Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Carriage Horse Debate: Overblown

I promised to get back to this issue, and now I am. I haven't addressed it ever before on this blog, because my views tend to piss people off. If you don't like being angry, swearing, and long arguments, now would be the time to go read yet another bad Craigslist ad on Snarkyrider.

Still here? Good. Let's get to it.

A little background for those of you who may not know: in many large cities and at some historical sites here in America, horse-drawn carriage rides are offered to tourists for prices that vary from $5-$150/hour. Rides can be very short or over an hour long, in nearly any kind of wagon or carriage.
Anti-horse-carriage-tour advocates say that the industry's horses are badly treated. They are subjected to exhaust fumes, they must climb steep ramps to their stables, walk for hours on hard pavement and work in inclement weather, they don't have free access to food and water for hours at a time, and they have to pull heavy loads. They must work 8-10 hours per day with only one or two short breaks, and their environments are sometimes hazardous.

Oh my goodness, just think of all that! It sounds like... 

             ...actually it sounds like the daily jobs of many Americans. 

What exactly is the goddamn problem?
Maybe my blue collar is showing through my blouse, but I think too many people have forgotten what work is all about. Too many people are simply aghast at the thought of anyone, including an animal, doing hard outdoor labor under less than ideal conditions. These weaklings can hardly conceive of not being able to have gourmet coffee and air conditioning in their offices, much less sweating in a field or factory all day.
Well cry me a river and then drown yourselves in it, you sissy, entitled fuckers! How dare you assume that your incredibly privileged lifestyle is the norm! There are millions of people right here in the USA working under those same "horrifying" conditions right now. Is it tough? Yeah, sure. It's not called "work" for nothing!

Factory workers, janitors, builders, road construction workers, miners, beat cops, surveyors, farmers, landscapers... they do not want or need your pity.

I'm sick of the rhetoric, the hyperbole, the overblown sentiment. Here's what I'm talking about: someone on the Carriage Horse Cruelty Facebook page felt the need to post THIS as an example of "heart-wrenching," "infuriating" and "unbelievable" mistreatment:

I am glad that we have reached such a pinnacle of advancement in the world that some people are deeply concerned about horses eating grain off of the ground, but fuck me, REALLY?! What will be next, accusations of cruelty over letter your dog eat the stuff you accidentally drop on the kitchen floor?
Now look, as a lover of horses, I will be one of the first to point out the wrongs that some in the carriage horse industry commit. But can we please step back a second and get some goddamn perspective on this issue? 
It is normal and often necessary and altogether okay to work hard for a living, even under conditions that are not very comfortable. It is OKAY to sweat and get dirty. And lest you make the argument that, "it's only OK when it's humans, because WE can choose to work or not!" then why do we get bent out of shape about carriage horses, but not service dogs or cowboys' horses, sheep herding dogs, drug sniffing dogs, endurance horses, dogs and horses used in prisons, or horses in the Mounted Police? Don't they also endure walking on hard ground for hours, limited freedom, heat and cold, carrying loads, long days, few breaks, potentially dangerous working conditions, etc etc?

If we think that it may be wrong for humans to use animals, okay, cool, I am willing to have that conversation. However, that's not what the majority of people are saying. They're saying, "bomb sniffing dogs are so cool," but also, "poor carriage horses have to work in traffic!" When we draw these imaginary lines, we're just making ourselves look like hypocrites.

I can already hear your objection. "But North Horse, the carriage tour industry is different! They're evil and the others are not!"

Tsk, tsk. Let me enlighten you. Few jobs are inherently good or evil.

First of all, service dogs, mounted police horses, all working critters are not immune from abuse. There are lots of examples of them being mistreated, on and off duty. In fact, it was only a few weeks ago that I posted the story about the Virginia police officer who starved a 14 year veteran police horse. And remember the infamous case of the North Caroline K9 officer Charles Jones, who was caught on video hanging and kicking his police dog at the Highway Patrol Academy? (He was fired, but not punished.) Even if actual abuse isn't an issue, animals working these jobs can suffer PTSD and other mental and physical problems.

And service dogs? Yes, they get abused too, most often by the people they are there to help. And did you know that a trained service dog can cost $15,000 - $50,000 dollars? Many times, charities buy dogs and lend them those in need, but wow! That's what I call big business.

On the other side of the coin, not all carriage tour operators are bad people. Many of them are simply horse people who have found a way to make a living doing something they love. They own their horses and have a vested interest in keeping them happy and healthy for as long as possible. They are knowledgeable folks who tell jokes and will recite the history of their route, as well as the names, ages, pedigrees and personalities of the horses. 

