Just Say Neigh
Horse-drawn carriages should no longer be permitted in New York City.
Stan Honda/Getty Images
On Feb. 29, less than one month before non-essential businesses shut down in New York City due to COVID-19, a video surfaced of a 12-year-old carriage horse named Aisha stumbling along the pavements of Central Park. Within this 15-minute video, viewers watched the distressing situation of Aisha repeatedly collapsing to the ground, evidently unable to stand upright by herself. At one point in the footage, an operator assisting Aisha blew smoke or a powder-like substance in her face, causing the mare to once again crumple to the floor in front of concerned onlookers. Several hours later following this incident, officials reported that Aisha had to be euthanized.
The tragic demise of Aisha sparked outrage across social media, as well as an immediate protest led by NYCLASS, an animal rights group that has repeatedly sought to ban the practice of horse-drawn carriages in New York City. Mayor Bill de Blasio commented on the footage as well via Twitter, stating that the “NYPD’s Animal Cruelty Investigation Squad is on the case and WILL get answers.”
Unfortunately, Aisha’s death is one of many horse and carriage-related accidents that has occurred in New York City over the past several decades. Two years ago, a horse threw its driver out of the carriage and bolted across Sixth Avenue, ultimately crashing into at least two parked cars and sending the three passengers aboard to the hospital. In 2014, NYPD records revealed that there were at least 25 undisclosed accidents between Oct. 2009 to April 2014, including approximately 12 “hit-and-run” incidents in which carriage drivers fled the scene. While horse-drawn carriages have been a beloved attraction of New York City for centuries, are the safety risks these animals face on a day-to-day basis really worth that picturesque carriage ride through Central Park?
Ever since the introduction of the omnibus in the early-1800s, horses carried almost 120,000 passengers per day in New York City by 1853. As this mode of transportation became cheaper and more accessible to the public, this number gradually accumulated to New Yorkers taking nearly “297 horsecar rides per capita per year,” according to Access Magazine. However, the neglect these horses suffered through unsanitary stables, faulty vehicles and whipping, led to an average life expectancy of two years. By 1880, New York was removing at least 41 dead equines per day from the streets — nearly 15,000 in total.
Although there is now a significant difference in the regulations of today’s horse-powered carriages in comparison to the 1800s, the treatment of these horses still remains a controversial and difficult topic. Documentaries such as Blackfish and An Apology to Elephants are just a few examples that have brought to fruition the neglect and cruelty wildlife undergo when held captive for entertainment purposes. However, unlike orcas and elephants, horses are domestic animals that have been trained by humans for thousands of years, making this debate even more complex as to whether or not carriage rides are truly considered cruel.
While this tradition of horse-drawn carriages in New York is one of the most well-renowned attractions of the city, the modern metropolis is no longer a suitable environment for horses to reside in.
“‘We’re trying to keep alive a 19th-century conveyance in 21st-century Manhattan,” said Holly Cheever, an equine veterinarian, to Newsweek. “Horses are herbivores whose unique response to stress is to run their butts off. Because of that, in a split second you can have a horse go from being half asleep to being 1,200 pounds crashing through traffic,” she continued.
Furthermore, the inevitable effects of climate change and air pollution, especially in congested cities like New York, is another detrimental factor that puts horses at unnecessary risk. Last year, New York City received a grade F from the American Lung Association for smog levels, resulting in a ranking of tenth worst in the country. By permitting horses to work and be exposed to this unhealthy air quality, it creates a “nose-to-tailpipe existence” for these creatures, Cheever added.
Despite the safety regulations carriage operators must abide by when caring for their horses — including veterinary checks twice a year, individual stables with a minimum of 60 square feet and weather-related mandates — that still does not resolve the taxing, stress-inducing atmosphere of the city overall. Also, according to a Cornell University study, the temperature of asphalt can be at least 50 degrees higher than the average air temperature, resulting in possible inaccuracies when determining if the environment is safe for horses.
Besides animal activist groups like NYCLASS and PETA, who have publicly shared their disdain for horse-drawn carriages and the apparent mistreatment these animals endure, Mayor de Blasio and several New York lawmakers have also advocated for stricter regulations and putting an end to this outdated tradition. During his initial campaigning for mayor in 2013, de Blasio claimed he would ban horse-drawn carriages while in office. The opposition of carriage drivers and supporters of this New York custom, however, pressured de Blasio to only enforce certain mandates instead, including a regulation in 2018 that prohibits drivers from picking-up passengers outside the premises of the park.
Progressive changes are continually being implemented, though, in New York and elsewhere due to this controversial practice. This year alone, Rome and Chicago both issued new regulations in regards to horse-drawn carriages within their cities. On Dec. 3, Mayor Virginia Raggi announced that Rome is prohibiting carriage rides on city streets after years of ongoing debates over the safety and well-being of these horses, but will still remain an activity in historic parks as of now. In Chicago, the City Council voted in late-April to ban horse-drawn carriages altogether. Starting in Jan. 2021, the city will no longer be issuing or renewing licenses to carriage operators.
“I grew up surrounded by farms and horses. They’re bred to work,” Downtown Alderman Brendan Reilly (42nd) told the Chicago Sun Times. “But they were not bred to be sucking gas fumes from the back of CTA buses and co-mingling with cement mixers. That’s not humane treatment of animals. They do not belong in downtown busy traffic.”
Horse-drawn carriages have also been obsolete and/or outlawed in several other countries, including Toronto, Paris and Beijing.
These urban landscapes, with their constant bombardment of honking cars, exhaust fumes and construction, are stressful enough to stroll through as human beings. Even though horses are domesticated animals, they’re still animals who are easily prone to erratic behavior if provoked or spooked. With the technological advances humans have access to, why not share some of that ease with animals? Last year, a German circus called Circus Roncalli replaced live animal performers with 3-D holograms as a way to diminish animal cruelty while still preserving this circus tradition. In relations to horse-drawn carriages, a proposition to use electric carts has been a developing concept to maintain this custom without the use of actual horses. Even though reported carriage collisions only accounted for less than 0.003 percent of traffic collisions in New York, why even put horses in a traffic situation at all?
Horses shouldn’t have to clomp their hooves on concrete more than grass, so enough with enforcing an incompatible relationship between horses and New York City.