No Horsing Around this Time

Written by Anam Baig on . Posted in News Our Town, News West Side Spirit, Our Town, West Side Spirit.

A stable attendant sweeps in front of a horse about to leave the stables

Will the Central Park horses finally be outlawed?

By Anam Baig and Sean Creamer

Central Park’s horse-drawn carriages have been a traditional New York City tourist attraction since the 1930s, but animal rights activists have been pushing for years to close the stables, free the horses and find them a home outside the Big Apple.

Three recent incidents involving the horses have resparked the debate and shed light again on the horses and the iconic tourist experience. March 3, a horse was spooked on the Upper West Side and took off, dragging a tipped carriage through heavy traffic. Last December, a horse collapsed near Grand Army Plaza at 59th Street while pulling a carriage holding three adults and a child, tossing them to the ground. In October, another horse, Charlie, died while pulling a carriage on the way to Central Park.

Those in favor of the horse carriages claim that the incidents are sporadic and don’t reflect the high standard used by the industry. The opponents claim that it’s just another day at work for the horses.

Two dueling events happened last weekend when the groups gathered to build momentum on their side as the debate rages. A slew of equestrians from all over the country gathered March 30 to attend ClipClopNYC, where the Horse-Carriage Association of New York welcomed members of the public to see behind the scenes of the industry. The event included tours of the stables, a meet-and-greet with veterinarians who work with the horses and an informational session at Central Park. The event touted the industry’s partnership with Blue Star Equiculture of Palmer, Mass., where retired horses go to live after serving on the streets of New York City.

To counter that event, the Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages, working with other animals rights groups, held an event of its own Sunday, April 1, to protest ClipClopNYC and expose the carriage industry’s practices.

But things weren’t always so black and white for horses in the park.

Frederick Law Olmstead’s original 1870s design of Central Park was meant for horse-drawn carriages both as a means of transport and recreation. Now that those times have passed, many people are vying for the carriages’ ban, citing that the horses are put under unnecessary strain, suffer subpar living conditions and lack roaming space.

Upper West Side Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal and Queens Senator Tony Avella introduced legislation last spring that would ban horse-drawn cabs in the city.

“These horses get easily spooked on city streets. Its not their natural habitat,” Rosenthal said. “It’s dangerous for them and the people in the carriage. My aim is to relieve the horses of work that they are forced to do, dragging hundred and hundred of pounds of carriage and people all day long.”

At the City Council level, legislation sponsored by Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito would ban the use of horse-drawn carriages in the park, allowing electric cars to take the place of the horses as a tourist attraction.

“We support any legislation that gets these horses out of harm’s way,” said Carly Marie Knudson, executive director of NYCLASS, a group that wants to end the use of carriage horses in the city.

Steven Malone, president of the New York Horse and Carriage association with his horse Paddy

“We think the City Council’s route has the advantage of offering an alternative that saves the horses while simultaneously creating new jobs and boosting revenue to the city through the vintage replica cars,” she said.

NYCLASS was founded by Manhattan Mini Storage and Edison ParkFast owner Steve Nislick and Ed Sayres, co-president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). The ASPCA not only acts as the government watchdog for the carriage industry, it donated $250,000 to NYCLASS to support their electric car cause.

Animal rights activists such as NYCLASS, The Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages, Friends of Animals, the ASPCA and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) claim that the horse-carriage industry is equine abuse in its worst form.

But those who are a part of the carriage industry say otherwise. Carriage drivers interviewed for this story were adamant that there is no animal abuse. They claim that PETA and the ASPCA, among others, have stalked carriage drivers at the park and stables with video cameras, looking for instances of abuse. But, according to the drivers, they’ve left empty-handed every time.

Conor McHugh, a carriage driver of 26 years, said protesters of the industry have yelled at customers and at times thrown water or spit on them for taking a ride.

