In Defense of New York’s Carriage Horse Industry

a horse carriage in central park, nyc

Yesterday, we posted an editorial against the carriage-horse industry in New York City. Today, we publish a response by Christina Hansen, who has been driving carriages for eight years and is the cofounder of Blue Star Equiculture, a draft horse sanctuary.

Henry Stewart sets up the carriage horse debate as being between drivers concerned about jobs and activists worried about the welfare of animals. That’s a false dichotomy. It’s the carriage drivers who are concerned, first and foremost with the welfare of the horses. The activists are interested in anything but welfare—whether it be animal rights, or their own psychological “rescue dramas,” or, yes, politics and real estate. 

Carriage drivers are carriage drivers because we love horses. And our primary job duty is to tend to the welfare of the horses in our charge. Every day I go to work with one of the half-dozen carriage horses I drive on a regular basis: Billy, Oreo, King, Tyson, Sarah, Tickles. Those horses each have their own personalities and quirks. They are not interchangeable machines. Of course they are “sentient” beings, and their behavior and attitudes indicate that they are generally happy in their work. We couldn’t work together if they weren’t.

Working with horses requires sensitivity and empathy, to understand the horse, and to work with the horse in partnership. Horses are very large, very powerful animals, and brute force will not work in getting a horse to decide to work with the humans in their lives. That’s why horsemanship is often called an art.

I have driven carriage horses since 2006: first in Philadelphia, and now in New York City. That’s still a fraction of the time that many of my coworkers have been driving carriage horses. Stewart claims that we don’t need carriage horses any more. One might say we also don’t need dogs or cats. We don’t need art or music. We don’t need Central Park. I would argue that we do in fact need those things, even if they are not necessary to survival. These are the things that make us human.

Horses helped us build our civilization. Until the middle of the 20th century, horses were everyday partners in our lives. How quickly many people have forgotten. When I first started driving a carriage in Philadelphia, people would come up to us carriage drivers and ask, in all sincerity, “How do you keep a horse in the city?” Our answer: “The same way we’ve been keeping them here since 1682.” Why does it surprise people that horses are urban animals? They’ve always been here. Is it the false narrative of “progress”?

My first week on the job, a motorist rolled down her window and screamed “animal cruelty” at me. It stunned me. I grew up in Lexington, Kentucky, where horses are a part of the culture. It had never occurred to me that anyone could look at a healthy, well-cared for horse walking down the street, pulling a lightweight carriage and think that that was in any way “cruel.”

This is how I came to learn about the animal “rights” movement. Animal rights is not animal welfare. It is the belief that humans do not have the right to use animals in any way. Animal rights activists believe that carriage drivers are “exploiting” horses by making money off their labor, as opposed to animal welfarists, who acknowledge that carriage horses and their owners have a mutually beneficial partnership. Animal rights activists assume that all human interaction with animals contains a possibility of abuse and therefore all animal interaction should be banned. It’s a distorted way of looking at animals, and at looking at ourselves. And it’s unhealthy.

We need animals among us. Animals teach us compassion. They teach us about other ways of experiencing the world than our own human one. For many people, the only opportunity they will have to interact with a horse or learn about a horse first hand is on 59th Street, at the carriage horse line. This utter ignorance about horses, that I encountered in Philadelphia and have since encountered in New York and on the Internet, is the reason that I started Blue Star Equiculture, a nonprofit draft horse sanctuary in Palmer, MA, cofounded with my friend and fellow carriage driver Pamela Rickenbach.

At Blue Star, we believe that the real solution to the homeless horse crisis and to problems of neglect or slaughter of horses is to find more ways to bring horses into our lives, whether to use them for organic farming, environmentally friendly logging, or carriage rides. Horses that are a part of the community—in parades, in wagon rides, in civic clean up days—are horses that the community cares about. When the community cares about its horses, horses fare better.

This is certainly the case with the New York City carriage horses. They work on Central Park South, one of the busiest streets in the world. They are a symbol of the city. As a result, they are protected by regulations, their owners and the public. I was glad to see the New York Daily News use the hash tag #SaveOurHorses to launch their pro-carriage petitioning campaign. It’s exactly right. The carriage horses don’t just belong to their owners, but to all New Yorkers. They belong to the autistic girl from the Upper East Side who’s condition is really only manageable thanks to her interaction with the carriage horses and the therapeutic rides she takes. They belong to Norm, a resident of Central Park South, who has been standing in Columbus Circle for several hours multiple days a week with a pro-carriage-horse sign supporting our business, just because he likes them and likes seeing them outside his living room window. They belong to the overwhelming majority of New Yorkers who want the horses to stay. The horses belong to all of us. And no person has the right to take them away.

