In November 2015 I took a trip to New York for Equus Film Festival. There has been heated discussion around the well-being of carriage horses for several years in the city, and more debate was raised during the festival. Everyone seems to come from a position and belief of loving these horses, which is their basis for arguments, public marches and rallies. I wanted to form my own opinion on the situation so I went to see the horses at work in the streets of Manhattan as well as their home turf in the barn where the (up to 80) horses reside when not hitched.
- Any stable tour I have been on has been organized, so I am sure they have the barn in the cleanest condition possible for these events. The aisles were freshly swept, the stalls were well-stocked with fluffy clean bedding, the horses had full hay feeders, etc. This tour was no different, given that the barn was presented as a well-run, organized facility.
- There were no paddocks or turnout spaces that would require regular cleaning or maintenance of fencing. The horses all live indoors full-time unless they are working.
- The barn had multiple levels that were accessed by very well graded ramps with mats to prevent slipping. The ceilings were high for good clearance in any areas the horses travel through.
- The manure/dirty bedding removal system was brilliant. The soiled bedding was stored in large drums, in a separate room from the stalls, which was well-ventilated. Then the stored manure is picked up twice weekly by a mushroom farm. This barn smelled no worse than the average farm in Ontario with horses that live indoors full-time.
- The tour was facilitated by a horse owner/driver who explained many of the normal routines, including the amount of time off the horses get, and annual holidays when they leave the city to go to a farm for a break.
- During the tour I asked the guide what the most frequent health issue is for the horses. The woman took a while to answer clearly, probably because she was choosing her words so carefully as to avoid admitting any health concerns that would set off the “activists and protesters” who use any information possible to attack the carriage driving industry in New York. Colic was one of the health-related issues. However, in her response she assured me that there are people on staff who keep a close eye on the horses, and colic would be dealt with so quickly that it rarely becomes anything more than a mild case. Based on my studies and experience, this health concern would be comparable to many competition and show barns.
The other health issue that she admitted to seeing more frequently in the carriage horses was breathing conditions. OF COURSE . No matter how much ventilation the barn has; there are up to 80 horses urinating and defecating in that building overnight. I believe this health issue has a lot less to do with protesters’ complaints of the horses working near vehicles and city air quality, and a lot more to do with their lifestyle when not at work. Ask a veterinarian; breathing ailments of some degree are most often seen with horses kept in a stall environment. Ventilation in the carriage stable was provided with fans, vents, and windows on the exterior walls. I noticed that the horses in the outer isles had access to slightly more fresh air and stimulation if they chose to look out their window.
There were 30-50 horses in the barn during my visit. Some were laying down napping. Some were quietly munching on hay. Some were facing their hip to the stall door as if to say, “I’ve been looked at by enough tourists for today, thanks.” These horses have a routine in life, and they are programmed to accept it. Stall time is quiet time, work time is also quiet time. Even though the horses live in a busy city, they live in state of quiet. From my view, these horses looked a lot like the average show horses I see. They have either relaxed into this lifestyle because they have no other option or knowledge of another way of life, or they have succumbed to this lifestyle because there is no way out. The horses that do not remain quiet probably would not stay in the city, as the practise of driving horses in such a busy setting with non-horse people as passengers is extremely dangerous unless the horse is completely cooperative and quiet.
Most of the horses looked decently muscled and had good BCS (Body Condition Score). Two of the horses in the barn were very obviously tired, and aged to point of being due to retire. I do not know how often these older horses were going into the streets to work, but less work would mean more time standing in the stall. Hopefully retirement was coming soon for them – there is a program in place for the horses, and supposedly none are ever sent to auction, but rather sent to farms to enjoy the remainder of their lives.
Mental notes from visiting the horses in the streets during their work day
- Average shifts of 8-9 hours.
- Padded, well-fitted harness. I only saw one horse with rub marks on his shoulders from harness and the marks were minor, like a blanket rub.
- Lots of time spent standing around while waiting for someone to take a carriage ride. Many horses were stroked and talked to by passersby, while others just appeared to nap.
- Buckets of feed were hung from the underside of the carriages to feed them a few times during their shift. However, this feed was a blend of grain and molasses.