“It’s shameful to the city that allows it—that the customers, tourists of this city, get spat on by people because they decide to take a horse and buggy ride,” McHugh said.

In order to become a driver, applicants must go through oral and multiple-choice exams proctored by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which licenses New York City’s horse carriages. After they get their license, newly established drivers take a test run with an experienced driver for a week to ensure they pick up the skills needed to successfully and safely operate a horse.

New horses from the Pennsylvania stables in Amish country are tested for their ability to work the busy Central Park streets. If the horses do not become accustomed to the incessant traffic noise, bustling crowds and gawking tourists, they are sent back.

“Maybe sometimes they get used to it, but they can get spooked,” said Edita Birnkrant from Friends of Animals, a group that proposes banning animals in the park. “They have an innate instinct. Nothing can change that. There will be times when the horse will startle, and then you have 2,000 pounds of wild animal running out of control in a metropolitan hub.”

The horse-drawn carriage industry has faced scrutiny before. In 1988, when three horses died during a heat wave, the City Council enacted a New York City Administrative Code that regulated carriage horse operation, required licensure of the horse, carriage and driver, and established standards for horse treatment and a horse health advisory board to make recommendations to the commissioner of health.

Since then, the Code has seen many amendments focused on improving the quality of life and well-being of New York City’s carriages horses.
The horses are kept in four stables on the Upper West Side, an area that has been undergoing renovations over the past 10 years, according to Steven Malone, president of the New York Horse and Carriage Association, which represents the city’s 68 carriages, 293 certified drivers and 220 privately owned horses. The stable on 52nd Street has three levels that are connected by ramps, another facet that activists say is dangerous for the horses.
The bottom level holds the carriages. Above them, the horses live in individual stables. The horses have constant access to water and food and their bedding is changed three times a day, according to various drivers who, like McHugh, keep their horses at the stable.

McHugh stood against a backdrop of stable workers cleaning out the empty stables of the horses that had left for work earlier in the morning and explained that if NYCLASS or Friends of Animals get their way, these men would lose their jobs.

“We have people in this business who inherited it from their fathers in the 1950s,” said McHugh. “That’s a long, continuous connection, and someone like the assemblywoman just proposes that we be banned? It just seems so draconian.”

Horses are supposed to work every other day and only for nine hours at a time, giving them the chance to rest after a day of lugging carriages and tourists around from the day before, a result of previous legislature to ensure the horses are treated fairly. ASPCA veterinarians examine them twice a year.

Last year, the ASPCA did an intensive study of the horses for 281 days and found no instances of abuse, according to McHugh.

“The horses have to be groomed and presented everyday. We present them everyday on Fifth Avenue,” said McHugh. “Inspection does not go on behind closed doors.”

But activists say that the abuse exists in the fact that the horses must endure the conditions of the city. Janet Restino, an artist who lives near the stables on the UWS, agrees with this sentiment.

“I don’t think it is a particularly great idea to have horses on the street during traffic and rush hour,” Restino said.

Ivanna Fairweather, a Harlem resident who was walking in Central Park on a recent bright, sunny day, said she’s in favor of a ban.

“We have so many other forms of transportation, why do we need horses? People just want to say, ‘Oh, I took a horse ride in Central Park.’ But those pretentious people don’t know that taking a walk in Central Park is so much better,” she said. “New York is a place to walk; it’s a walking city. We don’t need horses to take us places. I mean, $50 for 20 minutes? What? Are they crazy?”

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  • Laura McFarland-Taylor

    In the last 30 – that’s THIRTY – years three carriage horses have died in traffic accidents and seven others died while on duty from either natural causes or from unknown causes. Can any other riding discipline match those numbers? Mine, eventing, sure as heck cannot. I am not minimizing the death of any horse, but those statistics are pretty incredible.

    The New York City carriage horses are some of the most regulated animals in this country. The fact there has NEVER been a citation for abuse, mistreatment or cruelty, even with an awful lot of folks looking for it (including the ASPCA which supports a ban), speaks volumes.