Yes, of course there are minimum wage seat-warmers who don't give much of a damn about their "living taxis," and carriage tour companies who are at best careless and neglectful, and at worst deliberately abusive. However, the carriage industry is exactly like the equine industry as a whole: there are assholes and saints... except much more visible. Therein lies the crux of this issue.

Because carriage horses are huge animals, pulling big, brightly colored wagons, in some of the most-visited areas in the world, they are VERY visible, and so everyone seems to be hyper aware of what happens to them.They also don't have the feel-good PR that service dogs, mounted police, etc have, so they're more likely to get negative attention.

So I am NOT arguing that bad stuff doesn't happen in the carriage tour industry. It does. I am, however, arguing that 1) by itself, hard work is not "cruelty" and 2) bad stuff happens in any industry, and especially any industry involving animals. Instead of making carriage tour operators the ultimate badguys while largely ignoring the abuse of other working animals, we should come up with some better standards for everyone.

Hang onto your hats, because my blue collar is about to turn socialist pink.

If we as a country want to have working animals, we all need to step up and help pay to keep them safe and happy. Yes, that means taxes and rules.

In the case of carriage tours, tourists should be prepared to pay more for rides, and perhaps even taxpayers who vote for the carriage industry to stay in their cities should chip in. This funding could allow us to create retirement homes for carriage horses (or at least guranteed humane euthanasia), make sure drivers are educated about the needs of their horses, perhaps with a licensing test, and pay for independent organizations to inspect the living quarters, tack and daily lives of carriage horses. Right now, we are relying on charitable organizations and the carriage tour companies themselves to fill these roles.

We could also create road lanes specifically for carriages, and have traffic cops escort them to and from their stables and the parks where they work. We give up some cash, we get peace of mind knowing we're doing right by carriage horses.

I would like to see similar rules for standards of care, handler education and retirement provisions for police horses, service dogs and other working animals. I am especially appalled at the lack of education that some mounted police officers and K9 officers have about the animals they work with.

Let me leave you with some facts about, and rules for, working carriage horses today:

Carriage horses in New York are required by law to have 15 minute breaks every two hours. They cannot work when temperatures are over 90 or below 18 degrees Fahrenheit. Horses must wear winter blankets during cold or wet weather while waiting for passengers. Horses must have a five week "furlough" every year. Carriage horses in NY are required to stay in Central Park or immediately adjacent areas on weekdays. Their workdays cannot be longer than 9 hours (and that includes the breaks). Carriages must be equipped with emergency breaks and reflectors. Full rules are here.

Here is the New York, New York training manual for carriage drivers.

ClipClopNY is the biggest New York carriage-horse-supporting website: they organize tours of stables, hold fundraisers to pay for horses' retirements and educate the public on how to help keep carriage horses safe.

Some former carriage horses, like Bobby, do end up at auctions where they often go to kill buyers.

More than half of New York City's carriage horses live in Clinton Park Stables. Pictures of these stables can be found here.

The vast majority of horse-drawn tours take place in rural areas, not in cities.

One of the coolest horse drawn tours I have ever been on is the Lost Canyon tour in Wisconsin Dells. Incredible natural scenery, well-take-care-of horses, guides who are funny and incredibly knowledgeable, and more corny jokes than you can shake a stick at. The only criticism I might make is that all of the horses' tails seem to be docked. Video here (not made by me).


  1. I agree with your point that work is work, and if done HUMANELY and within the law I don't have a problem with it.

    Saying that, I am a member of a carriage horse advocacy group working in Atlanta trying to improve the situation our horses are in.

    In OUR case, there is NO WATER available for the working horses on the streets, the farrier work we see is atrocious & the farrier needs to have his license pulled, the laws that are IN PLACE are being completely ignored, the harness's we see are mostly held together with duct tape and spit. There are horses working obviously lame, and sick (no not just snotty noses, though there is plenty of that, I'm talking about illnesses like heaves...for YEARS). There is really no clear governing body to watch out for the horses, at least not one willing to actually DO anything should a complaint come in.

    We understand that a horse with a JOB is in better shape than one in the auction house or feed lot. And IF the carriage OWNERS can be made to comply with the laws on the books we would be "relatively" happy.

    Thank you for posting this, and while I appreciate the public trying to speak up for the horses, but as with anything, a few bad apples spoil the bunch, we receive comments from people that assume we are one of those groups who think a chestnut is an injury or worse cancer.

