At 13, Roger is a bit of celebrity in New York. He has appeared on "Law and Order" and "Sex and the City" and has fans across Manhattan, including a lot of young girls who line up to greet him each day. Roger is a horse—a 1,400-pound red chestnut Belgian carriage horse, to be exact. And despite his popularity around Central Park, Roger, his owner and the rest of his horse buddies are at the heart of a growing battle over the propriety of the carriage industry—an 18th-century tradition that animal-rights advocates say should be, well, sent back to the stalls.
A romantic carriage ride through Central Park is a New York attraction that has drawn tourists for decades, dating back to at least 1935. The clip-clopping of a horse's hooves can be sweet, reminiscent of a bucolic era when the pace was slower. It has also been glamorized by Hollywood and promoted by city administrators across the country. In New York after the September 11 attacks, the carriage-horse operation, along with everything else, shut down—until Mayor Giuliani came to the stables himself, asking the carriage drivers to come back to work to help restore the city to normalcy. "There's something very poignant about looking at these 18th-century horses," says Carolyn Daly, a spokeswoman for the Horse and Carriage Association of New York, an industry trade group. "This is an industry that's popular, charming and well-regulated—and is completely conducive to what this city is all about."
But the sight of a horse-drawn carriage weaving in and out of Manhattan traffic amid blaring horns, aggressive cabbies, bicyclists, pedestrians and roaring buses has never gone without protest. The city has implemented lengthy safety regulations to protect the animals: horses are allowed to carry tourists on streets outside of Central Park only after 9 p.m.; if they appear ill or if weather conditions are severe, they are to be returned to the stables. Nonetheless, New York has the highest carriage-horse accident rate in the country, a fact that came to light last week after the death of Smoothie on Sept. 14, a mare who was spooked by a drum sound and took off running. She caught her carriage in a tree, broke her leg and went into shock. (A second horse, frightened by Smoothie's outburst, bolted into a Mercedes-Benz, though he was not seriously injured.) That grim incident came on the heels of a scathing audit by the New York City Comptroller, which concluded that the animals work without enough water, shade or oversight from authorities. There were two additional accidents involving the horses this summer, one of which sent a cabby to the hospital. All that trouble has renewed nationwide calls for the industry's ban; opponents to the concession have been holding candlelight vigils in front of Central Park. And one local politician, Tony Avella, a city councilman from Queens, is drafting legislation that would prohibit the trade.
The New York Horse and Carriage Association, which represents the city's 68 carriages, 293 certified drivers and 220 horses (all privately owned), has responded by issuing a safety plan that requires additional harness straps on the horses, and driver training. It has also called on the city to ban live and amplified music near horse staging areas, to provide hitching posts to tie the horses up, and additional water spigots, in addition to better drainage for horse waste. "With the city's help and our own initiatives, hopefully we can put this issue to rest," says Ian McKeever, an Irish immigrant and co-owner of the Shamrock Stables, who comes from three generations of horse farmers and has been in the carriage business for 21 years. "We really do have the horses' best interests in mind."
Still, many animal-rights activists are less interested in increased safety measures than in an outright ban in New York and elsewhere. London, Paris, Toronto and even Beijing—as well as a dozen towns throughout the United States—have outlawed the carriage-horse practice altogether. In regions where it still exists, safety regulations vary and are often difficult to enforce. In New York (where a combination of city agencies and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals are charged with implementing city rules), horses are allowed to pound the pavement up to nine hours in any 24-hour period—meaning, technically, they could work nine hours a day, seven days a week—but trade rules give them two days of rest per week and three months off in the summer, says Daly.
Housing also varies: in some smaller regions horses can be shipped in daily from farms, returning at the end of their shift. In New York they live in the tiny stalls in urban stables—all five of which are located within 20 or so blocks of the park on Manhattan's West Side—requiring the horses to traverse busy city streets to get to work. That's one of the reasons, activists say, that so many accidents occur. (Last year a horse named Spotty was euthanized after he collided with a station wagon on his way back to his stable, flinging his driver from the carriage and getting himself pinned underneath the car. He's just one of many examples.) "Horses are a flight animal. When they're startled they run," says Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States. "In an urban environment like New York you have thousands of potential sources of commotion that can trigger that flight response. And the idea that you can cut down on the noise is laughable."
Yet there are still anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 working carriage horses in the United States, and the industry, says Jay Baldwin, a veterinarian and certified equine cruelty investigator, is growing. New York's carriage drivers are considered a gateway to the city, tour guides who have recited its history for decades. Mostly Irish immigrants, the working-class carriage operators say the trade is their livelihood. At $34 a ride in an industry highly dependent on the weather—and without a fare hike since 1989—why would they do it if they didn't love it? "Once you have a horse in your heart, there's no getting it out," says McKeever, who owns eight horses, including Roger, all purchased in Pennsylvania Dutch country.
But there's no ignoring the tragic accidents that continue to occur. Nationwide, it's impossible to know how many work-related horse deaths have happened over the years; many aren't reported publicly, and carriage operators are wary of bad press. Whatever the number, animal advocates and medical professionals agree on one thing: an urban setting is not the place for horse-drawn carriages. "We're trying to keep alive a 19th-century conveyance in 21st-century Manhattan," says Holly Cheever, one of America's foremost equine veterinarians, who has worked since 1988 as the primary equine adviser for two states and 18 municipalities, including New York. "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."
Additionally, horses in an urban environment face unique challenges. Studies have shown that animals exposed to pollution have suffered emphysema, cancer and accelerated aging, and horses, with their nostrils only about three feet above street level, truly live a "nose-to-tailpipe existence," says Cheever. Meanwhile, bitter cold and scorching hot weather on the East Coast can be and have been deadly. Many cities have weather-related mandates (in New York horses are supposed to be taken off the roads if temperatures reach above 90 or below 18 degrees Fahrenheit), but official weather readings are frequently an inaccurate reflection of the actual temperature on the streets. In summer, for example, the temperature of the asphalt on the street can be 50 degrees higher than a standard weather report, according to a Cornell University study, and humidity can add another dozen degrees on top of that—which can be made even worse by the box-in effect of streets flanked by high-rise buildings. In the winter the wind chill is another factor.
Then there are the hazards of working on city streets. One horse died when she stepped on a Manhattan manhole cover and was electrocuted. Another was killed after getting trapped between a bus and a car. In Michigan, a four-year-old boy died in 2001 when he fell out of a carriage and was run over after the horse was frightened by a passing car. A number of horses have died from heat exhaustion over the years. And just this past summer, in St. Petersburg, Russia, the five-year-old daughter of a local politician was killed when a car hit the back of the carriage the family was riding in and the little girl fell out. "It's only a matter of time before a person is killed here [in New York]," says Elizabeth Forel, the president of the Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages.
For New Yorkers the debate is unlikely to end soon—or, as morbid as it sounds, perhaps until that does happen. The fight to ban these carriages goes back decades, and the industry is tangled in a web of political and economic interests. But the news isn't all bad. Baldwin, who conducts inspections for the city as a contractor, says the horses' working conditions are, for the most part, "better today than they've ever been"—a result of public scrutiny and the efforts of the carriage drivers themselves. Of course, he adds, "there's always room for improvement."