Working Horses Of New York
People who think pulling a carriage horse in a park for a farm or draft horse is cruel and difficult work might want to check out two books that have been helpful to me: The Horse In The City: Living Machines in the Nineteenth Century, by Clay McShane and Joel A. Tarr and Horses At Work: Harnessing Power In Industrial America, by Ann Norton Greene. The New York Carriage Horses have better lives than most working horses could ever have imagined.
In the above photograph, the cover of "The Horse In The City," two work horses are turning winches that are pulling a house along a San Francisco street and moving it to a new location. Horses were once considered to be living machines, they hauled bricks, lumber, cargo from ships, moved houses, dug trenches pulled up roots and concrete blocks, moved heavy machinery, especially in New York City, often just a few feet from where they are stabled now.
I sense some sanity and reason entering the New York Horse Carriage controversy, some perspective creeping into what has been a hysterical and emotional argument. Actor Liam Neeson, who is in the two most popular movies in the country at the moment, has become the public voice for the carriage horse industry, I watched him on Jimmy Fallon last night, he has an easy way of talking about the horses, he is an articulate, convincing and generous counterpoint to the seemingly enraged activists who have been pushing the ban.
Neeson said he thinks Mayor Bill deBlasio will make a good mayor, but that the mayor got off to a strange start by making the removal of the horses a top priority. Fallon agreed, he said as long as the horses were well cared for, there seemed no reason to ban them. Neeson said the horses are well cared for and told Fallon he had invited the Mayor and the entire City Council to come to the stables this Sunday to see for themselves how clean the stables are and how well cared for and content the horses are. So far, only a handful of City Council members have accepted.
You can see the interview for yourself here. The carriage horse owners could not find themselves a better or more articulate spokesperson. He said there has been a lot of "junk" tossed around about the horses. I see a shift in the media coverage, too, as so many of the claims made against the carriage horse industry simply have little foundation in fact.
Herewith, I offer my own New York Carriage Horse Fact Sheet, the result of nearly a month of my own trips to New York, phone calls, reading and research:
- Are the horses being abused? There has been one arrest regarding the carriage horse trade and the horses in 150 years, that was in December of last year, it was for driving a horse with thrush, a foot infection. The horse was treated and returned to work. The driver has not yet been tried or convicted. There are many rumors about abuse and dark suggestions, but there is simply no evidence, not in the files of A.S.P.C.A, who supervised the horses for decades, or the N.Y.P.D., responsible for the welfare of the horses now. I asked a police spokesperson of they have any evidence that the carriage horses were being abused, they said they did not have any.
- The horses are housed in filthy, crowded, fire-trap stables where they cannot turn around or lie down. The stables are open to public inspection, people are welcome to come visit as I did, there are no limits or forbidden areas, photography is permitted and welcome. The stables are clean, larger than most stalls in private barns and stables, horses can turn around and lie down, there is a modern fire-alarm and sprinkler system, the stables are cleaned every three hours, fresh water is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There is green, fresh, hay all over the place. The horses can see and communicate with one another, in warm weather, misting sprays keep them cool.
The horses are "pounding the pavements" all day, never get to rest or socialize with other horses. By law, the horses get 15-minute rest periods every two hours. On slow days, they spent more than half of the day or more in carriage lines around Central Park South eating oats and socializing with other horses. On busy days, they spent 30 to 40 per cent of their time standing in carriage lines, eating oats and socializing with other horses. Back at the stables, they eat hay and oats and socialize with other horses, who are all around them, and they socialize with other horses again on their mandated five week vacations on farms outside of the city. Horses are herd animals, they don't "socialize" in the human sense, they do like and need to be around other horses. Which they are. Even when the horses are trotting to the park, they are aware of one another, can hear each other and talk to one other frequently. The horses do not "pound" any pavements, they move at a slow trot on flat ground for short distances , then get back in long lines and wait to work again, sometimes for hours.
- The horses ought to be out in the wild eating grass. Draft horses are domesticated animals that have never lived in the wild. Many horses live on hay and live healthy and active lives without pasture, either the climate does not support grazing or there is not enough land. All of America's working horses were originally imported from Europe, the wild ponies and horses native to the United States perished because they could not interact with humans or do work for them. Large horses consume an acre of grass a day, there are many farms and stables that cannot support that level of grazing.
Most of the working carriage horses would perish quickly in the wild, they could not find enough food, would be subject to the elements, diseases, natural poisons, intra-herd conflicts, and the kinds of predators who helped wipe out the native horses hundreds of years ago. The idea that these horses will all be guaranteed to grave freely all their lives and cared for is a fantasy. f
The New York Carriage Horses get five weeks of vacation a year on farms outside of the city, they spent nine hours a day outside near or in Central Park, they are perhaps the most supervised and regulated animals in the United States.
