The Carriage Horse Debate Is About Horses, Not Electric Cars

NYC carriage horses
CC BY 1.0. Chris Gladis

Chris Gladis/CC BY 1.0

I wrote a post the other day about the carriage horse that collapsed and died on a street in midtown Manhattan. Jaymi followed up with an interesting post making the point that one incident does not mean the industry should be banned. I'd like to use this space to respond to and clarify a few things.

There seems to be a notion that animal activists are exploiting an isolated event for their personal agenda, but that the two are unrelated. There's no question that activists are using the opportunity to publicize a cause. But the everyday conditions, not a single incident—however extreme—are what they oppose. Their desire to end the carriage horse industry is by no means a new one. And that gets back to a point from my original post that I did not make very clearly the first time around: agree with these activists or not, they at least are consistent (some of them) and dedicated to a cause. Here, they differ from a lot of people who get upset about an event, but almost immediately forget to address, and change, its root causes.

Regarding the point that breathing in vehicle exhaust is unhealthy for horses and humans alike is not one that animal activists would disagree with. Rather, they would likely say that humans choose to breathe in that exhaust, and created the exhaust in the first place. The carriage horses had no say in either.

Horses Vs. Electric Cars

I'm not saying I support the replacement of carriage horses with electric vehicles. I don't think NYC needs more cars on the road. And I haven't done any calculations to compare the carbon footprint of an electric car with that of a horse, nor do I think I would do so accurately if I tried. What I do think is that more information is necessary to evaluate a horse's condition than what can be gleaned from a glance in a park. As of now, it's not always a very well-educated debate.

Gotham Gazette reported last year: "In 2007, then Comptroller William Thompson audited the industry and found it was infrequently inspected and health conditions for horses were substandard. The audit was released as several accidents led to the death of several horses."

That audit, the New York Times reported the year it came out, marked the comptroller's first-ever audit of the city's policing of the industry. The Times cites from that report:

Monitoring by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Department of Consumer Affairs at the Central Park South carriage stands is inadequate, the audit found, and lax veterinary care in the field and infrequent inspections have created health hazards.
In addition, horses are not provided with enough water, risk overheating on hot asphalt and are forced to stand in their own waste because of inadequate drainage.

The story quotes industry reps and animal rights activists, but it also quotes the comptroller behind the audit. He said: “Central Park South is a spectacular thoroughfare, but it was never set up for horses."

Last year, then-Governor David Paterson also came out against how carriage horses are treated and said the industry should be banned if it's not cleaned up.

Bottom line, current rules regarding the welfare carriage horses are weak and often unenforced. It's not just activists who are saying so, as the above statements make clear. And a corporate attorney I know, who is by no means an activist but did some pro-bono work at her firm for a carriage horse campaign, wrote to me this summer, "almost none of the regulations are ever enforced, even by the ASPCA."

I think policy needs to change, and that it needs to be informed by people who have visited horses' stables, are familiar with regulations on food, water and temperature, and have investigated or monitored [PDF] the availability of each. Policy needs to take into account not only how the industry treats its horses, but also the inevitable problems that arise in keeping horses in confined spaces by people who are using them to make a profit and not because they love caring for horses.

The Big Picture

Finally, I'd like to further clarify a point I tried to make in my original post: I did not mean to equate horses with threatened, or threatening, species. The comparison was meant to highlight the steps that are taken, or not taken, in the aftermath of a widely-publicized incident. Personally, I believe there is a public tendency toward a short-term memory that allows momentum for a cause to be deflated before it is seen through to the end.

There are plenty of examples in the sustainability arena that can point to this—public outcry after the BP oil spill last year may be the clearest one. It's now a year and a half later with no real change in policy, BP is doing fine while affected communities are not, and President Obama just gave a thumbs-up to BP to resume drilling in the Gulf. But in the weeks and months following the spill, people were serious about their calls for change. Where did all that outrage go? Are people saving it for the next spill?

The animals that were killed in Ohio sparked a reaction nationwide, and subsequent calls for legislative action. Some have been pushing for changes in exotic animal-related laws for years, but apparently sometimes it takes a public event like that to get the momentum going. Likewise, in New York City, more people read about the death of the horse, Charlie, than are likely to read about the everyday conditions of carriage horses on an average day. Some of those people took Charlie's death as an opportunity to learn more, and have begun to support the call to change the conditions in which many living horses exist.

At the end of the day, I think issues like these need people with longer attention spans and who are educated and informed to fight for (or against) them. And those people need to continue that fight even when it is no longer the popular issue of the day.