Save the Horses

A priest blesses a New York City police officer's horse on the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals. (CNS photo/Octavio Duran)

Black, handsome, bursting with muscle, power and dignity. His well-brushed coat shone. At 17 hands, he was the tallest horse in the 52nd Street stable, where he and his companions were being ritually harnessed up around 9 a.m. for the day’s work ahead. Except for the few inevitable clumps of manure in the central corridor, the work area was clean, as the drivers silently and methodically tightened straps, quickly stroking their steeds while they worked. Horses don’t like surprises; the gentle touch on the head or back or rear lets them know where you are. They grow accustomed to the master’s touch, as well as to the morning carrot, the “treat,” like the tiny biscuits dog lovers give their dogs for “being good.” This horse, the driver told me, could sell for at least $10,000. One of the other ones, smaller, might take $2,000.

What this wonderful horse did not know, however, everyone else in the stable did: this might be the last year of his life in the Park.

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At least two groups who describe themselves as animal rights groups—New Yorkers for Clean, Livable & Safe Streets (NYCLASS) and the Coalition to Ban-Horse Drawn Carriages—want the 200 plus horses who draw 19th century carriages around Central Park for $50 per 20-minute ride to be “put out to pasture.” Today it’s a term with many meanings, including, at best, being adopted by a kind person with a farm or country estate and, more likely, being butchered for dog food or melted down for glue.

For those who have not been to Central Park, picture in mid-Manhattan a 50-block long expanse of rolling rocky hills with three lakes, a dense forest, a reservoir, two theaters, fountains, plus stretches of baseball fields and three enormous green lawns. In the mornings, dog lovers let their beloveds run free, leap to catch tossed rubber balls in their teeth and romp and roll around with other dogs or simply sit on the bench with their masters and watch the world roll by.

The horses, whose predecessors came to New York in the 1620s and enjoyed regular bridal paths in the park until a few years ago, clip clop along while their drivers point out historic skyscrapers and entertain their riders with local lore. In short, the horse-drawn carriages are a lovely touch of 19th-century class in the richest, toughest town in America. Critics say they are “anachronistic.” They miss the whole point. That a touch of the past, like the few remaining old mansions, could survive in 2013 is a blessing. If a city at large loses the concept that animals can share their lives and their work with the citizens, it has lost even more of its soul.

The critics portray horses caught in traffic jams, dead horses in the streets, horses overworked and starving. They offer no evidence. The horse and carriage emerge from their home on 52nd Street near 11th Ave, trot up 11th, turn right on 57th and then have two blocks left up to Central Park. Parked along the sidewalk they stand inspection. No ribs show, their coats gleam, children pet their noses and they shake their heads. I live three blocks away and have never seen an accident. Three horses have died in accidents in 30 years—which does not seem like an epidemic. They work at most 9 hours a day, visit the veterinarian twice a year and spend at least five weeks a year at a country farm operated by the carriage owners for their horses.

At the same time, from my observations, some aspects of the living conditions could be improved. In the stable where the horses go up a ramp to their stalls on the second floor, getting them all out in the event of a fire would be difficult. And I would love to grant them a monthly occasional ‘play day’ on one of the several well-fenced lawns (call them pastures) in the park. I have never heard the suggestion that the New York City mounted police should hang up their spurs. I have seen their stables from the outside, but if they are better treated than the their carriage brothers, the city should help the carriage brigade meet the higher standards.

The idea that all 200 horses could find adoptive families has no foundation. Nationally, wild horses are running out of space, and as more rural people move to the city, welcoming pastures for out-of-work horses just aren’t there.

The ugly part of this battle is the possibility that the movement is not really about saving the poor horses but about politics and money. Both mayoral candidates were co-opted by the so-called “animal rights” people, although these “friends” of the animals have not come up with either concrete proposals or money or guarantees that the horses will not go to the meat grinders. One group proposes replacing the horses with imitation old electric autos, “horseless carriages,” that would buzz around the park beeping walkers and runners out of the way; reportedly a $450,000 prototype of a 1909 Pierce-Arrow in on the drawing boards. The last thing Central Park needs is more cars.

A more sinister scenario was suggested to me by several drivers I spoke with: real estate developers want the West Side blocks from the 40s to the Park and the stables are in the way. Right now the city is in the thralls of a gluttonous building boom. Skyscrapers 78 stories high sell their top apartments for $90-100 million each. Of course to them horse-drawn carriages are standing in the way of “progress.”

On my bookshelf as I write is a souvenir horseshoe from Dusky, a lively Tennessee walking horse who, on a mad gallop, ran away with me on a country road when I was 14. We became fast friends; and I have no doubt he would agree with what I have said. I pray that the new mayor will rethink his too-quick capitulation to a pressure group and discover that even in 2013 humans and horses can be friends. 

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