Ricky is a 12-year-old pale gray Percheron with a draft horse’s powerfully muscled legs, a gentle demeanor and the ability to make gaggles of young would-be models squeal with delight. He pulls the white carriage with lavender trim that starred in the Disney movie Enchanted—kids are always recognizing it and begging their parents for a ride, says Ricky’s driver, Chantel Semanchik-and wears a matching lilac sprig of feathers atop his head. Even his hooves, painted with purple glitter, match the decidedly un-masculine ensemble.
But Ricky doesn’t seem to notice. As Semanchik turns to talk to her customers-her blond topknot bobbing in time with Ricky’s feathers-he plods quietly along the winding path through the southern end of Central Park. Semanchik and Ricky have done this route together, several days a week, for two years, and she says he’d have no trouble finding his way with his eyes closed.
“I don’t even need to be here; he can just do it,” she says, smiling, as the carriage enters the park. The afternoon sun hits the trees, turning green to gold, and the roar of the cars on Fifth Avenue fades into the background, letting wind and birdsong and the clip-clop of Ricky’s shoed hooves take over. It’s like entering another era. But for the opponents of the horse-drawn carriage industry, that’s exactly the problem.
“This means of transportation may have been effective in the 1800s, but it certainly does not belong on the congested streets of 21st century Manhattan,” proclaims the website of the Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages, a committee of the Coalition for New York City Animals and an offshoot of another committee which, since the early 1990s, has been advocating to rid New York’s streets of the antiquated (if romantic) form of transportation. Its leader, Upper West Side resident Elizabeth Forel, is a vehement opponent of the horse-drawn carriage industry.
“It’s inhumane, it’s not safe, and it’s a danger to people and animals,” says Forel, who has been a part of the anti-horse-drawn carriage movement since 1995. “Many people in New York City want to ban this,” she adds. Their reasons, and hers, range from the moralistic (that making a horse walk around in New York City traffic on a hot day is simply cruel) to the more practical (that no one likes the smell of horse manure or traffic delays on busy 59th Street).
According to veterinarian Holly Cheever, who’s been advocating for animal rights since the 1980s, New York City is basically a climatic death trap for horses. Tall buildings make for poor air circulation, and when temperatures and humidity levels climb during the summer, the environment can become unbearable for horses, Cheever explains, because they can’t evaporate their sweat and therefore can’t cool themselves off. And some of the horses’ stables, she says, are like “Black Hole of Calcutta”-so small the horses can’t even stretch out in them.
For a carriage horse in Manhattan, there’s little opportunity for what horse owners and vets call “turnout,” or big, open areas where they can run free. That’s not necessarily the fault of the carriage industry-Manhattan doesn’t exactly lend itself to “wide open spaces”-but it’s part of the reason Cheever and Forel see a ban on horse-drawn carriages as the only solution.
Representatives for the carriage industry, however, see things differently. David Sansoucie is the director of operations for Chateau Stables in Manhattan, where Semanchik and Ricky work. He says Chateau’s 18 horses are stabled in stalls no smaller than 10 by 10 feet-bigger than your average Chelsea bedroom-and rotated to the farm every three months. The horses, Sansoucie says, “probably have better health plans than most people in any corporation-dental, monthly checkups, supplemental foods.” Sansoucie also says that Chateau sets its own rules: horses have to be back at the stables by 4 p.m. to avoid rush-hour traffic, and the next shift can’t go out again until 6 p.m. (or sometimes 5 p.m., if the traffic is light). The stable trains its drivers and holds them to high standards, he adds: “If we see them running a horse, they’re fired.” And the horses themselves, says Sansoucie, “are absolute puppy dogs. They love people, they’re well-mannered; there’s not a bad apple in the bunch. We wouldn’t have it.”
Semanchik’s horse looks like a case in point. As he stops to slurp noisily from a water trough so clean and inviting that even her customers gaze longingly at it, Semanchik explains that despite activists’ claims that most horses work seven days a week (each horse is limited to a nine-hour shift per day, starting when the horse leaves its stable), Semanchik says she and Ricky only come out four or five days a week.
