NYC carriage ban: Is New York's love affair with horses over?

  • 9 January 2014
  • From the section Magazine
A horse on the streets of New York

New York may soon ban horse-drawn carriage rides in Manhattan. Is this the end of a long love affair between the city and these animals? Or is an urban lifestyle unfair for horses?

Soon after his inauguration as the mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio announced that he wanted to end the era of horse-drawn carriage rides in Central Park.

He has put a team in place to determine the legislative steps necessary to fulfil a campaign promise to outlaw the practice.

"Bill de Blasio will end the inhumane treatment of carriage horses and supports an immediate ban on abuse of carriage horses," reads his campaign website. Instead, de Blasio proposes replacing the horse-drawn carriage - which has a long history as a tourist attraction and iconic image - with a fleet of vintage electric cars.

Proponents say the carriage rides are an important part of the city's history.

"Many years ago there were thousands of horses in New York. They helped build the city." says Ariel, a carriage driver who has been working in the city for 30 years.

He declined to give his last name because he does not want to be the target of animal-rights activists.

"The road in the park is called Carriage Drive because people used to come from downtown in carriages and go through the park to do ice skating on the lake. We keep this tradition of taking people to the lake, to give them a feel of the bond between people and horses."

But it has been a long time since a horse-drawn carriage was the most efficient way to travel uptown. In modern life, animal activists say, horses and cities don't mix.

"The carriage trade is unnecessary and it is not safe to keep them on the street. Cars cause injuries also but they are very necessary to transport people," says Elizabeth Forel, president of the Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages, in an email to the BBC. The tight quarters and crowded city streets are a recipe for disaster, she says, noting that a tourist in Vienna was killed in 2010 after being trampled by a startled carriage horse.

Image caption In 1905, horse drawn carriages had less competition in Central Park

"Every time there is an accident in which a horse spooks, it seems that NYC is once again dodging the bullet if no one is killed. These horses weigh between 1,500 to 2,000 pounds."

Marsha Himler, president of the New York State Horse Council, keeps her 20-plus horses on a 47-acre (19-hectare) farm three hours away from New York. But she says that not all horses need to live the pastoral life.

"Most of us, dogs, cats, human beings - there's always an ideal that we can strive for, but we don't always reach it. You and I get up and have to go to work in the morning, we drive in traffic, and that's dangerous," she says.

"Nothing is ideal in this world. Does the horse need to have a pasture and a place to run? No, not if they're getting exercise," she says - and she feels that walks in the park provide great exercise.

Moreover, she says, city horses face better conditions than some other horses - like competition horses who must travel long distances and perform stressful jumps and dangerous manoeuvres.

"There are show horses that live in stables that get ridden for an hour a day and live the rest of the time in a 12ft by 12ft (3.5m) stall. These horses all get out; they get exercise; they are doing a job," she says. "If horses can't run free in a herd, they want a job to do."

Holly Cheever, a veterinarian who trains draft horses and advises local governments on regulating and eliminating horse-and-carriage rides, says that horses can live good lives in a city - just not New York City.

"As Manhattan's climate and composition and architecture stands, it is inherently impossible to have a humane carriage operation," she says.

Image caption Animal activists from the Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages snapped this picture to show how closely horses come to large lorries

The canyon-like skyscrapers of Manhattan trap heat in the summer and create dangerous wind conditions in the winter, she says, and provide little room for the horses to manoeuvre if spooked. The asphalt on city streets can measure 200F (93C) , a bad match for the metal shoes worn by horses.

Manhattan horses, she says, "live a nose-to-tailpipe existence," running too closely with city buses, taxis and idling traffic, and put at risk for respiratory disease.

Cities like Provincetown, Massachusetts, she said, which once ran carriage rides by the sea, and even Philadelphia, which has fewer skyscrapers and congestion, offer better lives for horses.

But Ariel says that just as life in Manhattan is not for every person, nor is it for every horse - but there are horses that love New York.

"You want to take your time to find a horse that is comfortable in the city," he says. "But with the right time and training, he soon becomes a master of the city."

Time may be running out for his horses, however, and not a moment too soon for those who believe the bright lights of the Big Apple are better left to humans.

Follow @BBCNewsMagazine on Twitter and on Facebook