- Every horse I met seemed calm and willing to greet me when I extended my hand.
- One horse was a clown; a very friendly gelding who wanted to check out what his owner was eating for lunch and even stepped up onto the sidewalk to visit with us.
- Metal shoes on every horse.
- The bits all looked very mild on the horses I saw working, placed at mild settings and just a plain simple jointed mouthpiece. This proved to me that these horses were well-trained and sensitive to the aids, which is far less abusive than so many bitting practises used with other sporting horses.
- Blankets were brought along in case of rain or snow. The horses would be covered when not working if there was inclement weather. Their work post when not out on a drive was sheltered from the sun by huge trees overhanging Central Park.
- I was surprised by their feet! Most of the draft horses had half-decently balanced trims and shoes. I was not able to pick up their feet for a closer look, but at a glance they seemed better than many of the draft horses I have seen attend our Royal Winter Fair annually! Certainly, the average issue of long toes and under run heels was apparent, but no different from the average horse with shod hooves.
These horses live like many horses. They see other horses, but have no access to a healthy social life. (Bars between the stalls allow minimal interaction with horses that live beside each other.) There was no turnout space to stretch their legs, buck, graze, or do the normal things that a horse would do with outdoor lifestyle. Their time of freedom from the stall was very structured and decided by people, with no choice or variety in their work. I believe this was why they were all so quiet – with similar lifestyles to many high value, high level show horses. The additional challenge that the carriage horses face is that they do not get lunged or exercised in any other way besides pulling cart it seems.
Room for Improvement
Although there were many well-designed features to the stable environment, I feel there is room to make some small changes that could make a huge difference for the horses working in New York.
- The unnatural living environment and nutrition would not allow for healthy enough feet to go barefoot on paved roads for 9 hours at a time, which is why all of the horses were shod. Over time metal shoes deform the hoof, as they prevent natural movement and wear. Metal shoes also cause damage to tissues and structures of the entire body from concussion and vibration, and should be avoided. Hoof boots could protect their feet and would be far less destructive, providing better protection from the asphalt.
- Education for the horse owners about nutrition and equine digestion would go a long way for these horses. In place of the grain, they could provide beet pulp and hay cube mashes between each carriage ride to keep fibre and moisture moving through the horse’s system, as well as prevent boredom hunger. Here is a link with a simple way to look at forage vs grain and the equine digestive system.
- Given that Manhattan does not have any space for turnout, it would be beneficial to the horses if the handlers could find time to hand-walk them. There was a small park across the road from the stable with trees and grass. I wonder how nice it would feel for the horses to be walked at leisure through the park in pairs; to get some change of scenery and social time on their days off.
- A more natural approach to health care should be considered whenever possible. The horses with respiratory conditions could be given so much more than Ventipulmin.
There are great supplements available that could be used as a preventative as well. Horses with digestive upset or colic could be given so much more than Omeprazole or Banamine.
Horses that seem worn out and have a dull coat could be given so much more than just time off. These points are valid for any horse living indoors.
My experience while visiting the carriage horses of New York was very similar to what I see at home in Ontario all the time – people who LOVE their horses. They bathe them, feed them, groom them, and talk to them. They just happen to also keep them in stalls the majority of their lives, prevent them from having social lives, and misunderstand their dietary needs. This needs to change for all horses.
These horses are, unfortunately, the source of an income for people, and so they must work and live in these conditions to benefit people. This is not so different from horses that must jump high, run as fast as possible, or perform lavish movements to benefit their people. It is a challenging mindset to change. Would I take a carriage ride in New York? I would not. However, I would jump at the opportunity to thank them for their effort with a massage or t-touch treatment. These stoic creatures are amazing and deserve to be better understood. I do believe they are better off than many. The majority of protestors against carriage horses claim that the horses are in danger, that their jobs are too difficult for them, and that they do not belong in cities. I personally do not believe that the carriage horses are in any more danger than racing Thoroughbreds, competitive eventers, or police horses. Regardless of breed or discipline, every horse should have their mental, emotional and physical needs met, from a horse’s perspective rather than human-created tradition.