Written by: Zoe Carter

Some see them as a part of our culture, some believe they pose animal welfare risks – get the facts on tourism carriages.

Thumbnail for Horse-Drawn Controversy

Zoe Carter Photo

In Toronto in 1887, electric lights and telephone poles were just arriving on the city streets, asphalt was being used for roads, streetcars were finally allowed to travel on Sundays and McMaster University was being founded. The horses living and working in Toronto then numbered over 7,000 and they were vital to all the workings of the city. That same year, there were only six drinking fountains for horses in all of Toronto and it was the plight of the working horses that spurred the very creation of the Toronto Humane Society. The organization worked to secure hundreds of drinking fountains, helped to stop the overloading of horse-drawn streetcars and wagons, and improved the quality of life for all of the horses working in Toronto.

One hundred twenty-nine years later in Canada, horses are still being used for city tours in Vancouver’s Stanley Park, Victoria, Quebec City and Old Montreal. Montreal has been in the news most recently as the Canadian ground zero for the debate over its famous calèche horses. In the United States, although many major cities including Palm Beach, Las Vegas and Santa Fe have banned them, New York continues to be the hot spot for the fight to ban horse-drawn carriages. The current New York City mayor, Bill de Blasio, campaigned that he would put a stop to the famous carriages in Manhattan. Celebrities like Lea Michelle, Martha Stewart and Alec Baldwin have joined PETA and the group NY-Class in its fight to replace the horses with antique cars despite the failure of the mayor to come through on his campaign promises.

Now, the concern for the horses left pulling carriages for tourists in cities is the responsibility of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA). Animal rights groups and many animal activists have continued to plead the case to politicians and drivers of horses that live and work in urban jungles filled with noise, pollution and fast moving traffic.

Stabling and Care

The Montreal and NYC activists describe the life of carriage horses as being similar to the story Black Beauty, where the horses are worked to the bone in extreme temperatures, beaten by whips and starved, as they plod though thick city traffic. A recent tour of the one of the NYC stables paints a slightly different reality.

One of the main stables is a large brick building from the late 1800s, and is a 25-minute walk for the horses every day to Central Park, where most of the horse carriage tours originate. Inside the black and red, three-story building, the offices are housed in the front area of the first floor, and at the back are the wide open garage-like spaces for the glamorous and ornate carriages, some which are decades old. On hooks around the stables, brass- and chrome-accented tack and dress carriage harnesses are draped. Some are polished and well-used, others are thick with dust. There are two large ramps, very wide, with ample room for a horse and a handler to move up or down, with solid footing of thick, ribbed rubber. On the second floor, the stalls are well-fitted on a tight floor plan. Each stall is more than 10’x10’ and has a thick rubber mat and a deep layer of straw. Stalls have automatic waterers and salt and mineral blocks, some had toys hanging from the stall bars. The walkways are tight, but with windows facing the street and windows high up on all outside walls. Large fans are strategically placed for the hot summer days and drivers point out that proper ventilation is addressed well here as there is very little odour in the building. At the back of the second floor is a feed room, where bales of fresh hay and straw are stored. Straw and hay deliveries are made weekly, and manure is collected twice a week and delivered to a nearby mushroom farm. The third floor is similar to the second and both floors have their own wash stall and standing stall for veterinary care.

Each working horse has an identification sheet clipped to the stall door, with age, breed, colour, veterinary history, ongoing health concerns, vaccination, deworming and farrier information. The New York City horses are in spectacular physical shape with feet that are strong and healthy. Their coats are thick and shiny and their eyes are clear and attentive. Most of the New York City horses are draft or draft crosses, as is also the case in Montreal. A couple of older horses, more than 25 years old, can be found in stalls, obviously tired and a little thin, and on a limited work schedule. The drivers are firm believers that the health of their horses can be attributed to the regular amount of non-strenuous walking exercise during the eight- to nine-hour working shifts. Regular exercise and excellent veterinary care is a staple of the drivers’ argument for continuing their livelihood. Most of the horses are owned by a few “owners” and the drivers are hired via contract as they are in Montreal as well. Drivers often explain to customers that horses are chosen for this job because of their personalities. The carriage horses are relaxed and calm horses, who often love human attention, interaction and contact. The citizens of New York who do not side with activists talk about the importance of the horses and how valuable the horses are to the culture and nostalgia of the great city and for those who would never see horses were it not for the carriages.