Working a horse seven days a week-or failing to give him water, as some stables have been accused of doing-isn’t in the carriage drivers’ interest, explains Ian McKeever, owner of Shamrock Stables. And anyone who visits Clinton Park Stables, on West 52nd Street, will find 10-by-10 foot stalls, fresh timothy hay, automatic water troughs (the horse can turn on a spout with his nose) and glossy, well-groomed animals. Conor, the manager of Clinton Park (who preferred his last name not be used because he fears animal rights activists), says their allegations of inhumane conditions in the stables are ludicrous. “Obviously that’s a lie,” Conor says. “It wouldn’t make any sense. How would that benefit me, to not give the horses water?”
Still, the current regulations are somewhat vague. Though stables have to be kept open at all hours for inspections by the ASPCA and Department of Consumer Affairs, other requirements are left up to the horse owner’s discretion. Food and water, for instance, have to be “appropriate and sufficient,” stables must be “adequate” and horses can’t be worked “during adverse weather or other dangerous conditions”-though what constitutes a “appropriate” or “dangerous” isn’t spelled out explicitly. Further, a report released by New York City Comptroller William Thompson last September found that although relatively few violations of horse and carriage requirements have been issued (Conor’s stable has never received one, he says), the oversight of city agencies could be improved.
Donny Moss, a 36-year-old standup comedian and first-time filmmaker, didn’t have a clue what he was getting into when decided to investigate the carriage horse industry.
“I’ve lived in New York for 20 years, and I’ve always walked by the carriages and thought something didn’t look right, but-how bad could it be?” Moss said. “They’re right there in public view!”
Over the course of 18 months of filming and researching, Moss heard the same indictments from animal rights activists and watched the horse-drawn carriage industry defend itself against mounting cries for a ban. Though he wasn’t able to get footage of any of the stables, Moss visited them frequently and even attended a carriage operators’ course, where he was shocked to find there was no teacher and nothing but a few outdated videos.
Next Monday, his film, Blinders: The Truth Behind the Tradition, will be shown for the first time to the public (It has already made the film festival and interest-group circuit and won three festival awards). Though Moss says he’d never been an animal rights activist, his experience making Blinders got him on board. Indeed, his feelings on the carriage industry echo Cheever’s almost exactly: “There are certain conditions in New York City that can’t be corrected to make it safe or humane. It’s a 19th century convention.”
Even a contingent less in tune with the rights of horses might agree. Anyone who’s jogged the Central Park loop knows that the little hill up from 62nd Street is made borderline unbearable by the ripe aroma of horse manure. As Semanchik takes an afternoon turn in her fanciful lilac carriage, a man on a bike shouts at her, “Hey-remember to pick up that pony’s shit when you’re done!” She shakes her head and mutters a word under her breath. “Ignorant.” The same one the activists use for the tourists whose support of the carriage industry is, they say, part of the problem.
For every point the anti-carriage horse camp makes, though, the pro-carriage horse camp has an exact counterpoint-and vice versa. Earlier this year, Dr. John Lowe, a professor emeritus at Cornell and also a veterinarian, inspected all five Manhattan carriage horse stables and found docile, well-groomed horses that were “moderate in weight to fat.” A film by stable owner Francesca Alesse, Gotham Carriages: Horses and Lives of Central Park, also shows a more sanguine view of the industry. (Together, Alesse and Moss have amassed over 3,400 pro- and anti-carriage comments on their YouTube trailers.)
The idea of keeping the horses in Central Park is one that’s been floated by activists and carriage drivers alike, for two hugely important reasons. First, giving the horses a bit of the park for turnout, so they could graze and stretch and frolic, would defuse one of the activists’ main arguments. Second, keeping the horses out of the traffic they invariably face on their daily commutes to and from the park would all but eliminate the traffic hazards. This is something Cheever has lobbied for herself-without success.
“The Central Park Conservancy won’t do it,” she says ruefully.
Activists say they are left with only one option: a ban.
The ASPCA, for one, says it is not opposed to the concept of horses pulling carriages-as long as they’re treated humanely and regulated strictly. But in a statement last December, president and CEO Ed Sayres announced that “neither the New York City environment nor the current law can provide horses with these fundamental necessities.”
Any amount of traffic, even an amount the carriage driver may not consider “dangerous,” can spook a horse. And a 1,200-pound animal with a panic attack is a hazard to animals and people alike-a fact tragically illustrated three times in the past two years.
