A Horse of a Different Color?

The recent Kentucky Derby set me thinking about horses. Not just race horses, although some of them are unforgettable: Alydar, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Seabiscuit, Man O’War, and (alas) Barbaro.

I thought about all horses…from majestic Arabians, to the cowboys’ Palominos, to the Budweiser Clydesdales, to the varied steeds at the many riding stables south of my home, to the Shetland ponies I rode as a child at county fairs, and working horses like the one that pulled the carriage I rode with my parents through New York’s Central Park one winter’s eve. That was an experience I always will remember because the driver let me sit up front with him! However, I also will always remember how sad I felt because that horse seemed so thin, old, and tired.

Frederick Law Olmsted designed Central Park in the 1870s when carriages were a principal form of transportation for both people and materials all over the world. By the early 1900s, though, “horseless carriages” were vying for space on the thoroughfares of most major cities, especially on the crowded streets of Manhattan. It wasn’t long before all of New York’s horse-drawn carriages were replaced by internal combustion engines of one form or another. The exception was Central Park, where tourists still lined up for romantic rides through its winding lanes.

Not too long ago, business took me through midtown Manhattan and I felt a twinge of nostalgia as my taxi approached a row of carriages waiting for fares. I wondered whether the horses hitched to these carriages were in better shape than the one I recalled from my childhood ride. I was pleased to see that they did seem healthier. Over the years, I had read reports of inadequate care, substandard stable conditions, alleged abuse, and even deaths from traffic accidents. Then, in October 2011, I read with horror the story about a Central Park carriage horse that collapsed and died on his way to work. Some said the horse had been failing for some time; others claimed that it had been put to work while sick or injured. The resulting press coverage eventually coalesced around the general issue of carriage horse welfare, which I learned had become an emotional subject among some Manhattanites.

All carriage operators are responsible for the care of their horses through an arrangement with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). “The ASPCA Humane Law Enforcement Department assigns agents to check on these horses regularly. The agents make sure that the horses are receiving proper care, that administrative requirements are being met, and that the cruelty laws are not being violated.”1 In New York City, carriage operators are required to read a 65-page manual and pass a written exam in order to obtain their operating license. Then, in 2010, Mayor Michael Blumberg signed into law an amendment to the City Charter and Administrative Code that mandated “larger stalls that allow for horses to lie down, five weeks of furlough a year, veterinary exams every four to eight months, age limitations, and protections from harsh weather conditions for all carriage horses.”2

Nonetheless, the October 2011 carriage horse death made me question to what extent all of these regulations were being enforced. When I recently contacted several officials to find out, I ran into a wall of silence. Finally, a few sources who requested anonymity due to the “political nature of the issue” told me that stall size is checked from time to time, but that all of the other requirements are “still being worked on.”

I also wondered whether the exhaust-laden air around Central Park and other urban settings posed special health risks for carriage horses. In his chapter on carriage horses in the book, Equine Welfare, Jay Baldwin, DVM, describes the health problems commonly found in such horses including lameness, colic, respiratory complications, rhaddomyolysis, skin conditions, harness sores, weather-related ailments, and trauma.3 Apparently, urban carriage horses are not a healthy lot.

Some legislation has been proposed to remedy this by restricting the use of carriage horses to less-congested areas or to replace them with electric carriages. Those might be more humane solutions, but I suspect that the tourist industry will lobby hard against such measures. Perhaps there should be a joint effort of the carriage operators, their associations and/or unions, the various city councils, local tourist boards, the ASPCA, volunteer organizations, and maybe even a corporate sponsor or two to develop and enforce higher care standards for all carriage horses so this charming mode of transportation can be preserved without subjecting so many horses to such harsh conditions.


1 Personal email from ASPCA Public Information, 16 May 2012.
2 Press release, 27 April 2010.
3 Baldwin, J. (2011). Welfare Issues in Carriage Horses. In Equine Welfare, McIllwraith, CW (ed), pp. 395-398, Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, Hoboken, NJ.