Put the cart before the horse

Parks, politics and ponies: the controversial world of New York horse-drawn carriages.

It was a hot August evening when the New York Carriage Ryder came crashing down on Ninth Avenue, surrounded by buses and taxis. Onlookers took videos as the horse lay in the street while its handler whipped it and begged it to get up. Ryder was later diagnosed with equine protozoan myeloencephalitis, an infection caused by opossum feces. After regaining consciousness, he was transferred to a farm in upstate New York. On October 17, Ryder was euthanized after suffering a seizure.

Ryder isn’t the only carriage horse to crumble in the concrete jungle. Aisha, a 12-year-old horse, collapsed in Central Park in February 2020. A 15-minute video of the incident shows the visibly distressed horse struggling to lift its head and stand. Aisha was forced into a trailer towards the end of the video. She was euthanized later that day.

As a self-proclaimed rider, Ryder’s death had a negative effect on me. My love for the animal began at the age of seven after a summer of riding camp and a trip to see “Racing Stripes” at the cinema. Frequent visits to my family’s farm in Ireland have exposed me to the complex nature of these gentle giants. Over the years I’ve learned that no two horses are the same – each has their own personality and they don’t forget about you.

I decided to take the 5 train to Central Park to investigate the treatment of the carriage horses myself. After several failed interviews, I began to think it would be easier to communicate telepathically with horses.

So, tell me about your life at work?“I internally led a horse with an elaborate feather on its head. It didn’t respond. Instead, it produced one of the biggest saddles I’ve ever seen.

Two carriage horses stand in Central Park.
Photograph by Tara Lamorgese.

For my luck, I met Luigi, Pasquale – two horse trainers, and Shimmer, a 14 year old Standardbred gelding. The drivers and the horse were given different names to protect their identity.

After some negotiation, Luigi and Pasquale agreed to take me on a 20 minute ride through the park for $60. Most rides cost around $110 for 40 minutes and are often tourist traps. I buried my pride, devoured what was left in my bank account and jumped on board.

Luigi and Pasquale are both Italian immigrants. Luigi has been a driver for seven years. They told me that most New York horse drivers are immigrants or first generation Americans.

“I like horses. [This] is my dream,” Luigi said. “I grew up with horses in Italy.”

As we passed the famous carousel seen in “The Producers,” I asked Luigi and Pasquale what their thoughts were on people who consider horse-drawn carriages a form of animal cruelty.

Pasquale said this narrative was introduced by NYCLASS, a nonprofit animal rights organization founded in 2008 that opposes NYC carriage horses.

Edita Birnkrant, executive director of NYCLASS or New Yorkers for Clean Livable and Safe Streets, believes New York’s carriage horses live in “abusive, dangerous and cruel conditions”.

“They are social animals,” Birnkrant said in an interview. “They are supposed to have access to the referral areas every day. Ideally it would be pasture, but even if it’s not pasture, a piece of land, something where they can roam freely and be with other horses. They don’t have that in New York.

According to The Merk Veterinary Manual, unsocialized and regularly tethered horses can develop anxiety, claustrophobia, stress, self-harm, and compulsive rocking.

“I call it a 24/7 life of isolation,” Birnkrant said.

Christina Hansen, a horse-drawn carriage driver and chief shop steward for 10 years for the TWU Local 100 union, which represents horse-drawn carriage drivers and owners, argued otherwise.

“Horses are very adaptable. They get used to what is normal noise wherever they are,” she said. “Our horses travel several kilometers a day. They have an effective range over hundreds of acres here in Midtown and Central Park, so they have a lot more room to roam than a horse in a small paddock somewhere on Long Island.

I started thinking about one of the ponies I rode as a kid and how I used to put crinkle fabric inside his ears to make sure he wouldn’t be frightened by the wind. I don’t think he would make it in the Big Apple.

During the ride, Pasquale claimed that politics was a major factor in NYCLASS’s goal. He said the organization had close ties to former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who strongly opposed horse-drawn carriages in Central Park because they are “inhumane”.

