We’ve all heard of war horses, but has there ever been a war over horses? The unlikely battleground of New York City’s Central Park has long echoed with protests from horse advocates who would like to see the horses move on to safer territory, but since the recent election of Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio, the carriage horses that stroll around Central Park have become a stop-him-now symbol for conservative foes who know an emotional fight over animals is a great way to involve the masses.
As with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s embarrassing “Bridgegate” last week, the horses are an issue that everyone across the nation can understand. While other issues facing de Blasio may be wrapped up in local politics or couched in regulations and personalities unknown on the other side of the Hudson River, the horses are out in plain sight.
As more information about the war over carriage horses emerges, horse owners across the USA are doing a double-take. Many were upset a few years again with the idea of a national surveillance of horse movement by the USDA. New legislation proposed for governing the carriage horses goes even further to impinge on the rights of horse owners to make decisions about their animals: The horses may not be sold to any owner who plans to use them for work in the future; they may only be sold as companion animals or to a sanctuary, if the proposal goes through.
While most horsepeople would likely agree that the horses are in a dangerous job and might be safer off the streets, there has been a groundswell of support for the rights of licensed carriage drivers to continue to ply their trade. The owners submit to inspections and follow regulations; violations are widely publicized. Many give examples of other jobs or places where horses are at risk, including the fact that more than 20 horses died on New York’s racetracks last year.
Today New York State Horse Council (NYSHC) President Marsha Himler to issue a statement on behalf of her organization today. Her statement coincides with a flurry of anti-de Blasio news reports from the conservative press, including a lengthy feature hosted by Sean Hannity on Fox News. Himler, however, cuts through the politics to talk about the horses themselves.
Meanwhile, cues from Melissa Mark-Viverito, the newly elected speaker of the City Council and a de Blasio ally, suggest that the carriage horse issue might take a back seat for a while, in spite of de Blasio’s campaign promise that the horses would be gone in the first week of his time in office. In an interview yesterday on WABC, Mark-Viverito intimated that she needed time to bring new council members up to speed on the issue before a vote could be taken on new legislation.
Also on WABC, carriage driver Steve Malone explained his position, and reminded viewers that the drivers are members of the powerful Teamsters Union. He compared deaths of carriage horses with deaths of horses in the sport of eventing. Malone stressed, “This is a worldwide event”, noting that he has heard from people all over the world.
The New York State Horse Council has taken action anyway. Himler’s statement to horse owners in New York and the public reads:
“It is not a question of whether the carriage trade is necessary to New York City or not. The carriage horses are an iconic symbol of NYC; they are part of the cultural heritage not only of NYC but also of America. They provide economic benefits to the City through tourism and tax revenues. Today’s carriage horses provide a presence and exposure to rural animals not available to many anywhere else.
“Some people have labelled the carriage horse industry as ‘inhumane.’ It is not. While the word ‘inhumane’ is not mentioned in the law, cruelty is. NYS Agriculture & Markets Law, Article 26 and more specifically, Section 353, defines cruelty as “failure to provide proper sustenance, such as food, water, shelter and veterinary care.
“All the NYC carriage horses are well taken care of and have better than average stabling available to them. Each horse is provided food and water (each carriage carries food and water for the horses so they may eat/drink during working hours); the stables are warm, well-ventilated and have spacious stalls for resting during non-working hours; veterinary care is required and provided annually and on-call; each horse also has a mandatory 5 week vacation break.
“The world is watching what happens here; the outcome could affect YOU!” — Marsha Himler
“The NYC carriage horses are probably the most regulated horses in the country, if not the world. They are covered by approximately 144 pages of regulations; they are watched over very closely by several organizations, including the ASPCA.
“It is the opinion of the Board of Directors of the New York State Horse Council that the NYC carriage horses and their owners should be allowed to continue to operate their small businesses without fear of reprisal or loss of livelihood. The horses are a great tourist attraction because they ARE horses — not cold, impersonal pieces of metal.
“The NYS Horse Council calls on all other State Horse Councils and all concerned horse groups and horsepersons throughout the country to come to the support of the New York City carriage horses and the carriage industry. The world is watching what happens here; the outcome could affect YOU!”
Marsha S. Himler, President, NYS Horse Council
In addition, the New York State Horse Council published a new set of recommended guidelines for the care of horses in that state.
Himler’s closing sentence may echo through horse owners’ minds if they read a proposed amendment to the already-lengthy regulation of carriage horses in New York. The draft includes this outline of steps a carriage horse owner would have to take to sell his or her own horse, regardless of the animal’s age, health or training:
§ 17-330 Disposition of licensed horse.
a. The department shall be notified of the transfer of ownership or other disposition of a licensed horse within [ten] five days thereafter. Such notice shall include the date of disposition and [ if sold in New York city, ] the name and address of the buyer or other transferee and such other information as the commissioner may prescribe.
b. A horse shall not be sold or disposed of except in a humane manner, which, for the purposes of this subchapter shall mean one of the following:
- The owner shall sell or donate the horse to a private individual who signs an assurance that the horse will not be sold and shall be kept solely as a companion animal and not employed in another horse-drawn carriage business or as a work horse and will cared for humanely for the remainder of the horse’s natural life; or
- The owner shall sell of donate the horse to a duly incorporated animal sanctuary or duly incorporated animal protection organization whose president or executive director signs an assurance that the horse will not be sold and shall be kept solely as a companion animal and not employed in another horse-drawn carriage business and will be cared for humanely for the remainder of the horse’s natural life.
c. Records indicating the name, address and telephone number of the private individual, duly incorporated animal sanctuary or duly incorporated animal protection organization to whom the horse was sold or donated together with the assurance specified above shall be sent by the owner to the department within five days after such sale or donation. A copy of such record shall also be maintained at the stable.
This video summarizes a timeline of history and politics affecting the carriage business in New York.
What began as a tempest in a Manhattan teacup has escalated into a national news story with many implications. De Blasio’s promise to send the horses packing during his first week in office did not materialize, but national publicity did. The publicity has less to do with horses than with his populist politics that raise ire and funds on the conservative side of the coin.
However, the publicity has managed to bring to light some issues that resonate with horse owners, many of whom oppose efforts to remove the horses by political decree. The latest disclosure of limiting ownership rights in the sale of horses in the future is even more eye-opening.
The issue has also made some strange bedfellows; who can help but chuckle as conservative spokesmen on Fox News defend Teamster member carriage drivers in Manhattan?
Himler is correct in her warning that horsepeople across the country need to be aware of what is going on in New York. Many ideas are emerging for compromise in the war over horses in Central Park that could become blueprints for other conflicts facing horses in other places or breeds or sports. Horses are not a conservative or liberal issue. They are not trading pieces in a political boardgame. Their future requires creative, constructive planning guided by people who understand their needs and what an asset they could be to any city, anywhere.