It was a cold, wet Monday evening, around 9:30 p.m., when Carmelo Vargas was driving a carriage hitched to a pinto horse named Spotty from Central Park back to the stables at West 38th Street. At a busy intersection on Ninth Avenue, Spotty spooked, and he did what horses do: bucked and bolted, throwing Vargas from the carriage and then running full tilt into a station wagon carrying a man and his son. All three people involved were injured, the New York Times reported, and Spotty broke a leg and had to be euthanized. After the accident, grisly photographs of Spotty’s injury surfaced, and the animal rights community responded with indignation and renewed energy.
“It was just a terrible accident, and the pictures that went around the world were very dramatic,” Forel says. The accident precipitated the formation of Forel’s Committee to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages. Then, last year, the horse-drawn carriage industry experienced a series of incidents. In July, a horse bolted and crashed into a taxicab on Central Park South. In September, a horse named Smoothie was spooked by a street musician playing a drum, bolted between two narrowly spaced poles, and died while struggling to pull her carriage through with her. Smoothie’s panic in turn spooked another horse, which dashed into the street and hit a Mercedes-Benz.
The Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages jumped on the events as a means of publicizing its concerns. Forel’s group has since collected more than 10,000 signatures on its petition to ban carriages, and by the end of last year, Queens Council Member Tony Avella had sponsored a bill, Intro No. 658, to ban horse-drawn carriages. Celebrities like Alec Baldwin, Pink and Chrissie Hynde (of The Pretenders) had thrown their weight behind the ban bill, drawing further public support and attention. The bill, if it passes (it is currently awaiting action in the Committee on Consumer Affairs), will phase out horse-drawn carriages from Central Park within six months.
But Semanchik brings up a point that’s close to her own heart: What will happen to the 200 horses who work pulling carriages? They’re not show horses or racehorses, and some of them are even retired plow horses.
“If it weren’t for the carriage industries, they would’ve ultimately been slaughtered,” Semanchik says, her blue eyes somber. “Horses are expensive animals,” Semanchik adds. “Somebody has to be responsible. It’s like a dog or a cat-you can’t just open the door and say, ‘Let’s hope for the best!'” But in Semanchik’s view, that responsibility will fall exclusively on the owners. “PETA’s not going to take them,” she says of the unemployed horses a ban would leave behind. “Don’t go after my horse. He has a home. We love him.”
McKeever, of Shamrock Stables. echoes her. “They’re going after the best-kept animals in the city,” he says. When asked about the activists’ refrain that carriage horse owners simply use the horses for income and then send them to the slaughterhouse, though, McKeever gets mad. “For me to even comment on that is just an outrage,” he says, practically sputtering. “That upsets me more than…I work with these horses; I love these horses. For somebody to do that-you’re a horrible, horrible person.”
Forel sees it from the opposite side. “These are privately owned horses,” she says. “If it goes to the slaughter, it’s going to be the [fault of the] owner. It’s not going to be us.”
Cheever says she’ll stake her professional reputation on the fact that a ban on horse-drawn carriages is the only humane way-as much for horses as for humans-to proceed. Already, cities like London, Toronto and Beijing have banned horse-drawn carriages. Some of the currently-employed 200-odd carriage horses may indeed go to slaughter, but if public involvement stays strong, maybe some of those celebrities who are advocating a ban will follow through and give an unemployed horse a happy home.
But for anyone who’s taken a carriage ride on a sunny afternoon in early fall, it’s a bit sad to contemplate the end of the Barefoot in the Park legacy. “This industry’s been around this town now for 200 years,” says Sansoucie, “and the way it is right now is better than it’s ever been for any horse in New York. It’s unfortunate that these people have such a heartfelt feeling against the industry,” he adds, speculating that many of them “have never had the time to actually enjoy a carriage ride.” Sansoucie also says bad practices by one stable can ruin things for the whole industry.
Ricky, clip-clopping peacefully along, doesn’t seem like he’s unhappy-unless, of course, he’s privately tortured by the purple nail polish. If only horses could talk. It would take just one horse’s testimony to settle the whole thing.
Blinders: The Truth Behind the Industry
Monday, Sept. 22, 7 p.m.
1230 Third Ave. (between 71st and 72nd streets)
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