5 April

Carriage Horses: Ride In The Park. Truth, Arrogance, And The Horses.

by Jon Katz
Ride In The Park
Ride In The Park

I met Stephen Malone at the Clinton Park Stables on Wednesday, we rode together in his carriage pulled by his horse Tyson, I told him I liked his office very much, and he smiled, turning to me, the sun glinting off his polished top hat. I felt for the people jammed in all of those towers looking down on us.

Lots of the drivers had top hats, but nobody looked as spit-spot as Malone, he is old school, he cares about style and appearnce. A big, genial Irishman, it would be easy to underestimate Malone, but that would be a mistake. He is open while still being cautious, he is honest without being foolhardy, his easy-going manner belies a man whose feet are firmly on the ground and who possesses a shrewd sense of power and politics. He always knew what to say, and never said the wrong thing.

Just as the carriage horse controversy is about much more than horses, Malone is much more than a driver, he has become the figurehead and spokesperson for the carriage trade as they battle the mighty armies gathering around them – the mayor, the City Council President, the A.S.P.C.A., the Humane Society of the United States, a millionaire animal rights ideologue  with millions of dollars to give to politicians and an angry and obsessive army of followers, a slew of celebrities saying very strange things about the horses, and some billionaire real estate developers hovering like vampires over the stables: once on the edge of Hell’s Kitchen, now in the middle of the hottest real estate market in New York City.

Malone has some allies also. The powerful Teamsters Union – the union began representing horse carriage drivers –  Liam Neeson, a vast army of horse and animal lovers all over the country who are appalled at the campaign against the carriage horses and, according to the latest survey, three out of every four New Yorkers. He also, he says, has a lot of supportive City Council members, he won’t say how many.

Still, those are pretty powerful odds for a bunch of working-class immigrants who like to ride horses around Central Park – I have not encountered any millionaires around the stables – but if Malone is frightened or discouraged, he has learned how to hide it.  The drivers come from everywhere, but there is an Irish streak in the carriage trade. I have many Irish friends, and have written about many Irish politicians and writers in my career, and there is one thing that every single one of them has in common – they are happy to fight, used to fighting, and the bigger the odds, the happier and more joyous the fight. The Irish have been fighting powerful armies and enemies forever, it is almost routine for them, even if it is never pleasant.

I love my rides in the horse carriages, I am embarrassed that I always saw them as something tourists from Iowa and Japan did, not urban sophisticates like me. My carriage rides have opened my eyes to the city in a new and sometimes magical way. The clip-clop of the hooves on the road seems to invoke some ancient and timeless feeling, and from the park, I have the time and perspective to see the skyscrapers in a way I have never seen them before, they rise up above the trees and meadows like mystical cliffs, the majesty and power and history and promise of the city is revealed. I see the gargoyles and cornices and water towers, the hawks diving after pigeons, the gold leaf gleaming in the sun.

I noticed that Tyson, like the other horses I have seen in the park, doesn’t need to be told where to go. Malone, like the other drivers, holds the reins but as we moved up the West Side from the stables, Tyson seemed to sense the traffic, he stopped when the lights were red, started moving when they were green.

We walked past all kinds of noise and mayhem – grinding garbage trucks, screeching taxis, horn-honking angry commuters, utility crews with jackhammers, pile-driving cranes on construction sites, steam pouring out of excavation holes and manhole covers. Two fire engines with ear-shattering air horns roared past us on either side, Tyson didn’t flinch, even when I did. The horse seemed a lot calmer than many of the people around him. Most of the commuters ignored the horses, a lot of people waved at Stephen Malone, gave him the thumbs up, yelled at him to “hang in there.” I saw one or two people glower at us. I am always astonished that driving a horse drawn carriage is the most controversial job in New York City right now.

The only time Tyson snorted was when we past a cement mixer grinding away three feet from him, I am told that every equine in the world hates a cement mixer. Malone said something quietly to him and Tyson shook his head and moved on.

It’s odd but every time I ride in Central Park, I see a part of New York that I didn’t quite grasp and love even more – the people walking and running, the grand hotels, the towering West Side apartment houses, the gorgeous East Side museums, the famous shops, the contrails and clouds in the sky, the statues and paths and fountains of the park.  The park is a magnificent testament to the civic pride and promise of a great city, I walked in it a thousand times, until my carriage ride I never saw it at all. There is something quite wonderful about these calm and gentle animals, if the city leaders were awake, they might think of bringing the horses elsewhere in the city, there is no better or more meaningful way to see it – the pace, the simplicity, the open view. People feel good around them, they smile and wave to them, pull out their cameras and cellphones,  that is quite visible.

It was a beautiful thing to see when we broke into the open and trotted into the park, the quiet and peacefulness there was almost magical in contrast with the din of the city. I always thought riding in a horse drawn carriage was something of a cliche, this way of looking at the city,  but then I realized something I have noticed before, cliches are cliches because they are often so true. In the midst of the great cacophony, a great swatch of nature, a man in a top hat, a carriage, a big and beautiful horse, a world almost shockingly in balance.

“Do you think you will prevail?,” I asked Malone.

“Yes, I do,” said Malone, “I am certain of it.”

“Why?,” I asked him.

I could see that he had been waiting for the question.

First, he said, because we are telling the truth. Secondly, he said, because the people against us are so arrogant and the people of New York are on our side. And finally, he said, because of the horses. They belong here, they always have and they always will.

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