Urban Carriage Horses: Out of Step with Responsible Horse Welfare

In many cities, horse-drawn carriages are seen as tourist attractions, taking visitors on tours of city streets and evoking nostalgic images of days gone by. Yet, underlying these quaint notions is the reality for the horses: daily exposure to noise and pollution, heavy traffic, hard pavement, long work days, constant heavy loads, and lack of access to pasture. All of these are directly detrimental to horses’ welfare.

Carriage horses, particularly in heavily congested urban settings such as New York City and Chicago, spend much of their day breathing exhaust fumes from cars directly in front of them. They also spend hours walking through a miasma of oil, road salt, and other roadway pollutants. The health issues associated with chronic exposure to airborne and ground pollution—well documented in people—affect horses, as well. Even when horses are not pulling carriages, they may be kept in inadequately ventilated stalls where they are exposed to high levels of dust contaminated with mold and other fungi. Long-term exposure to these elements lead to many respiratory conditions, including bronchitis, rhinitis, inflammatory airway disease, and reactive airway disease.

Life in the city is noisy. Sudden sounds can frighten horses, causing them to bolt, resulting in harm to themselves, the carriage passengers, or other bystanders and vehicles. Every year in New York City, there are multiple accidents involving carriage horses who have been startled in this manner. On a daily basis, the animals are exposed to near constant, high levels of noise—often 80–100 decibels, or up to 100 times louder than a typical conversation. Chronic exposure to street noise—linked to hearing loss, poor cardiovascular health, and stress in people—is also harmful to horses.

Since carriage drivers do not have the time, facilities, or funds to train a horse to pull a 1,000-pound carriage, they purchase horses who are already accustomed to pulling a carriage. Such horses most often come from farms, where they have already put in many years of labor and are being sold because they are no longer capable of working on the farm. Once they become urban carriage horses, their lifespans are greatly reduced. A recent study, using New York Department of Health data, determined that the annual turnover of New York City carriage horses is over 30 percent. Horses not re-registered may end up at the same auctions where they were purchased, either to return to farm work or be sold for slaughter, with only rare opportunities for true retirement.

Proper hoof care is a critical component of a horse’s overall health. Long hours pounding on hard roadway surfaces can damage hooves, even when they are properly shod, causing pain with each step. The American Veterinary Medical Association recommends that horses be allowed to spend time on soft surfaces (i.e., pasture), to avoid damage and facilitate circulation within the hoof. In most urban settings, horses have no regular access to pasture for the majority of the year. Carriage horses in New York City only spend a single five-week period every year away from pavement, not enough to adequately maintain hoof health. Many of the carriage horses will spend this period pulling wagons for fairs and events to earn additional money for their owners—not by any means a restorative break.

Being outside for much of the day exposes carriage horses to a wide range of temperatures. In New York City, the regulations allow for their use pulling carriages whenever the temperature is between 18 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit. In Chicago, the minimum allowable temperature is 15° F, while in Charleston, the maximum allowable temperature is 98° F. Road conditions at the edges of the temperature range can be a serious issue. In hot weather, asphalt temperatures may be 50–100° F higher than the air temperature and can damage the sensitive areas of the hoof. In cold weather, salt treated roads can be the same temperature as the air, potentially causing frostbite to the hoof.

Extreme heat and humidity can also put the horses at risk of dehydration and overheating. A typical horse will drink 5–10 gallons of water a day. Horses pulling carriages in high heat require much greater water volumes (15–20 gallons), as they may lose over 10 gallons from evaporation. This much water is difficult to provide in the urban setting, even when water troughs are available. During high humidity days, the horses may be unable to properly cool themselves, through sweating or other measures, putting them at further risk of overheating.

Urban carriage horses are purely a tourist attraction—not a necessity. Given the many documented health and welfare issues for the horses, the only sensible solution is to ban them from daily use. Legislation has recently been introduced in New York City to end horse-drawn carriage rides as of June 2016 (New York City Council: Int 0573-2014). This legislation provides job training for the approximately 300 carriage drivers who would be affected by the ban and would also require proof that the carriage horses would not be killed after they are retired. The legislation is currently being reviewed in committee, with an uncertain future. In February 2014, a similar ordinance was proposed in Chicago to end the horse-drawn carriage industry there, but is still pending in city council, with no timetable for advancing. In December 2014, Salt Lake City became the 14th city in the United States to ban carriage horses, joining Las Vegas, Santa Fe, Key West, Camden, and Biloxi, to name a few. 

AWI Position Statement
AWI supports a ban on horse-drawn carriages used as tourist attractions in urban settings. The constant exposure to traffic, noise, and pollution; the long hours of standing and walking on hard surfaces; the hard labor under sometimes extreme weather conditions; and lack of pasture access are not consistent with the owner’s responsibility to provide high-quality, long-term care for the horses.

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