Montreal Horse-Drawn Observations

The barn management in New York and in Montreal are two very different situations. In New York, the cleanliness of the stables is a priority, but that does not appear to be the case in Montreal. The horses in New York have ample room to relax and move around in their large box stalls. In Montreal, there are standing stalls only, but the horses must have room to turn around and lie down. The New York barn has stalls filled with a thick, clean bedding of straw, while in Montreal the stalls are not as well cared for, with a bare minimum of shavings sprinkled around in partial areas of the stalls of less than one centimetre, even though the regulations require six to eight centimetres of shavings or 12 centimetres if on a concrete floor. Upon two visits to the Montreal stables, it was obvious that the mucking out was rarely done, and when it was done, it was not done thoroughly and the odour in the stables was overwhelming. New York has no turnout for the horses to experience any free time at all. In Montreal, they do have a small sand ring. Both cities claim there is a farm where horses can get time off once a year or when they need to recover from an injury. However, “vacation” time is not mandated in city by-laws and, as such, is not monitored or enforced.

Judi Stiles, a regular visitor and someone who has lived in Montreal, talked about her recent experience with a calèche: “My only negative experience was with relatives from the West Coast who came to meet us for a holiday and wanted to get a calèche back from Old Montreal to their hotel. The horse looked to me to be a relatively young mare with a sweet face and expression. I told our friends that I thought it was too far, through too much traffic, for the horse to take us, but everyone wanted to do it, so we did. I asked the driver about the horse and he told me she had recently been trained to harness and was just four years old.

“As we went along through a lot of traffic and busy intersections, I could see the mare starting to really sweat and appearing to become nervous and upset. By the time we got to the hotel, she was soaked, and at the Sheraton the entrance for cars and cabs and, I guess, horses, is a brightly lit covered area with revolving glass doors and a lot of activity and noise. The mare had to be persuaded to go into this tunnel, and she eventually did. When we got out of the calèche, I went to look at her and she was really frightened, shaking all over, flared nostrils and just soaking wet with sweat. I said to her driver “I think she is very terrified.” He laughed and said, “Oh she will be used to doing this soon.” I just found it a very stressful sight to see this horse so terrified, but handling herself really amazingly well under the circumstances.”

Horse-Drawn Almost Banned

One morning in May 2016, the people of Montreal woke up to the news that horse carriages had been banned in the city by Mayor Denis Coderre, while regulations and conditions were reviewed over a one-year period. After a video of a calèche horse colliding with a car in Griffintown went viral in April of this year, there was a renewed call to ban the carriages. The mayor was quoted saying “There will never be good timing for anything, because you have pros and cons…but to govern is to choose, and so I took the decision and that’s it. I know it’s part of our identity, but first and foremost we have to take care of the condition of those horses.”

The ban was reversed on May 25th with the court’s explanation that the mayor had overstepped his authority. All carriages were ordered back to work after 48 hours. Coderre said the city would introduce new regulations for the industry over the summer. The Montreal SPCA expressed disappointment with the return of calèche industry, which it called “antiquated, inhumane, and unsafe,” and urged supporters to send the mayor letters seeking a permanent ban on operations in Montreal.

In an exclusive interview with Horse Canada, a driver named Pierre Lauzier, who has been a carriage driver for more than 20 years, said, “One morning the mayor said there would be a moratorium, no papers, nothing official. We went to court and got an injunction. The judge said that the mayor had overstepped his rights and the judge allowed us to go back to work.” Lauzier acknowledged, as in many types of work, “there can be one or two bad drivers, but why punish them all?” The ban would have put at least 50 people immediately out of work and made no provision for the retirement of the horses.

Since the ban was lifted, Lauzier said it has been business as usual; there has been no decline in the demand for tourist rides around Old Montreal. The one change he has noticed, however, is that the silent majority, who have always supported the horse carriages and their drivers, are no longer silent. Now, he said, he finds support everywhere he goes – thumbs up, smiles, comments like “It’s so good to see you working” and “So glad you are still here.” The activists are still verbal and often approach Lauzier and his long-time partner of 11 years, a Belgian Draft Horse named Knockout. “For every one insult, I get five who support us,” he noted.

With all the media attention this spring, the spotlight was trained on the industry and numerous articles and blogs on the subject were published. In one article from May, The Globe and Mail reported: “Studies have shown the health of the city’s 56 calèche horses has been steadily improving since veterinarian visits have been stepped up in recent years. A veterinary report for the city last July said the calèche industry didn’t violate animal welfare or constitute “an act of animal cruelty.” The city’s own veterinarians concluded the city’s calèche horses had never been healthier.”

