On February 29, before coronavirus shut down New York City, a 12-year-old carriage horse named Aisha collapsed in Central Park. A 15-minute-long video of the incident shows her struggling to stand before she crumples on the side of the road. A trailer arrives to haul her away, and carriage drivers push her inside. Aisha was euthanized later that day.
It’s not clear what killed Aisha—one of about 200 horses registered to pull carriages in New York—but her death immediately sparked a firestorm.
Animal advocates, some New York lawmakers, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, a longtime critic of his city’s carriage horse industry, blasted the incident as heartbreaking and inhumane. De Blasio tweeted that New York’s Animal Cruelty Investigation Squad is investigating. Animal advocacy group NYClass, which has long opposed the industry, immediately took to social media, circulating the video of Aisha’s death and accusing her handlers of “tormenting” her as she suffered.
The historic industry itself is on the defense. Christina Hansen, a carriage horse driver and spokesperson for Historic Horse-Drawn Carriages of Central Park, which represents the industry, says Aisha’s collapse could be related to exertion, but it could also be a genetic, muscular, or hormonal condition. Hansen says the veterinarian who examined the horse back at the stables found her heartbeat to be erratic.
“Horses can be fragile,” Hansen says. “All we know is she went from being fine to being not fine in a hurry.” She accuses NYClass of exploiting Aisha’s death: “NYClass is using this tragedy to advance their political agenda.”
The mutual enmity over Aisha’s death is a microcosm of the controversy that’s long swirled around urban carriage horses, pitting two fiercely opposing viewpoints against each other. Advocates say that modern city streets are no place for horses and claim rampant abuse but offer little proof, acknowledging that they’re only able to see the horses when they’re outdoors working. People in the industry say drivers and owners love and properly care for their horses, yet so much of the animals’ lives are shrouded from public view.
It’s one chapter of a broader, familiar debate over the ethics of using animals for human entertainment—with an added layer of complexity. With wild animals that are trained for use in circuses or to interact with tourists, the line is clearer. But horses are domestic animals; they’ve been pulling carriages for thousands of years. Unlike wild animals, they’re comfortable and compliant with humans without harsh training, and they rely on people for basic needs. The question may be less about whether horse-drawn carriage rides are fundamentally wrong in principle and more about whether the horses in the industry are treated right.
Horse-drawn carriages were once just a way for the average New Yorker to get around the city. In 1853, horsecars—trams on rails pulled by horses—moved 120,000 passengers a day through Manhattan. But by 1880, the city was clearing an average of 41 dead horses from its streets each day—15,000 over the year. Overwork, regular whippings, and crowded, disease-filled stables meant the average carriage horse’s life span was about two years.
The industry of the 19th and early 20th century bears little resemblance to today’s. New York City laws require that all carriage horses be registered and licensed with the city, have twice-yearly veterinary checks, and be fully vaccinated. The horses cannot work more than nine hours a day, must have a five-week furlough every year at a horse facility outside the city, and can’t be younger than five or older than 26 years of age. They must wear blankets in the cold, and their individual stables must be at least 60 square feet. And as of November 2019, they can’t work when the temperature and humidity get too high.
Edita Birnkrant, executive director of NYClass, however, says the regulations don’t prevent suffering, and that a life of confinement—tethered to a carriage by day, alone in a stable by night—is fundamentally abusive. As evidence, she cites specific cases, including a horse named Tommy that NYClass argues is severely underweight, and other instances of horses collapsing on the street and dying in stables in 2018 and 2019. The horses of the New York City Police Department, she says, should be a model for acceptable care and treatment. NYPD horses have large exercise rings in their stables, mandated retirement after 10 years of service, and bigger stalls.
Hansen, on the other hand, says “there is nothing about the way we’re operating that I would change." She sees the carriage drivers as victims of extreme animal rights organizations. “The same tactics they use on us in terms of lying—they do the same thing to all of those industries,” referring to foie gras (which was banned in New York in 2019), fur farms and traveling circuses (both of which have been banned or restricted in cities across the U.S.), and factory farms, where advocates have documented animal abuse.
One of the points of contention for NYClass and other advocates is the question of horse retirement.
New York Department of Health records obtained and compiled by nonprofit group the Coalition for NY Animals show that between 2005 and 2013, 529 carriage horses were removed from the city registrar, an average of 71 per year. The data offer a window into the turnover rate over eight years. But where the horses go upon being pulled out of service is unclear.
NYClass and other advocates believe that many carriage horses go to slaughter—which is prohibited in the U.S. but legal in Canada and Mexico, where horses legally can be shipped. But as with many accusations that swirl around the industry, they acknowledge that it’s hard to prove.