Birnkrant disputed this claim and said de Blasio educated himself and came to his own conclusions.

I decided to dig a little.

I found that NYCLASS spent $202,255 in the four days leading up to the 2013 mayoral election, where they openly endorsed de Blasio. When he took office the same year, de Blasio promised to replace horse-drawn carriages with electric cars, which he saw as a safer and more ethical equivalent. This venture has been successful in Guadalajara, Mexico – “horseless” electric cars are now roaming the city streets.

Hansen alleges that the release of stables for real estate development was initially a key factor in the fight against New York’s carriage horses.

“It does no harm to their cause that [all] our horses practically live in the Hudson Yards…and we’re on the road to real estate development,” Hansen said.

Steve Nislick, President and Co-Founder of NYCLASS, previously served as Managing Director of Edison Properties LLC, a private real estate holding and development company with properties in New Jersey and New York.

In recent years, the organization has adopted a more militant approach.

De Blasio fell short of his goal of electrifying cars. However, he helped pass the 2019 Carriage Horse Relief Bill, which was signed by NYCLASS. The bill protects working horses in extreme weather conditions.

NYC carriage horse advocates say replacing horses with electric cars is a culture erase. Carriage rides are a custom that’s been around for centuries – look at any period piece with Kiera Knightley. Hansen and Pasquale believe that removing the horse-drawn carriages from the park erases the culture of the city.

Horses have taken people on tours through Central Park since it opened in 1858. Wealthy New Yorkers frequented the park to show off their ornate horses and carriages. In 1863, horse-drawn carriage rides were opened to tourists for 25 cents per passenger, according to IconicNYC.org. The service was available during both World Wars and the Great Depression.

When the issue of abuse was raised, Pasquale vehemently denied the allegation.

“There is no evidence.”

However, allegations of abuse have been documented on the internet. Hansen classifies these incidents, like the one with Ryder, as outliers.

“We have around 200 licensed carriage horses and when you have 200 live ones sometimes they get sick. Sometimes bad things happen to them,” she said. “You will never stop things from happening, but you can do your best. And we always try to do our best to make sure our horses are safe and healthy.

Horses lined up in Central Park waiting for customers to take a ride.
Photograph by Tara Lamorgese.

Birnkrant argued that the living conditions for the horses are poor.

“It’s not like any stables you’ve ever seen,” she said. “These are like apartment buildings where the horses climb steep ramps to the second and third levels – that’s where their stalls are, which are about half the recommended size for large workhorses. “

According to Equine Facility Design, a 12 by 16 stall is recommended for work horses. Stalls at the Clinton Park stables at 618 West 52nd St. measure approximately 8 by 16 feet, as shown in a report by Untapped New York.

A Facebook video of the West Side Livery, the stable Ryder lived in before his retirement, was posted by advocacy group, The Unbridled Heroes Project, in late August this year. The person recording can be heard saying the horses have “absolutely no room at all” in their stalls. Many horses appear to be underweight.

According to National Geographic, NYCLASS and other advocates believe that after retirement, some carriage horses are sent to slaughter in Canada and Mexico.

Hansen said the culling allegations are false and were created to advance the animal rights agenda.

“The reality is that we don’t send our horses to the slaughterhouse because, to be frank, our horses are too valuable,” she said. “We’ve actually saved horses that might have ended up at auction…and so they’ve kind of secured a future for themselves, so they’re going to be well cared for.”

I guess anything is better than ending up as dog food.

I asked Pasquale if Shimmer liked his work.

“He likes that.”

Towards the end of the ride, Shimmer cut through traffic so we could enter another part of the park. He seemed a little nervous as he walked past the cars on Fifth Avenue. I asked Pasquale if everything was okay as he went to see Shimmer who refused to enter the intersection. He blamed bad drivers.

“Dicks, you know?”

A horse-drawn carriage waits for customers in Central Park.
Photograph by Tara Lamorgese.