Stewart puzzles at the New York Daily News‘ enthusiasm for saving the New York City carriage horses. The reality is that the New York Daily News has been reporting on this issue for years now. They have been to the stables. They have investigated what life is like for carriage horses and for less-fortunate horses that don’t have jobs. They have caught anti-carriage-horse activist groups like NYCLASS and PETA in lie after lie after lie. The Daily News knows that there is no comparison to be made between people like me who drive carriage horses in New York City and people who club baby seals. We in the carriage industry are the ones who are saving horses—we are the ones who are preserving the necessary bond between horses and people. We are the ones giving horses the care that they need.

The photo that Stewart has posted is of Charlie, who died suddenly of unknown causes—most likely a heart attack or stroke—in October 2011. The ASPCA, acting outside the procedures set forth in the administrative code, coerced the owner to sign over custody of Charlie’s carcass. The ASPCA, which cofounded NYCLASS and advocates for the abolition of carriage horses, was also at the time the designated enforcement agency over the carriage industry. Despite the ASPCA’s obvious bias, the ASPCA never found any evidence of cruelty, abuse or neglect in the carriage industry. Yet in the case of Charlie, they pressured their vet, Dr. Pamela Corey, to say that Charlie had suffered and was in pain and that being a carriage horse had killed him. None of this was true, and Dr. Corey eventually recanted her statement—but only after it had gone around the world on social media. For fulfilling the responsibilities of having a veterinary license and telling the truth, Dr. Corey was suspended and eventually fired from the ASPCA. The final necropsy report for Charlie showed that he had been in excellent physical and nutritive health. Charlie could have dropped dead anywhere, in a field or on 54th St.

The photo of Charlie is emblematic of so much that is wrong with the anti-carriage-horse crusade. Conflict of interest, animal rights zealotry blinding alleged professionals to the truth that the carriage horses are healthy, and groups like the ASPCA who are supposed to be interested in the welfare of animals throwing aside their responsibility to tell the truth in favor of partisan politics for animal rights.

Stewart has also linked to a BuzzFeed article filled with repetitive photos of the same handful of carriage accidents (and where most of the horses suffered only minor injury, but where the photos are disturbing). Those incidents date back over many years. Every year hundreds of people are killed by car crashes in New York City. Thousands are maimed. Yet there is, thankfully, a taboo against showing photos of such events. There is no such prohibition against showing photos of dead or injured horses. The anti-horse activists seem to fetishize these violent and disturbing images and show them over and over to inflict psychological distress in the viewer, in a perverse effort to shock the viewer into taking up their anti-carriage-horse position.

Knowing how rare carriage collisions and horse deaths are, and knowing the true story behind Charlie’s death from natural causes and the exploitation of his death by anti-carriage-horse activists, how can you justify it? How can you justify continuing to use a photo of what happens in life, through no fault of anyone, to traumatize over and over again the viewer?

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  1. Damn Christina! This is a superb piece of writing, and hits all the correct, and FACTUAL notes. I wish this were published in the NYTimes, the San Fran Chronical, the Guardian, every where . Excellent job.

  2. Exactly right! Wake up people, there are factions who will start with horses, and move on to other species. What’s next? No working police dogs, narcotics dogs, bomb dogs, guide dogs? Don’t think it can happen? Wrong! the so called ‘animal rights’ agenda is incidious and looks at every angle to remove our rights to own animals.

    These horses are well cared for, driven by professionals and supported by New Yorkers who LOVE animals and support everyone’s right to own them and love them

  3. Excellent article. So many great points. Thank you so much for helping to make it clear what lies are being told by powerful , self righteous bullies. I would not want to live in a world without animals and that goes for the greatest city on earth. We lose our humanity without animals. I have a therapy dog and we visit hospitals. The joy and comfort that he brings is incredible.
    Keep up the good work. If there is any justice in the world…and many days I fear there is not, PeTA and NYClass will be exposed as the animal hating monsters they are!

  4. This well written article says it all! I live 20 lives west of the GWB (George Washington Bridge for you left coast people!). One of my “bucket list” things was to ride in a horse drawn carriage. My husband & I did that & used the picture for that year’s Christmas card.

  5. Central Park South? Billionaires Row? Does anyone know if Norm is single? Also, could someone forward me his address/phone. I’d like because I’m writing an article about the carriage horses.