    The people calling for their ban have stated that the NYC carriage horses are only the first stop – they want to see the use, ANY use, of any horse banned. That means no riding of any type, no work, nothing. Of course we should call out abuse when we see it – but the NYC carriage horses are among the best cared for I have ever seen.

    • Morton B

      Get a life, Laura. Don’t you have anything better to do than troll news stories and blanket the comments section with lies? You’re not even a New Yorker. Any real New Yorker knows that the streets are far to dangerous for a horse.

  • Laura McFarland-Taylor

    Why did so many of us, carriage drivers and non-carriage drivers but horse lovers all, travel from across the country (Illinois, Indiana, Georgia, West Virginia, Massachusetts, to name a few) to NYC this past weekend? Because we wanted to see for ourselves what was really going on with the NYC carriage horses and, frankly, they live far better lives than many horses. The stable we toured is clean, open, airy, and well-ventilated, stalls well-bedded, plenty of hay, custom mix grain, automatic waterers, sprinklers in case of, God forbid, a fire, misters and fans. The horses were all in good weight and condition – bright eyed, engaged and engaging. We saw the stable hands moving the carriages by hand, by themselves. We walked up and down the ramp and saw horses do the same.

    Come out to the hack line and see for yourself – look at the faces of the children when they see the horses, when they get to pet the horses, and, if they’re lucky, they get to feed the horses a carrot. Ask a real horse-person, not one of the radical animal rights activists who have called the horses “disgusting”, what they think about the horses’ well-being. Horses bring a different element to the city – one that would be a real shame to lose.

    As I said in my other comment – this fight is not about the NYC carriage horses. What this really boils down to is the radical animal rights activists’ goal of eliminating any human-animal interaction. They think that the NYC carriage horses are an easy first picking – but they picked on the wrong crowd.

  • V.Lynne

    My new husband and I came all the way from Indiana to attend ClipClopNYC, and we were very impressed with the stables and the condition of the horses. I have been a horse owner for over 25 years, and have never seen a stable as clean and well organized as Clinton Park Stables, the largest carriage horse stable in NYC. There is nothing inherently wrong with having humans and horses work together as partners, yet a handful of very vocal people are objecting to it. I mean a handful, despite their deceptive number of “followers” who are tricked into believing they are signing a petition to “stop horse abuse.” Who isn’t against horse abuse? When it REALLY EXISTS. However, imagined abuse is not abuse, no matter how badly certain Anti-Domestic Animal groups WANT to believe. As far as safety and the concern about horse deaths go, the Anti-horse groups “dedicated” their counter horse weekend to Charlie, a carriage horse who died from natural causes completely unrelated to his job as a carriage horse. In fact, he had only been in town a handful of weeks before his sudden tragic death. However, as we all know, horses do die. So do humans. To expect more is absolutely insane. Until the iHorse version 3.0 Immortal model comes out, all horses, not just carriage horses, will eventually perish. And, by the way, the proper term is “tripped and fell”, not “collapsed” when describing what happened to the white horse who fell and required assistance to rise because he was tangled in his harness and waited for help. By the way, that horse was fit, healthy, and working last weekend.

  • Kelsey Sullivan

    I would like to share a blog post I wrote about this subject, as someone not involved in the carriage horse industry. For those in favor of the ban, how much do you know about those who you are the foot-soldiers for? The carriage horses live in prime real estate, who will buy that property when the horses are evicted? And who is it that will profit from the electric cars? I agree with what Laura said. This fight has nothing to do with the horses.

  • Laura McFarland-Taylor

    As for the so-called “vintage” cars:

    This is from an October 7, 2011 article in the New York Times: “The cars are projected to cost $125,000 to $175,000. NY-Class envisions that a nonprofit group that provides financing to start-ups would buy the cars and lease them to drivers for $21,000 a year. Purchasing a new horse and carriage costs $15,000 on average.”

