A runaway gelding in Savannah and Liam Neeson's New York Times op-ed defending carriage tours in Manhattan has added fuel to the debate over the carriage horses that remain in New York City. On one side stand increasingly vocal opponents of carriage operators -- including Mayor Bill deBlasio -- who insist that for the benefit of the public, and the animals, they should be banned. On the other side can be found a smaller and quieter crowd that defends the carriages and insists the trade is neither a menace nor inhumane.
When it comes to public safety, the record seems to support those who want to keep the carriages on our streets. As Neeson reports, New York carriages have been involved in just three fatal accidents in 30 years, with no human fatalities. In comparison, last year saw more than 160 pedestrians and 10 cyclists killed on the city's streets.
What about the horses? In the three accidents Neeson notes, the horses were killed. However this number is miniscule when compared with the number of horses that die at America's racetracks. In 2012, the Times reported that 3,600 horses died while "racing or training" in one three-year stretch. On one particularly bad day in 2001, 23 race horses died. The accidents and breakdowns that lead to dead horses at the tracks are caused, in large part, by painkillers that keep them running despite their injuries. Over-training and inadequate medical care also contribute to fatalities and injuries that might otherwise be avoided. But to date the racing industry, which is quite rich and powerful, has escaped the kind of regulation that would address its animal welfare problems.
In contrast with overworked racehorses, New York's carriage horses are not permitted to work when it is too hot, or too cold, and they are examined by veterinarians every six months. Few horsepeople would consider the carriage horses in New York to be overworked, or neglected. The mares and geldings I have seen lined-up on Central Park South have always seemed to be healthy and fit, with their hoofs and coats in good condition and their eyes bright and clear. They are more muscled and alert than many backyard horses, and seem well-suited to their work. Like us, domesticated horses (as opposed to wild ones) tend to be happier when they have a job to do and by all appearances, the New York carriage horses are content with their occupation.
If there is one thing that is wrong with the life of a New York carriage horse it's probably the city streets. Vehicle exhaust is bad for their lungs and like us they get sore standing on a hard surface like asphalt and concrete. Those who seek to make life better for these animals should get behind Mindy Levine's proposal for horse facilities in Central Park. Levine's scheme calls for stables, paddocks, and other a therapeutic riding center. It should also include a parking area for the carriages, where drivers can wait for customers and let their horses stand on soft ground. This would limit the amount of time the horses spend standing on pavement, exposed to traffic, and breathing engine exhaust fumes.
A fair consideration of horses in America would find that thousands are languishing in out-of-sight places where they are underfed and denied medical attention. Those horses that are seen every day by countless New Yorkers are far less likely to suffer from neglect because someone would notice. In fact, it's hard to imagine any horses in the world that have more contact with more curious people than the ones in Manhattan. Their clip-clopping hoofs echo with the sound of history and their presence, looming over the sidewalk, reminds us that we inhabit a world of living creatures.
Liam Neeson and Mindy Levine are right about New York City's carriage horses. And anyone cares about animal welfare should consider joining a more serious fight on behalf of the racers that produce the profits at America's tracks.