  6. While the author makes some valid points and clearly cares about horses, the fact still stands that carriage horses are purely for our entertainment. Unlike other working animals (police dogs etc.. mentioned) whose skills we need and thus treat very well(hopefully), carriage horses serve no real purpose other than entertainment. I take issue with that. The fact that Hansen cites Kentucky in relation to her experience of horses is a big clue about where her ideas come from. Horse racing is a a hideous abuse of horses and frequently reminds us of this via graphic images of horses falling during a race and then being euthanize, and of course the regular horse doping scandals. Like carriage horses, it’s an industry that exists solely for entertainment, which exists to create profit.
    When I see the horses standing there, waiting in the heat and cold, while traffic whizzes by, cars honking, endless noise and over stimulation, sorry, I’m not thinking of the welfare of the “drivers”, they have a choice. The horses have no choice. I’m in great favor of replacing the horses with the old-timey autos, it sounds fun, funny and free of any potential harm to horses.
    In addition, I don’t think NYC’s history with horses is much to brag about. Yes they were instrumental in facilitating movement for many years, but there is a reason there is a place called Dead Horse Bay out in Brooklyn. There was a time there were so many horse corpses, there was an entire bay devoted to the rendering plants.
    Isn’t it time we gave these graceful creatures some respect by completely retiring their use on NYC streets? I believe so.

    • Horses are bread to work, they are not the happiest when the are out roaming in a field w/ little human contact. They are a working animal, it does not sound like you have been around horses that much. PETA is a joke, while they act like they are all for the animals they euthanize thousands of dogs & cats a year with no thought of doing it. Shame on PETA for there dreads, they are not animal activist, they are out to destroy them. Including these wonderful working horses.

    • Why do activists like yourself have so much opposition to animals being used for entertainment? Do you object to a rabbit being pulled out of a hat? Did you object to Mr. Ed? I know you object to marine mammal shows. Do you object to Queen Elizabeth’s mounted guard, carriage horses, polo horses and personal horses? What about Disneyland’s carriage horses, and the Budweiser Clydesdales?
      Since horses are no longer our main mode of transportation, other uses were found for them in order to keep them around for people who enjoy being in their company.
      Horses exist in heat and cold just like everyone else on this planet. But a horse with a caring owner can get a bath on a hot day, and a blanket on a cold day.
      Horses can become desensitized to almost anything when experienced on a regular basis. How do you think the cavalry was able to shoot guns while mounted? I’m sure city traffic isn’t as noisy as a pistol being fired over your head.
      Horses actually do have a choice. When a horse decides he doesn’t want to do something, there isn’t a whole lot you can do about it. Have you ever tried to put a horse in a trailer it doesn’t want to go in? Have you ever tried to help a frightened horse without getting hurt yourself? The fact that NYC carriage horses go out and willingly do their jobs is a choice that they have made.
      I bet there were a lot of horse corpses at one time. NYC had a lot of horses and they are mortal.
      You do not respect the horses when you put them out of work and in danger of ending up at slaughter. And, if not them, then the other horses whose place they would take at any well managed rescue. There are not enough rescue groups in this country to take in all the horses that need homes now. You would add to that number, not only NYC horses, but those in other cities that would follow NYC’s example. If activists like you succeed in banning carriage horses, then horses everywhere are in danger of being put out of a job and their home. That’s what Progressives, like DeBlasio, do. You institute short sighted, feel good policies that end up doing more harm than good because you don’t consider the unintended consequences of your actions.
      Get real!

      • I agree—–those people who think they are for the animal do not know the animal—–those who got horse slaughter banned in the US did the horses no favors…they were just trucked much longer distances-stuffed in transports, some trampled — to Canada and Mexico where in Mexico they were cruelly killed-liked stabbing. At least in the US there were regulations to protect the horse. So those who wanted horse meat still got it, the horse suffered more. and due to not being able to take a horse to a local slaughter, they were turned out to starve…

        • Do you know what they do with the ones they are transporting and start to die before they reach their final destination during the trip? They dump them on the side of the road to suffer and die. The way race horses who don’t win are treated is some of the worst animal abuse going on in the world today, and it’s happening right here in this country. These ignoramuses going after the carriage horse industry are probably some of the dumbest people I’ve seen protest anything. Try picketing Churchill Downs and see how fast the cops are called and haul people off to jail. And HBO had to actually shut down a show centered around racing because of so many horses who broke down during filming and were put down at Santa Anita. I don’t see a bunch of PETA people or other alleged animal “rights” groups over there picketing, or creating specialty websites to shut down the racing industry, making a huge stink in the media. There is far too much money involved, from the owner to the person who bets, to do anything about the abuse in the industry. I dare PETA to go after the racing industry with the same zeal they use towards anyone who wears a fur coat or a leather item or eats a steak. They will NEVER do it in a million years, is my bet.

    • Well then, go after the racing industry. No one else is. I NEVER see this kind of uproar over the racing horses, the ones who die somewhere on a racetrack every single week, or are sold to a person who sends them over to a slaughter auction because they are a losing horse not making money for the owner/trainer/racetrack. Not to mention those who bet on the horses who race. Go picket Belmont instead. That is where the real wholesale abuse of horses is happening, even as I type this comment. But, I suppose there is far too much money for anyone to make even the slightest dent in the way race horses are treated. I see no FB pages devoted to putting a stop to horse racing, or even to reform and hold owners/trainers/racetracks more accountable for the horses they use to make money. Do you think a carriage horse is making even a fraction of the money for humans in it’s whole life pulling a carriage than people make off of a winning race horse in mere months? The answer is not just “no” but “HELL NO”. So, until that industry is targeted the way the carriage horses in Manhattan are then all of you should just STFU!!

