Taken for a Ride

by Tracy Basile

A snowstorm was in full force one wintry day last December when filmmaker Donny Moss decided to film the carriage horse drivers picking up tourists outside Manhattan’s world-famous Plaza Hotel - a tradition more than 70 years old. As one of the horses came trotting across Central Park South, the driver noticed Moss filming him and intentionally thwacked him on the head with his whip as the carriage passed. Such aggression highlights an issue that has been hotly debated for decades and punctuated by antagonism among carriage drivers, politicians, humane law enforcement officers and animal activists: Should the carriage horse industry be banned in New York City?

Every day, so long as the temperature is between 19 and 89 degrees, about two dozen horse-drawn carriages line up along the south end of Central Park awaiting their next fare. Most of the horses are Percherons and Belgian crosses, as well as a few smaller-boned Standardbreds. "Care for a ride today, sir?" drivers dressed in top hats ask passers-by. This is what the public sees of the city’s carriage industry, but what both tourists and New Yorkers rarely witness is the way many of these animals’ lives are spent. The horses must endure:

  • cramped stalls in old stables;
  • heavy traffic;
  • fumes from busses, cars and trucks;
  • little interaction with other horses;
  • the constant concussion of shod feet against hard pavement;
  • the buildup of heat from asphalt roads on hot summer days; and
  • no turnout for grazing, rolling in the dirt, or sunbathing.


Two years ago, a horse named Smoothie was spooked by a street performer’s drumming in Central Park. The horse bolted and slammed into a tree, incurring such severe injuries that he had to be euthanized. The commotion caused a second carriage horse to run into oncoming traffic and collide with a car. Earlier that same year, two other carriage horses spooked; one collided with a taxi, while the other was hit by an SUV. Last January, another horse bolted and crashed into a car, where he was pinned underneath until finally euthanized.

New York City councilmember Tony Avella (D-Queens) wants it all to stop. In December 2007, he introduced a bill (Intro 658) that would ban the use of carriage horses throughout New York City. The bill has languished thus far, largely because what appears to be a cottage industry actually wields considerable political clout. The New York Horse and Carriage Association, which represents the city’s 68 carriages, 280 to 320 drivers, and 220 horses, has hired several lobbying firms—some of the most expensive in the city, according to Avella. A pro-industry bill (Intro 653-A) was also recently introduced, which would not only give carriage drivers a rate hike, but also eliminate current oversight by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). Heavy support on both sides of the issue packed City Hall with hundreds of people testifying for and against both bills at a hearing in late January. The legislation, however, remains at a standstill.

Avella says that in the last 18 months there have been seven accidents in which three horses were killed and five people injured. "The romanticized idea of enjoying a carriage horse ride through the streets of Manhattan can no longer justify the inhumane treatment and risk of serious injury or death to these animals or to the public at large," he says on his website www.tonyavellaformayor.com.

But what happens to the horses when they’re not working? Lacking pasture for turnout or grazing, carriage horses are typically confined in their stalls. Senior researcher at Cornell University and co-founder of Veterinarians for Equine Welfare Nena Winand, D.V.M., Ph.D., explains that freedom of movement is important for the horses’ circulation and digestion, adding that "it’s mentally stressful if they can’t be turned out. Horses need time to freely forage and have physical contact or they won’t be happy."

"It’s not just a New York issue," says filmmaker Donny Moss, pointing out that there are also urban horse-drawn carriages operating in Chicago, New Orleans, Charleston, Philadelphia and Boston. Moss feels confident, however, that success is in getting the word out. "If the public saw the truth behind the tradition," he says, "they would be outraged."

Please write letters in support of Intro 658 - a bill to ban all horse-drawn carriages in New York City - to Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, both of whom oppose this bill. If you live in New York City, ask your councilmember to support the bill.

1) Mayor Michael Bloomberg, City Hall, New York, NY 10007

2) New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, 224 West 30th Street, Suite 1206, New York, NY 10001

You can also host a screening of Blinders (www.blindersthemovie.com), the award-winning documentary by Donny Moss, at your local library, horse barn or living room.

Back to the future!
What if electric replicas of antique Model-T Fords replaced every horse-drawn carriage in New York City? And what if every carriage driver was ensured a new job as a driver? That’s what City Councilman Daniel Garodnick (D-Manhattan) hopes will happen when he brings the issue before the City Council this summer. With proper funding, the nostalgic cars would offer tourists a safe, humane and eco-friendly alternative to the horse and buggy.