- Work is cruel and abusive for working horses. "These cruel practices must stop," said the new City Council President. There are no documented and current cruel practices, the City Council President has cited no specific incidents. Since the only source of these accusations come from several animal rights groups seeking to ban the horses, it is likely to assume she saw them there. The carriage horses are all working horses, purchased from farms or from stables and other working environments. These groups contributed enormous amounts of money to her election campaign, she and the mayor are very much indebted to them (he received $1.3 million dollars from supporters of the horse ban, according to the New York Daily News.)
Interestingly, many of the carriage horses are already rescued horses, saved from auction houses, headed for slaughter until they found work in New York City. Work is essential to the horses survival, and to their health. They are built for it, they need it to be healthy, just as border collies need sheep and work. Work is not cruel to working animals, it is their purpose, instinct and genetic make-up. Horses are not people, they do not make career choices or pine for a life with nothing to do but eat and drop manure, on non-working sanctuaries where they will most likely lose their energy and muscle tone, become anxious and neurotic, and wait to die.
As Buck Brannaman, the country's most respected horse trainer – he was the inspiration for The Horse Whisperer, Robert Redford's popular movie about a man who loved horses - wrote in his book The Runaway Horses, pulling a rubber-wheeled carriage on flat surfaces is not hard work for any working horse, it is not much of a strain. It is good for them, he writes. It is not cruel in any sense of the word.
Working horses have always lived longer than farm animals on average, or than rescue animals on preserves. This isn't because humans are noble, but because working horses are more closely supervised and valuable. The healthier they are, the more money they will make. Working animals need work to be mentally engaged, they are smarter and more focused than animals who have nothing to do but be fed. This is as true of dogs as it is of horses.
Animals who live in partnership with humans thrive and are mostly well cared, animals who have no involvement with humans perish.
- Carriage horses only live an average of four years. The carriage horses live to an average of 19 years, somewhere between 18 and 20, the stables keep records.
- It is guaranteed that the carriage horses will all find homes on farms where they will never work. This is false. Most horse rescue farms are small, under-funded, and overcrowded, catering mostly to old horses, mules and abandoned donkeys. They generally have little space or money. The carriage horses are owned by the carriage trade owners, they are private property and if the industry is shut down, many will be sold, many will be slaughtered. More than 155,000 horses were sent to slaughter in Mexico and Canada last year, if the more than 200 carriage horses are sent out into that system, no one can guarantee their safety or longevity if they are banned.
- No humans will suffer if the carriage trade is shut down, all the drivers will be happily riding eco-friendly vintage antique electric cars. In Stalinist Russia people were told where they must work, their careers were chosen for them by government, that is not an accepted tradition in America. I've met some of the drivers, they are individuals seeking their own kind of life, few of them will be driving electric cars in Central Park.
The animal rights spokespeople pushing a carriage horse ban say there will be no consequences of the horses are ban, it will be "win-win" for everyone. That is not so. Apart from the horses, who might be the biggest losers, the drivers and owners love their work and if the ban is passed, more than 300 people will lose their jobs and livelihoods, including the horse owners, whose families have been in the carriage trade business for more than a century. It is not a job for these people, it is a way of life, and it is arrogant and presumptuous to suggest antique electric carts will replace it.
Eliminating an old tradition, a way of life passed on from generation to generation is a profoundly serious step for any politician or political movement, however well-intentioned.
- It is unsafe for the carriage horses to be in modern-day New York City. In the past 20 years, one horse has died in a traffic accident, no human has ever been killed by a carriage horse or in a carriage horse accident. Several horses have been injured over the years as a result of being spooked or running into cars or other carriages.
In 2012, more than 15,000 New Yorkers were injured in traffic accidents, 155 of them killed.
Statistically, and given the number of horses and rides and trips back and forth to stables, the carriage horse trade is one of the safest occupations or activities in the city, dramatically safer than driving, riding the subway or walking in Central Park. (More than 140 people a year are killed or injured in train accidents in New York City, 250 New Yorkers were killed in road accidents in New York City in 2013, thousands of people were injured or killed commuting in cars to work in the New York metropolitan area. No carriage horse trade employee has ever been killed in an accident involving a horse, a safety record not matched by many businesses and trades.
In the past five years, two people, including a child, have been killed by falling trees in Central Park, which means people are twice as likely to be harmed walking in Central Park as they are riding in or being near a carriage horse. By the logic and criteria of the mayor and the people trying to ban the horses, Central Park and the subways should be banned and closed.