    We are not them...

  2. You're absolutely right, and I hope I didn't make it sound like there aren't carriage horses suffering out there. Atlanta does seem to be a particularly bad place for horses, and I'm am grateful for what you are doing there.

    When animal welfare laws are not enforced, as you mention, I despair. Sometimes it does seem that if we can't protect animals, we shouldn't be allowed to have them at all.

    Chestnuts as injuries?! Good grief...

    1. That's right...not all carriage horses have a decent life!

  3. I absolutely agree with animals (and humans) working for a living. Except for some "fantasy carriage" wedding stuff, there is no carriage industry where I live, so I am not familiar with it. But what I wouldn't give to have lanes (far away from car exhaust) as part of our life! It's to bad that we let this go - think how much cleaner and safer our transportation would be if we has integrated cars with horses! Too late now, barring some kind of catastrophe movie type scenario.

    1. You might like to visit Mackinac Island in Michigan-- it has a strictly no-cars law, and so everyone gets around everywhere by bike and horse. It's a fun, if touristy, place to visit. There are of course some problems with the carriage industry there too...

  4. I was a carriage driver in both Sacramento CA, and for a short time here in Madison WI.
    I had to go through a licensing procedure which was a written and a driving test, through a state certified inspector. And as a horse owner I truly did care about the horses in the company, the tack they used, the carriages and did have SOME issues with other drivers that did come on board after I did.
    The company had been bought by a standardbred owner/trainer/driver who then incorporated his own horses into the rotation, there were three older standardbreds that had been doing the job for years and 3 drafts, he brought in another 3 or 4 STB's from his own stable as he had decided to stop being an OTD on the track.
    1 of the biggest issues I had was at first the storage location of the carriages, it was far better when it moved as the place where they had been when I first came on board was a small chain linked lot where the original horses lived on one side of the river in "West" Sacramento. He moved them to a very nice Huge paddock at an equestrian center (this did later cause an issue.. but more on that later).
    Part 1

    1. There were 3-4 companies each with @5 carriages trying to eek out a living to the tourists in Old Sacramento, supplementing with weddings and tours of the capitol and other rides.
      The worst issue I had was the fact the manager was not a horse person, he himself proclaimed this, yet the feeding, care, and everyday little things had to be looked at and parceled out by him.. he really wouldn't be able to tell you if a horse was sick, WHY it might be sick, and other things a horse person KNOWS when they see a horse in pain, distress, coughing, etc etc....
      AND they would hire people that could pass the tests and get the license but were not horse people... one lady who was hired by the company who was "pretty and blonde" had to be threatened with a ticket if she did not remove a horse from the streets who was limping ( I worked days, she worked nights)- that same horse some 8 weeks later became my horse when she was still limping,(no one thought to check her hooves, or have a vet check her out...)within a day or two we found a nail that had amazingly NOT hit a bone OR caused an infection. At 21 she was due a good retirement, she was blind in one eye and had a fluid lump on her knee.
      Same blonde lady caused thousands in damage when she couldn't control the horse she drove and he panicked causing damage to the carriage, himself and several parked cars.
      For me the final straw was when over a long weekend the owner's favorite mare who looked like a 14.2hh arab but was an amazingly fast trotter... broke her pelvis, she stood in that large paddock for several days, not able to drink or eat and had to be shot. (this is the other aspect of the story I said I would get back to)
      3 of the original horses made it out of there to private homes, Molly to me, Boss to a driver who had quit but then bought him and an amish bred clyde to a fellow named Ron, who then moved to TN, he bought her, her own trailer and she lived a grand life with his family.
      Molly went on to be a therapeutic grooming horse at the tender age of 24, and I moved to WI where I purchase a half starved belgian that I named Moose. He had been sold when the other horse he was matched to died, and then starved. I had heard that he had been a carriage horse and contacted the owner, who was the "NEW" owner of the company, she remembered Moose who was at that time named Barney. She helped me rescue him, rehab him and we spent a summer and fall working for her. He and I had some great times. He went on to be a beginner rider's horse after he bonded with her and she and he moved to MI.
      I still miss him and would love to drive again.
      Most of the drivers I knew were family members of the owners of the companies or the owners themselves.
      The good that some bring is that the carriage company owners in places like Madison or Sacramento, trailer their horses in daily, the horses are only worked about 7 hours max, water is always available at spigots or from resturants that allow drivers to fill the buckets.
      The bad... sometimes the passengers ask if we can take credit cards (this was before the invention of the I-phone and I-pad and the gizmo that allows you to swipe a card on the spot).
      And you get really funny stories to tell your friends about some of your passengers...
      Still makes me laugh...