Hansen says that although she can’t speak for all carriage horse owners, to her it doesn’t make financial sense to send horses to slaughter. She says they’re often sold to individual horse enthusiasts or to pull carriages in the wedding and events industry—relatively undemanding work for a semi-retired horse. Advocates want legislation mandating owners to disclose where their horses go after leaving the city, an idea opposed by the industry. Hansen says such disclosure could violate the privacy of buyers.
‘So what’s the solution?’
Determining the truth—whether New York’s carriage horses are exploited, content and cared for for life, or somewhere in between—is difficult. While veterinary bodies—the American Association of Equine Practitioners and the American Veterinary Medicine Association—note that cities present health and welfare hazards that may “preclude” horses’ use, they don’t object to the practice overall, provided their guidelines for the humane and ethical use of horses are followed.
But these associations don’t actively monitor or evaluate the industry on the ground in any given city, leaving that responsibility to local authorities. People on both sides of the debate are quick to cite assessments from individual veterinarians who have reached conclusions that validate their beliefs that the industry’s horses are either healthy and content, or face health and welfare issues.
Birkrant and Hansen speak with equal conviction about their opposing perceptions—each both deeply distrustful of the other side. What’s clear is that there is little room for conversation on almost any issue involving the horses’ welfare. Hansen says advocates “don’t deserve a seat at the table.” NYClass last week blasted carriage drivers on Twitter for giving rides during the pandemic, tagging the New York Department of Health’s Twitter account (restrictions had not yet been put into place prohibiting non-essential business activities.) “So what’s the solution? How do we go forward?” asks Ariel Fintzi, a 40-year veteran New York City carriage driver. “Everybody says, ‘I’m right!’ ‘No, I’m right more!’ ‘But I love the horses more!’ ‘No, I care more!’”
Drivers, horses in limbo
Originally from Israel, Fintzi immigrated to New York in 1981. A family friend was working as a carriage driver; Fintzi was looking for a job.
“I loved it from day one,” he says. “I didn’t understand how people could work in any other job.”
He estimates that he’s owned about 15 horses but can’t remember for sure. He currently owns four, including 12-year-old Whiskey. In addition to driving his own carriage, he works to train new drivers, many of whom are also immigrants. “It’s really nice to see how the horses bring the immigrant society together, and how an immigrant can become a tour guide, talking about the history of America,” he says.
Conversations with Fintzi whipsaw between spirited stories of life in the stables and skeptical questions about the purpose of this story.
The bitter fighting has weighed on him. He had a heart attack in 2014, an incident he attributes in large part to the tension surrounding the industry. He says he’s seen it weigh on many of his colleagues. He’s lost a few carriage driver friends to suicide. “I know what they went through,” he says.
It’s clear he and other carriage drivers are feeling pressure. On December 31, Montreal’s carriage horses took a final lap through city streets. A proposed ban in Chicago is awaiting a final city council vote. For carriage horse drivers in New York and beyond, there is an ever-present feeling of being under siege by the world. “I can’t believe someone would blame me for being a horse abuser and horse killer,” Fintzi says.
“I feel for the animal activists, that they’ve [retreated into] a corner,” he says. “I feel for people on our side that they resist it [fully] because they have fear.”
As daily routines in New York City have been disrupted amid the coronavirus crisis, so too has life for the carriage horses. Hansen says that drivers are complying with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s stop-work order for all nonessential businesses. She says that close to 90 percent of the horses have been sent to their furlough facilities outside the city, and the remaining horses will be sent in the coming weeks.
Inevitably, once the pandemic is under control and the horses and tourists return, so will the demand for carriage rides. Of 341 traveler-ranked outdoor activities to do in New York on TripAdvisor, one Central Park carriage horse experience ranks 3rd in terms of popularity, and many others rate highly as well.
NYClass’s Birkrant says her organization is not focused on banning the trade in New York altogether, although it did support a 2014 de Blasio-led ban initiative that ultimately failed, and the organization regularly shares social media posts from supporters who advocate for one. She says their focus instead is on making incremental policy changes to improve the lives of horses, such as the new heat restrictions and a recent rule moving passenger pick-up spots in Central Park to give horses more distance from the noise and hazards of street traffic.
Hansen and other carriage horse drivers say these kinds of incremental changes are attacks on the industry. “Everything they do is not about welfare of horses but about reducing our income and ability to care for our horses,” Hansen says.
Although everyone says they want the best for the horses, they appear to be at an impasse.
“When you’re stuck you’re stuck,” Fintzi says. “We have a long way to go. We need to figure out how we come together.”