    I would hardly call this an offer – “envisions that a nonprofit group…” is not the same thing as a done deal. And leasing at $21,000 PER YEAR? So, basically, the carriage drivers are being asked to give up their horses, their carriage, their livelihood for the possibility of maybe getting a lease for one of these cars?

    The article also said:

    “Mr. Wenig said that once he got the green light, he could have prototypes on the road in a year.”

    So, basically, there is nothing in place to have actual, useable cars on the road. And who is going to pay to build the prototypes? Where will these cars be housed? And who is going to pay for their upkeep? Where are the spent batteries going to be disposed?

    Lots and LOTS of unanswered questions…

  • Eric Nix

    Vary well said Laura! Here is the true face of the animal rights activist trying to stop the N.Y.C. carriages.

  • hrslady

    “this fight is not about the NYC carriage horses. What this really boils down to is the radical animal rights activists’ goal of eliminating any human-animal interaction. They think that the NYC carriage horses are an easy first picking” AMEN! and this is EXACTLY the fact of the matter, and they get support from NY-Class because Nislick a real estate developer of parking garages WANTS the property the stables is located in. It’s an evil self serving alliance. I sure hope people see this debate for what it really is.

  • Karen

    It would be nice the anti carriage and horse people knew what they were looking at. I truly don’t believe that is a horse wasn’t in front of a carriage they would have any idea what the animal was. Notice I said animal; horses are animals as are dogs, and cats.
    I was there over the weekend and tried to speak with a few of the protestors, which I might add is not an easy task to do over their yelling and swearing. I asked a very, very simple question about a horse’s body language. It’s a question anyone who has the slightest knowledge of horses knows the answer to: what does it mean when the horses back leg is crooked? Not only were they unable this question they became very irritated and began yelling when I asked again why they would not answer my question. The obvious reason is because they don’t know the answer. By the way, that’s when a horse is resting they will crook one of their back legs.
    The anti-carriage / horse people just don’t like horses. Their protests have nothing to do with protecting the animal because they have refused time and time again invitations to visit the stables. They love to shout about these tired horses, and how awful they look; which by the way are some of the most beautiful happy and healthy horses I have ever seen. How can they possibly judge how a horse looks when they don’t know the body language of a horse? They ignorantly believe that when a horse’s head is in a “droopy” position they are tired, or sick. They ignorantly believe that the “chestnuts” on a horses legs are from some sort of abuse. There are several studies being done at the moment by the mental health associations on racial animal rights activists as it being a mental disease and I really believe their findings so far to be right on the mark.

  • Laura McFarland-Taylor

    By the way, this: “In 1988, when three horses died during a heat wave, …” is not true.

    Where are the Woodwards and Bernsteins of the day? Seriously – are there no real journalists left? None who want to do actual leg work and reporting? Not just Googling and blogging and taking people at their word?

    It’s all very depressing…

  • T Haertlein

    We went to Clip Clop NY to see for ourselves what was going on with the NY carriage horses. We found a pleasant, well-kept working barn. The horses looked good and were well groomed. They were friendly and wanting to interact with our large group as we wandered about the building. An abused or stressed animal would go to the back of the stall and attempt to ignore us or turn away. Not these guys, They were very friendly – something a horse out in public needs to be.

    The stable was airy with good ventilation. Fans and misters were available for summer heat. There were sprinklers throughout the building. Each stall was matted and well bedded. There was free access hay and water. Manure was managed well enough that there was next to no odor in a building housing 75 horses… something that is not possible if not regularly kept up with. The workers we saw throughout the building were calm and gentle with the horses and we saw several being prepared for their day’s work – including walking down the ramps. The horses negotiate the ramps at a normal walk, not sliding down or walking with a hesitating step as if to keep their balance. Not an issue to be concerned with.