  7. Excellent rebuttal to the emotion-laden faux-fact opinion article against using carriage horses from the day before. That anti-use oped is a very good illustration of the tactics of the animal rights “true believer” cult. Having had horses much of my life, I can appreciate that horses do enjoy a routine and being guided by a trustworthy handler. To call these carriage horses abused is Disneyfication of animals and being out of touch with reality (and with likely very little true animal experience).

  8. Excellent article, Christina. It is so important that you’re appealing to analysis of evidence surrounding Charlie’s death rather than tugging at emotions or using shock tactics. This piece deserves a wider audience.

  9. I think all horse lovers should boycott New York. They are going to choke on their own exhaust anyway. Glad fox hunting takes place in the country, far away from that disturbing trend. Not sure we could save them from themselves. I’m going to the pasture and hug all my ponies and shed a tear for the sorry state of humans.

  10. A superb article, that reflects the true connection between people and their animals everywhere. It is time that the animal rights zealots stopped their perverted campaign against animal owners, and started realizing that their actions are causing our animals, including horses, more pain, neglect and suffering rather than less.
    Ms. Hansen is to be congratulated for a remarkably detailed and descriptive explanation of the true situation of New York’s carriage horses, so loved and cared for by their owners.

  11. The whole concept of how well regulated the carriage horse industry is beyond insulting. Another industry so well regulated is Wall Street & banking. And just as the bankers find every single loophole around regulations, so do the carriage drivers. That they have to be forced to bring the horses in during and prior to inclement weather speaks volumes as to how much they “love” their horses. Who is the vet providing care for outdoor working horses for $500/year when anyone who has 1 indoor dog or cat spends far more than that? How is it that only 1 stable out of 3 is the only one ever shown or made accessible to be seen? The thought that tourists only come to NYC for a carriage ride is truly inane. Tourists have more than enough to do here other than participate in abusing animals. Child labor and sweatshops were once a vital part of NYC’s economy. Shall we bring those back to celebrate NYC history too?

    • Sandi,

      I WISH Wall Street and big banks were as well regulated as the carriage industry, but that went out the window with the Glass-Steagall act. But hey, that’s a different story. You are correct that the idea people would only go to NYC for the carriages is nuts- if they wanted a carriage ride, they could go to Philadelphia, Savannah, or any number of other “big” cities that also have well-regulated and thriving carriage industries and are much cheaper to visit.

      I think the point the writer made is that horses and humans have lived together and worked together for thousands of years. We had a co-dependent relationship with them (and still do, in the case of the logging industry, etc.) for such a long time that we have basically domesticated each other. There are studies going on about the ability of horses’ hearts’ electromagnetic energy to influence humans’ heartbeats, blood pressure, etc. Horses and humans communicate in a very special way that can only be attributed to the time we’ve spent together. The horses who work in the carriage industry are typically draft horses and bred for much more physically-demanding work than walking around with a carriage, which, by the way, only works because it has wheels and bearings. Ever see a “strongman” competition in which they pull a semi truck?

      They’re also much smarter and more adaptable than people give them credit for. They get used to the sights and sounds of traffic in the same way people do. It just turns into white noise. I promise (cross my heart, hand on the bible, stick a needle in my eye, whatever) that if these horses did not want to work, they wouldn’t. There’s nothing more to it than that. 200-lb human vs. 2,000-lb horse will end the same way every time. That’s why people say, “I work WITH horses.” You’re not getting a bridle on a horse who doesn’t want one on. Their teeth are VERY sharp. They are UNBELIEVABLY powerful. Their feet have METAL on the bottom. Horses can bite, kick, rear, buck, stomp, take off at a gallop, stop in their tracks, etc., WHENEVER THEY FEEL LIKE IT.

  12. Christina Hansen is a most eloquent, compassionate & responsible voice for the Life & FATE of our dear Carriage-Horses and their benevolent interaction with us. It grieves me that so-called Journalists in our lovely Lamestream Media & Social Media too, print unresearched or slanted articles about the Carriage- Horses as well as so many other topics topics! I want to thank BROOKLYN MAGAZINE for allowing Ms. Hansen to set the record straight. To aid our cause I have released my Pop-Anthem dedicated to Save the Central Park Carriage-Horseses, “WALKIN THRU THE PARK” by Mr. Melody TM. If you feel as we do, why not download the Mp3 from your favorite digital vendor(s) available worldwide and help to make it a hit. Visit FB page WALKIN’ A Pop Anthem to Save Central Park Carriage-Horses. Thank You! Mr. Melody TM