keepers, spirits of the earth, connections to our past. They are not here to make us feel good, they are here to exercise their right to live with us, to exist, to share the world.
Magic is their work, too, and their right.