    Worst thing we saw during the day was the small number of protestors at the stable shouting and waving their signs at the horses as they left the building as if to scare them. The staff handled this professionally.

  • V. Rebel

    Ok so let me get this straight the majority of these comments are in fanboy of the horse drawn carriages. I wouldn’t be surprised if that they all belonged to the same family. You’re all so repetitive, the horses are shoo happy, they are all well groomed, they have endless duopoly of water and food. No to mention fans and automatic sprinklers, I wonder if you people might have spotted the rainbows and pots of gold as well . Yes it may all be peachy for the horse indoors but what abbott in the hustle and bustle of the unforgiving streets of NYC?

    I don’t know if you folks missed the fact that there are no sprinklers on every street corner, no hay beds in the roads, no fans nor heaters. NYC climates are hard to endure at times, people can cop, we can shield our strobes in air conditioned stores our heated cabs. As for the horses it’s not all that simple. You speak of ignorance but there is no greater ignorance than the refusal to change. How can you possibly say that a horse is better off living in crowded NYC than in an open field free to roam where they please. You want your kids to see a horse then take them to a farm not central park. If you don’t agree with the new plans then attend one of the meetings and let your opinions be heard. Demand the answers and action you want. Don’t be fearful of progress, this is not a war. BE APART OF THE SOLUTION NOT THE PROBLEM.

  • K Taylor-Rhys

    Seems to me if the stables and horses are well kept, as the experienced horse people seem to be saying (horse people are generally the FIRST to shut down horse abuse!) then the animal rights people have forgotten that America was founded on the relationship between people and horses. How did we transport ourselves, and our belongings to the west coast to achieve “manifest destiny”? How do we catch and medicate cattle on a 600,000 acre ranch – will be ban the use of horses on the ranch, and relegate those cows to live in large sheds instead of roaming the range? These people don’t tend to THINK – they have a cause that makes them feel important, and fills up their otherwise dull lives. If it weren’t the carriage horses, they would be out protesting something else. I agree … it’s a kind of mental illness. Would those people shun and ban Clint Eastwood movies next, because of the horse abuse in them?

  • Catherine Messina

    Having just finished reading the article with great hope that it would be in favor of abolishing the carriages, I was dismayed to see it take a turn toward the opposite. I’m certainly not against the presentation of both sides, but it seemed to me it weighed heavily in favor of the carriage industry. Then on to the comments (sigh) all of which seemed to be written only by carriage supporters. Excerpt – “look at the faces of the children when they see the horses, when they get to pet the horses, and, if they’re lucky, they get to feed the horses a carrot.” As if this cruel industry was all sweetness and light. (not to mention this is not about the delight of children). But I suppose any press is good that brings this situation to light. Those with a conscience will know right from wrong.

  • Barney J

    The bottom line is there have been NINE accidents in NINE months. It’s simply unsafe for horses, drivers and the public on the streets of NYC.

  • lynne

    The bottom line is that, it is far safer to take a carriage ride than ride a bike. Or walk, or exist. The argument “carriage horses are abused because the city is a risky place to live” is hilarious. Ban all animals and living beings in NYC because they are mortal. Grow up peeps. The stables are great, the horses are great. The only abuse is in your own heads.

  • Karoline Amezqua

    Put an animal–in this case, horses–between people (they also are animals, not divine gods) and a dollar bill, and you can kiss the horses good-bye when they can no longer work the streets pulling a carriage all day long.

    “If one person is unkind to an animal it is considered to be cruelty, but where a lot of people are unkind to animals, especially in the name of commerce, the cruelty is condoned and, once large sums of money are at stake, will be defended to the last by otherwise intelligent people.”

    “The fact that man knows right from wrong [possibly] proves his intellectual superiority to the other creatures; but the fact that he can do wrong proves his moral inferiority to any creatures that cannot.” And yet, the fact that we do wrong so often shows our typically moral inferiority.

    Human extremism in thought, word, and deed, sucks.

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