Taking Sides

There is a great divide when it comes to views of working carriage horses in the 21st Century. There are the passionate activists who believe that carriage horses are worked too hard, are neglected and forced to work on pavement for too long in the ferocious cold or unbearable heat with no access to life in a field, and there are those on the side of tradition and of the drivers and horses who “love their work” and who believe this is a long-standing part of our culture, and that they should remain in place as a part of tourism. Potentially, the activism may spur some new regulations for horses, better barn management and living facilities and the possibility for life as a horse at least some of the time. How this time off would regulated and monitored would likely vary from city to city. Most of us can agree that additional rules for the care of the horses and an upgrade in their living conditions would be a good thing for all involved.

In the past, we have developed a strong infrastructure for the people who have benefited from the working horses, and yet, have made little if no change for those animals who are doing the work. The number is growing of those who believe horses that work for months on end, pulling people for tours around cities, also deserve time as horses, in a field, with companions, grazing and having space to run, while some feel they should not be pulling carriages at all. The question here in Canada and south of the border continues to be about quality of life for the working horses, and that standard should always be up for discussion in any sophisticated society.

Trial by Social Media

In an evolving society, public views change as education spreads and knowledge is shared. Opinions about animal abuse and neglect are much stronger now than they were even 20 years ago. Stories of dogs left tied up outside in a storm and concerned neighbours reporting it to the SPCA, or a farm filled with thin horses and the photos going viral online are becoming common. Social media has changed the way we, as a society, treat those who are mistreating other living beings. Every phone with a built-in camera can expose abuse or neglect with a “click” and a “post” and social media has become the tool of the modern activists in their fight to put a stop to horse-drawn carriages in major cities around the world as far as Melbourne, Australia. It also can instantly and unfairly blacken the reputations of undeserving people and organizations when photos or videos are shown out of context.

Montreal Caleche By-laws

Calèche drivers can be found giving tours in Old Montreal and Ville-Marie and must carry a permit issued by the city. They are only allowed to park and wait for customers in four designated areas, which are monitored by inspectors, who are all building inspectors or city peace officers. Over time, and working closely with the drivers, they have learned more about horses and are strict about enforcing city by-laws.

A set of by-laws were enacted in early 2000 designed to regulate the horse-drawn carriage industry in Montreal. Amendments have been made over time to further ensure the horses’ welfare. According to the by-laws, “a peace officer or city employee responsible for the enforcement of [these] by-laws may order the driver of a horse-drawn vehicle whose horse does not appear to meet the requirements to withdraw it from service immediately, to have it examined by a city veterinarian and to refrain from putting it back into service without holding a certificate from a city veterinarian.” Any operator or driver found guilty of committing two infractions will have their permit revoked. The following points relate to the working conditions of horses:

  • Drivers must present an annual certificate signed by a veterinarian stating each horse is healthy and fit to pull a vehicle.
  • Drivers must maintain daily records of how long an individual horse is pulling a carriage – cannot exceed nine hours in a 24-hour period – and this information can be requested by the city.
  • Horses must be clean, with all four hooves shod, and identified by a bracelet worn on the front right leg.
  • Horses hitched to a vehicle must be fed and rested each day, able to breathe freely, and provided a harness in good condition.
  • Horses may not be hitched to a vehicle between 9:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. when the temperature reaches or exceeds 30°C.
  • Between November 1st and April 30th, horses must be covered with a blanket when not in service.

The Fight In The West

In March of 2016, a Victoria, British Columbia group, The Victoria Horse Alliance, moved to ban horse carriages, stating that the horses are suffering as they do their jobs for the two existing carriage companies in the city. The two companies house approximately 52 horses and employ roughly 70 people. The petition, with more than 1,300 signatures, calls on the public to sign and support a ban that would phase out the traditional carriages by December 31, 2017. The group cites collisions between carriages and cars and alleges poor maintenance of equipment, improper hoof care and “metal bars” (bits) causing pain and damage to horses’ mouths. The two companies in the city, Tally Ho Carriage Tours and Victoria Carriages, issued a joint statement in which they disputed the group’s claims that Victoria had seen over 20 carriage-related collisions and safety concerns over the past 20 years.