No, One Dead Horse Shouldn't Be the End of Carriage Rides

Jaymi Heimbuch/CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

A news story about a carriage horse that dropped dead in NYC has raised attention on the issue of the care of working animals. Rachel reported on it yesterday, bringing up some points on animal welfare. However, there has been a strong reaction by animal rights activists looking to ban carriage horses in the city on the basis that the carriage horse industry qualifies as abuse -- and that needs to be balanced out a little.

Always on the side of horses
I adore horses. I grew up riding and showing them, doing everything from raising foals to saddle-breaking two-year-olds to retraining older working horses for their second career as lesson horses. This is to say I've been around horses a lot, have experience with them, and hold them in a special place in my heart. I am pretty confident that even after many years away from horses, I would recognize signs of neglect or abuse if I saw them. Recently I visited New York City and made a beeline for the carriage horses just to be near the animals I love so much. And, I've got to say, they looked quite well cared for.

There was no sign of ill health or neglect among these animals that I could detect, and I stared at about five horses for awhile because I was photographing them. There was a sense of pride from the drivers toward their horses, and no one who is abusing their horse would allow a photographer to spend 20 minutes or more aiming a lens at their horse. It seemed clear that the carriage drivers I was around had nothing to hide, and considering they are in a very, very public place day in and day out, they'd better have nothing to hide.

I'm well aware that this is an anecdotal, one-off experience and I can't offer insight into the entire industry based on it, but it's hard to accept that carriage horses should be banned when I haven't seen first hand that they're abused. And I just want to show that I come from a place that gives horses priority over people.

Jaymi Heimbuch/CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

So back to that horse that dropped dead.

Time News Feed states, "Though a necropsy will be performed on the animal to determine the exact cause of death, Elizabeth Forel from the Coalition told the Daily News that a 'healthy horse doesn't just die on the street.'"

And it's true, healthy horses don't. But that doesn't mean that some sort of abuse is connected to this unusual death. Horses have heart problems and can even suffer sudden heart attacks. There could have been a brain hemorrhage, stroke or something else. Some illnesses in horses or other animals are not visible until it's too late.

NBC New York reports, "A spokesman for Teamsters Local 533, the union that represents horse carriage drivers, said the animal suffered from no known ailment and was not overworked. In fact, Charlie had only been giving rides for about 20 days in New York City."

Could being in the carriage industry be the cause of death of this horse if he was only working for 20 days? Maybe, but realistically it is not likely. We don't yet know the cause of death of Charlie, and jumping to the conclusion of a neglect or abuse by the industry is rash. And until we do know, we can't say that Charlie's death is any sort of example for the cruelty of the industry. Even Donny Moss, an animal rights activist who is against the horse carriage industry noted that there isn't any evidence that the horse's owners violated any regulation, according to NBC New York.

Jaymi Heimbuch/CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Carriage Horses, Animal Abuse, and A Little Perspective
Rachel writes, "The incident has much in common with recent events in Ohio, where dozens of exotic animals (some of them endangered species) were killed last week...There's talk of fixing the nation's laws to prevent issues with exotic animals in the first place, but individuals also need to take responsibility for their own actions—for example, does buying a baby monkey to live with you in a Louisiana home really seem like a good idea?"

Here I have to say that carriage horses working in NYC have nothing to do with endangered species being raised and kept by someone with psychological issues, or with the exotic species trade at all.

Horses are domestic animals that are generally not a threat to anyone. They also aren't endangered, nor do they present any special care needs like many exotic animals kept as pets. Carriage horses are doing what horses were domesticated, in part, to do.

The main problems animal rights activists have with the carriage horse industry -- and have had with the industry for years and years -- is the environment in which these horses are doing that work, and for what portion of a day they're doing that work.

Arguments against the carriage horse industry are not unfounded. As Rachel notes, "The carriage horse industry has long been criticized for not providing the open pasture that horses need and for confining them within the shafts of their carriages for at least nine hours every day. Walking on the city's hard pavement causes injuries and lameness in horses, all while breathing in harmful vehicle exhaust, activist Edita Birnkrant has pointed out."

