Is this the end for New York’s horse-drawn carriages?

A video of a Central Park carriage horse collapsing has reignited a row over animal welfare. As campaigners demand change, what might the future hold?

By Anna Melville-James
Published 6 Nov 2022, 06:03 GMT
One of Central Park’s old-fashioned horse-drawn carriages.

One of Central Park’s old-fashioned horse-drawn carriages.

Photograph by Alamy Stock Photo

Central Park’s old-fashioned horse-drawn carriages are intrinsic to the romance of New York. A ride through the tree-lined boulevards, with a top-hatted driver at the reins, ranks among the city’s most in-demand tourism experiences. But with reported traffic incidents and recent viral videos of horses collapsing, these attractions have now become controversial. With a bill to ban them on the table, will the Big Apple’s horse-drawn carriages be put out to pasture?

How long have the carriages been in New York? 
Horse-drawn carriages have been in Central Park since it first opened in 1858; designer Frederick Law Olmsted created the pathways so carriages could animate the landscape for visitors. Their popularity grew after the Second World War, and thousands of tourist journeys are now made annually in the 68 licensed carriages that operate within the park’s perimeter.

What ignited calls for a ban? 
The carriages have been a political flashpoint for years — in 2014, a ban initiative by ex-mayor Bill de Blasio failed, and in July 2022, councilman Robert Holden introduced legislation to remove them.
Calls were further amplified in August, when a video went viral of an elderly, 26-year-old horse named Ryder collapsing in the street on his way to Central Park. Ryder’s fall was not the first such incident: in 2020, a 12-year-old mare named Aisha collapsed and was eventually euthanised. Traffic incidents are also reported every year as horses make their way through Hell’s Kitchen from the stables outside the park. 

How popular are they? 
A recent poll by the Animal Legal Defense Fund found 71% of New York voters were in favour of banning them. They’re still highly popular with tourists, however — New York’s carriage horse industry is worth around $15m (£13.5m) annually and Central Park carriage rides rank as the city’s number-one outdoor activity on TripAdvisor. 

Is it a case of animal welfare or animal rights? 
Advocates of working horses insist there’s a distinction between ideas of animal welfare and animal rights in the debate. “The welfare of these horses is fine,” says Christina Hansen, spokesperson and chief shop steward for the Transport Workers Union Local 100, which represents many of the carriage drivers. “Of course, the Ryder incident went viral — the video is very upsetting. But horses do get sick and he’s not representative of all 216 licensed carriage horses.” 

Unlike other tourist horse and carriage operations around the world, many of which have dubious to non-existent welfare standards, Central Park carriage horses are protected by New York City regulations, says the union. These include not working at temperatures above 32C or below -7C, a maximum of nine hours’ work a day, regular vet checks and five weeks’ annual rest.

Drivers also point to a lack of understanding of the nature of horses. “People have this idea that horses should be running free,” says Christina. “Horses like routine and they like being carriage horses because they get to walk miles, eat lots of food and hang out with their friends.”

Are there less controversial alternatives? 
Councilman Holden is pushing for horse-drawn carriages to be replaced by electric ones by 2024. His inspiration is the Mexican city of Guadalajara, where the change was implemented successfully in 2017, despite initial pushback from drivers. “They thought they were going to lose the charm of the horse and carriage,” he says. “They actually feel it’s a better ride now— and more lucrative for them.”

What’s next? 
In September, the Transport Workers Union proposed welfare changes, including more water troughs, hitching posts and stables in the park. However, opponents have dismissed the requests as ‘damage control’. For them, horse-drawn carriages simply have no place on a modern city’s tourist agenda. Christina remains convinced horses will still be in the park 50 years from now, while Holden is optimistic he’ll get the support he needs to sponsor his e-carriages bill. For the councilman, the future is equine free. “Electric carriages are just as charming, cheaper and you don’t have to abuse an animal,” he says. “We’re not in 1822 — this is 2022 and we have the technology to do it.”

Published in the December 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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