    2. THANK YOU for sharing your stories! Personal insight on this industry is worth so much. We'd love to hear more.

    3. My introduction to carriage driving was for a company in Indianapolis in the early 80s. Top notch outfit, horses had supreme care, routine vet, farrier and no expense was spared if one of them got sick. Their tie stalls were kept bedded in 8-10 inches of sawdust that was kept immaculate. The carriages were new, stored inside, and maintained constantly both mechanically and cosmetically. Harness was cleaned after every shift and hung up. I "assumed" all carriage companies operated with these standards as a necessary part of doing business and being always in the public eye a desire to be proud of what you put out there. Imagine my shock then to see skinny, and even lame carriage horses in my new states downtown. To learn from the past employees that only horses that worked eat, and once the years grass dies out the shrinking begins. By March they are awful and the routine begins. Mind you I have seen this with my own eyes. Add to that some of the photos of horses from one outfit that is now rightfully out of business in Atlanta, a a few pictures from other places as well. So yes it's out there, but so are the outfits like the one I worked for IN Indianapolis and I might point out far, far, far, more like them. Every industry has bad apples. Nobody would cry to ban all doctors over a few quacks so this nonsense that all carriage companies are bad evil operations is simply absurd. Nor is every large dog breeder a puppy mill, or livestock farmer only concerned about money. When it comes to making a living with animals it needs to be a labor of love and in most cases it is.

    4. Thank you for sharing Karen!!

  5. I agree. I see no problem with them being out there provided they are healthy and happy. And the majority of them that I've seen have been! I've also seen abuse such as starved horses being worked. The only ones I feel should be put out of businesses are the ones that give no breaks, whip them like crazy, starve them, you know, actual abuse. Leave more business for the responsible operators.

    I visited the Portland Mounted Patrol stable and saw nothing but healthy, friendly, happy horses. The officers don't have to know anything about horses to get in. They go through 10 weeks of grueling classes to learn everything from colors and breeds to health and first aid. They learn to ride. Once they've graduated, they go out with senior officers until they are deemed good to go. They are also protective of their partners. They are happy to chat with you about them and let you pet them, but get rough with the horse and you'll get a hard smack with a batton.

  6. This is one of the things that makes advocating animal welfare so dang hard. On the one hand, you have the vile abusers and the people who think animals are property and nothing more. On the other, you have the people who think it's evil to ride a horse or keep a dog, and we should phase out domestic animals and offer ourselves up to be eaten by bears as an apology for what our species has done. And then you have the people in the middle who don't want to have a conversation about abuse of carriage horses because they think it will lead to the bear-food contingency taking away their well-cared-for barrel horse, or about the cruelties of hog confinement because they think it means everyone will have to turn vegan. Rather than throwing the bad apples out of the barrel themselves (yes, AKC, I'm talking about you), they close ranks. And the vile abusers get free rein...

    1. I don't follow the dog world much, so I'm curious, what did AKC do?

    2. They make money every time a dog is registered, so puppy mills are pretty much a cash cow for them. Their "inspection process" for breeders is a joke, and they have fought legislation that would set standards for commercial dog breeders.

    3. Couldn't have said it better myself s! Hah, "bear food contingency," that is HILARIOUS!! Seriously though, it's shitty that all of us animal lovers can't stop fighting amongst ourselves long enough to be more effective against the real badguys. I'm actually starting to regret writing this blog post for that very reason.

      As for the American Kennel Club... Yeah, I complain about AQHA a lot, but the AKC is really a thousand times worse. There's an excellent article here, talking more about how badly they suck:

    4. Agreed. It's sad that animal lovers can't work together to stop the real bad guys. I think everyone - including the vast majority of people in this country - would agree that the bad guys are bad and need to be stopped. However, I think it's also necessary for us to have these conversations, because pointing out that there's a difference between saying a horse shouldn't ever work under abusive or neglectful conditions and saying a horse shouldn't ever work at all is how we start talking to the people in the middle. That's why the bad guys always like to point fingers at the bear-food contingency, because it scares Jane and Joe Average off of animal welfare. They know that, if the conversation turns to their own actions, the vast majority will be out for their blood. That's why all those laws against secret video/photos of animal operations are so sick. If you're really concerned that the average American would be horrified by what you are doing, then maybe you should ask yourself if the average American might be right.