- Horses do not belong in Central Park. Central Park was built for horses, every path and bridge and water fountain and trail was designed with horses in mind. It was, in fact, designed as much for horses as people. This is precisely what makes the park so beautiful and comfortable, both for horses and people. What doesn't belong in Central Park is cars and taxis. I would recommend Central Park, An American Masterpiece, by Sara Cedar Miller. In the book, Miller relates how Frederick Law Olmstead, the designer of the park, wanted horses and carriage – especially carriages – to have wide and safe and visible paths in the park, so people could see them, and the people in the carriages could appreciate the beauty of the city and mingle with one another. I took a ride in the park a couple of weeks ago, Olmstead's vision was true then and is true now. Inside the park, the only radical change from Olmstead's vision has been automobiles.
It seems cruel and irrational to ban the horses (and blame them for global warming, see below) and keep the cars. Banning the horses seems a profound loss of perspective. If any sentient beings belong in the park, it is the carriage horses for which the park was designed.
- The carriage stable owners are greedy, working horses to death for money. It's a curious charge to make at this point, given that all of the stables are sitting on the edge of Western Manhattan, perhaps the hottest real estate market in the city at the moment, land parcels selling for tens of millions of dollars. If any of the stable owners wanted money, all they need to do is sell out, they get offers almost every day. Politics are strange everywhere, but especially so in New York City, where people who care about animals and the environment and who call themselves progressives might applaud the very few people fighting turning away big development money to preserve their properties and keeping animals and their historic way of life in the city. The city wants to ban them.
- It is exploitive to work animals for profit. This is a question of animals ethics as well as facts. Why is it noble to put police horses in traffic and danger from explosions and protests, but not ethical for horses to earn money by taking people for rides? Why is it ethical for seeing-eye dogs to give up the natural lives of dogs to walk on city streets, lie down in offices all day, and submit their lives to human needs? In recent years, many animals have carved out new roles for survival by finding work to do with people – bomb-sniffing dogs in train stations, border collies in herding trials, therapy dogs in nursing homes and hospitals, search-and-rescue dogs in rugged terrain? For that matter, millions of dogs and cats offer unconditional love and are doing new work supporting the emotional lives and needs of anxious and pressured Americans. These animals are continuing the partnership with human beings that the New York Carriage horses were a part of when New York City was built. Nothing is more natural than animals serving people and working with them, nothing is better for them, healthier or more beneficial, as long as the animals are well cared for.
- The Carriage Horses contribute to global warming by slowing traffic: This is an accusation made on the website of the group NYClass, a major funder and supporter of the move to ban the carriage horses. I confess it is the first time I have ever heard it said that horses contribute to global warming, so they ought to be banned while cars, trucks and busses remain unrestricted. But I did try to check it out. I called the city's Department of Environmental Protection to ask them if the horses contribute to global warming in New York City, but the spokesperson there just laughed and hung up on me.
- The carriage horse drivers overcharge tourists, fail to report fares. Neither the police department or the city's Tax and Limousine Commission has any records of any carriage driver cheating the public or being charged or convicted of withholding or pocketing fares. It would not shock me if this had happened from time to time, there are not too many saints looking for work. But the animal rights websites making these charges offer no documentation of any kind for the accusations.
- The carriage horses are polluting Central Park with urine and manure: I called the Central Park Conservancy and asked them this, they said they were not aware of any complaints or problems regarding manure or smells in the park, the drivers were usually good about cleaning much of it up, the sanitation crews got the rest on their sweeps through the park. On my carriage ride, I sniffed for horse smells, but mostly started inhaling car fumes. I imagine somebody somewhere has stepped in manure, but as I live on a farm with donkeys and sheep, it may be something I can't relate to. There were lots of things to smell in the park – the air seemed cleaner than the surrounding streets – including, sadly, the odors coming from homeless people sleeping under cardboard in the cold.
So that's my fact sheet. If the carriage horses couldn't earn money, it is likely that most of them would be dead by now, as is the fate of so many horses. I hope they stay, I hope they get to live and work in New York. I hope they aren't sacrificed in order to be saved. I value the truth, I am most impressed by facts, not arguments, there are two sides to everything. I love the romance and the magic of them, I do not wish to ever ride in a vintage electric car. I have tried to record these facts faithfully and be honest about my own feelings. I am a trained journalist, I respect the truth. And I think truth has taken a real beating for some time now.
I hope this is helpful to people considering this issue. It is a very important one, not only for the horses, but to anyone who believes in animal rights as I do.The most fundamental right of the horses is to get to live and survive in partnership with the human beings who dominate and are ruining their habitat. Work is essential for the survival of animals, what is truly exploitive is using them for political purpose or emotional need.