It's true, horses should be allowed time out in a paddock or pasture to stretch their legs, lay down to rest, and otherwise just relax. Animals (including humans!) really are happier out in nature than in the city for most part -- we all did come from there, after all. And it's true that walking the hard pavement can cause injury -- which is why there is such thing as rubber horseshoes to help cushion the horse's weight and provide grip. Even metal horseshoes are helpful for providing a defense for horses against the pavement which could grind up a horse's hooves. And it is also true that breathing in harmful vehicle exhaust is not a good thing -- but it is also not good for humans.

I think what we have with this debate is the symptom to a larger problem -- urban areas that aren't created with nature in mind. Too many cars, not enough green space, and not enough time away to breathe deeply and fill up on clean air and green foliage. I'd say all us urban dwellers need more of that, not just the horses. Maybe the horses are more of a symbol of what we've done to ourselves in an urban environment.

The Times News Feed reports, "The ASPCA, who's performing the necropsy, has also spoken out against the way the carriage horses are treated. The organization's chief legal counsel, Stacy Wolf, said the 'ASPCA has long believed that carriage horses were never meant to live and work in today's urban setting.'"

(UPDATE: CBS specifies, "[The horse's] body, which is in the custody of the ASPCA, was taken to Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. There, a necropsy will be performed to determine the horse’s cause of death." So ASPCA isn't technically performing the necropsy but rather is having one performed.)

Perhaps it is true that carriage horses weren't meant to live and work in the urban setting we've created, though it's a tough argument considering carriage horses were a staple of city life for centuries, and were really only relatively recently replaced by autos -- autos which environmentalists are trying to replace with better alternatives such as trains, electric vehicles, and bikes, which would also be healthier for the horses to be around. Today's urban setting is different, sure, but NYC carriage horses work in and around a park, not the mean streets of the city.

And maybe I'm wrong. Maybe there is something sinister and nefarious about the carriage horse trade in NYC and the industry happens to be doing a great job of keeping a lid on it. But it is tough to find evidence on the surface that this kind of life for a working animal -- and carriage horses are undeniably hard working animals -- can really be considered abuse if it is not also considered abuse for humans to live and work in these urban conditions, or any other working animal for that matter.

Jaymi Heimbuch/CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Considering replacing carriage horses with other vehicles
Let's say that ideal regulations are put in place, even more so than already exist, so that carriage horses in NYC get some vacation time in pastures, work fewer hours and have other perks that make them equal to their country cousins that are also working horses. Then I've got to ask, do we really want to take one more piece of rural life out of the urban environment?

People love seeing these horses. It's rather amazing to come across such a large animal in an area where we typically only see cars and trucks. Horses, the same as dogs or cats or other animals, brighten people up and give them exposure to something in nature that they may not often get to see. It'd be a real bummer if city kids couldn't see animals like horses while walking in the park, and it were even harder to get them exposure to interesting animals.

And what would be the alternative? Some, such as Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, suggest electric vehicles. Would these really be a lower carbon footprint? We have to consider the materials and energy put into the manufacturing of the vehicle, and the source of the electricity that runs it.

The Next Green Car writes, "[U]sing some of the data avaailable on the travelfootprint.org website for human power emissions, cycling generates around 8gCO2/km if you assume the cyclist eats locally grown organic food. If you then also assume that a horse can exert around 7.5 times the power of a human (1 hp or 750 Watts versus 100 Watts), then I would estimate that a horse (eating locally grown farm food) would emit around 55-60 gCO2/km. This is close to what can be achieved by an electric car, although an EV using renewable electricity would emit less CO2."

Meanwhile, Fat Knowledge runs a series of calculations that concludes, "[T]he horse comes in 50% more efficient than the Prius. I am really surprised that the car is even that close."

And even if we create an electric car run on renewable energy that beats the carbon footprint of a horse, then I'd ask - is the ride in an electric car more enjoyable? Is it really more environmentally friendly in the sense that we want to live in a pleasant environment with animals and clopping hooves and carriages drifting through the park at a leisurely pace?

If there is a ban on carriage horses in NYC and a replacement is needed, I have seen one possible alternative:

Jaymi Heimbuch/CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Tags: Animal Rights | Animals | Animal Welfare | Electric Cars | Urban Life | Urban Planning

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