Urban Carriage Horses: Out of Step with Responsible Horse Welfare

Urban horse carriages - Photo by Juhauitto

In many cities, horse-drawn carriages are seen as tourist attractions, 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.

The Issues

Sourcing: Training a horse to pull a 1,000-pound carriage is a difficult and time-consuming process, with no guarantee that the horse will be up to the task. Since carriage drivers do not have the time, facilities, or funds to do this themselves, 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 (source: banhdc.org). Horses not re-registered are sold 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.

Hooves: Proper care of a horse’s hooves is critical to horses’ overall health. Long hours pounding on hard roadway surfaces can damage hooves, even when they are properly shod, causing pain with every step. The American Veterinary Medical Association recommends that horses be periodically maintained on soft surfaces (i.e., pasture), to avoid damage and facilitate circulation within the hoof (AVMA Urban Horse Fact Sheet, 2014). 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; not an ideal “vacation.”

Pollution: 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. Horses 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 are kept in inadequately ventilated stalls where they are exposed to high levels of dust contaminated with mold and other fungi. Long-term exposures to these elements lead to many respiratory conditions, including bronchitis, rhinitis, inflammatory airway disease, and reactive airway disease.

Noise: In urban settings, carriage horses are exposed to near constant, high levels of noise—up to 100 times louder than a typical conversation (http://nymag.com/nymetro/urban/features/noise/9456/: often 80–100 dB). Chronic exposure to street noise—linked to hearing loss, poor cardiovascular health, and stress in people—most likely affects horses similarly. Further, sudden noises may frighten the horses, causing them to bolt, resulting in harm to themselves, the carriage passengers, or other vehicles or bystanders. Every year in New York City, there are multiple accidents involving carriage horses that have been startled by sudden noises.

Weather: Carriage horses are exposed to a wide range of temperatures and humidity levels. 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). There are no regulations regarding humidity. 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. The extreme heat also puts 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 volumes (15–20 gallons), as they may lose over 10 gallons of water 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.

While the dangers of dehydration and overheating are reduced in cold weather, there are still problems. For example, salt-treated roadways are the same temperature as the air and can cause frostbite to the hoof.

The Solution

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 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 and retire the 25 carriage horses in use at that time. The Chicago ordinance is still pending in city council, with no timetable for advancing. Other cities are reviewing legislation, but none have proposed bans.

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. For more information about AWI’s policy on horse welfare please follow this link: http://awionline.org/content/horses.

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