  7. I had wanted to write more but ran out of time, (had to go pick up the husband) I am not sure how many folks here are familiar with the horse carriage industry in Chicago but there was an interesting series of articles and forum posts by the owner who was closed down and her horses taken with out due process and then adopted out by a private humane society.
    I think the biggest issue with any company or service that uses animals is that people who handle them at times know NOTHING about the animals they are employed to work with.
    Personally I was appalled (and still am a little) that police officers can get on the equine unit with no prior experience. And personally I don't think 10 weeks is enough. But the fact they are strictly regulated and have highly experienced vets, farriers and care-takers does make up for a lot.
    But until people in general stop turning their backs to abuse, puppy mills and the whole "not in my backyard" or "see no evil/hear no evil".
    And dog and horse breeders, AND associations start looking at quality vs quantity, and NOT just in dogs and horses but in other species as well... until then very little will change, a sad state of affairs.

  8. This is a very interesting conversation, I am glad that you posted this article because it seems to open people's eyes to a wider range of concerns. I work at a carriage company in Victoria, Canada and after reading some of your stories, I am quite proud of our company. You must have horse experience before you even get hired, although there is no lisencing test, we get much help and training. The horses are kept on a huge farm right on the owner's land and the worst thing about that is that the horses are filthy at the beginning of the shift haha. I can't help but get angry with people who protest our horses because I know that there are other industries, not just carriage horses, who could actually use their protest energy. I wish they could understand a little more but unfortuanately, you will be hard pressed to find a person knowledgeable about animals protesting them working. Go figure!

  9. Hi, first time I read your blog and I have to say you made a direct entry to my #1 Horse Blogs.
    How did I not hear of you before??

    P.S. Your blog doesn't seem to like my LJ account so i guess i'll have to stay anonymous for the time being.

    1. Thank you! I don't advertise myself a lot I guess :) Hope to see you around more!

  10. I really enjoyed your comparison of work being many of us have had jobs where we didn't get lunch breaks or got them late, worked injured, worked in hot, dirty or unsafe conditions? A lot of us. Not that it is right but it happens. There is good and bad in all industries, I do not think the carriage industry is any worse for abuse than say, horse racing. We need to have standards and monitor conditions, as in all things. Dedicated lanes is a great idea!

  11. Great blog and I agree---I wish more people realized what often happens to military service dogs when they are no longer "servicable." Many are simply given their discharge papers and PTS. There is far too much romanticization about all of these working animals. I love and support all of them and recognize bad practices exist everywhere and consider myself a very well-educated animal owner (horses and more), but issues has been blow up to crazytown and back again!

  12. Another thought to chew on.... I own shires and we use ours to give wagon rides to our church for free a couple times a month. We do farm work and up hay with our horses. Our drafts get so excited when they are getting harnessed. It reminds me of taking our Afghan hound to course, or using our Shepherd to herd... I find people with obese working breed animals living in apartments (like the overweight lab sitting on certain people's living room floor) quite cruel in it's own way. We have bred drafts to pull, and when I saddle them for riding they aren't nearly as excited and ready to go as they are when we hook them to the wagon. Our light horses are always super excited to see a saddle and go chase our cattle, and sort of blah about being harnessed... The point is, if I am busy for a week I have a bunch of horses up at the gate by the house staring at me in what appears to be boredom. We have domesticated both dogs and most breeds of horse for a PURPOSE... and if you ever live with them you suddenly realize they actually WANT to work. As far as dangerous conditions in the city.... try driving a wagon down a rural gravel road during harvest season.... Semi's going over 60mph past our wagon and throwing gravel... we had to stop driving in our rural area because it's SAFER in the city our church is in. Just a few thoughts from my perspective.

  13. Great blog, very good points, and I like your humor. I work full time as a nurse as well as own a small carriage company that operates in Chicago. I know all about hard work!
    12 to 14 hour shifts, heavy lifting, constantly walking. Too busy to drink adequate water, having to hold urine for hours. Lucky to get a bite to eat some days. Aching feet, breathing all sorts of malodorous smells, being exposed to all sorts of diseases, only to return to a tiny room and get a few hours of sleep before being dragged back to work again....OH THE INHUMANITY!

    Then there are my of the three will take a trailer ride to work weekends. That's a whole 2 day workweek, most of the time spent sleeping or getting treats and attention. Then back to the farm for unlimited hay and sleeping under the stars with their buddies. Not a care in the world, their futures are secure. If only I had it that good.