As responsible horse and hound owners, who enjoy the benefits of human-animal interaction, many foxhunters have followed attempts by New York City Mayor, Bill de Blasio, to eliminate the iconic horse-drawn carriages in Central Park. While hauling tourists through Manhattan may seem a far cry from the rural setting of many hunt clubs, the carriage drivers caution that their industry is "the canary in the coal mine" for future efforts by animal rights extremists to restrict or outlaw other equestrian activities. A recent City Council decision signaled a victory - for now - for these hardworking horsemen.
De Blasio campaigned on a pledge to ban the carriages, purportedly out of concern for the horses, although many suspected real estate developers' interest in the valuable midtown property where the horses are stabled was the real motivation. Attempting to cast the treatment and working conditions of the horses (already highly regulated for health and safety) as "cruelty" and "abuse," his supporters launched an often vitriolic push for a complete ban. Eva Hughes, former Vice President of the Horse and Carriage Association of New York City, observes that animal rights' activists see the drivers "as a proving ground: high profile, low resources, a good target to get that victory [a complete ban], and then move on to the next target."
However, the drivers and their allies countered with honest, open testimony about their lives and the care their animals receive. Hughes notes that "If you stand your ground and you are who you say you are, it becomes apparent," and the industry has stood up to intense scrutiny. Supporters created popular Facebook pages to spread their message that the horses' work was reasonable. This assertion was recently supported by a veterinary study revealing that levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, are quite low in working carriage horses.
Regulations already in place cover the horses' access to water and shade, rest, and periodic turnout upstate.
In addition to careful attention to animal welfare (horses may not work in extreme weather, are rotated to pastures outside the city for rest regularly, and so on), the horse-drawn carriages are a significant tourist attraction in Manhattan. A Quinnipiac University poll just over a year ago found public support for keeping the carriages at 67%. As Hughes, a driver for 16 years, notes, "The carriage drivers are ambassadors for the city; we're often the first New Yorkers that tourists come in contact with." Additionally, for many regular residents, particularly children, the carriage horses "open a world to them, we are their first and possibly only opportunity to connect with these beautiful animals."
When his goal of a complete ban failed, de Blasio carried on with a piecemeal approach, proposing instead a bill to reduce the number of carriages and horses, to restrict them to a specific area of Central Park, and to build a new stable within the Park (freeing up the desirable property where they are currently housed). This bill initially had the support of the Teamsters, representing the carriage drivers, but the union eventually withdrew its support and the bill was not brought forward. This means that for the time being, the drivers and their horses may continue their business as usual. While the Council Speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, has stated that they will not consider further proposals regarding the horses, the drivers are still wary of the Mayor searching for another avenue to threaten their decades-old, and often multi-generational, way of life.
Oscar, the Percheron, and his owner look forward to continuing to introduce tourists to New York City.
Hughes says that the drivers - including her husband, with their 16 year old Percheron, Oscar - will simply hope for the best and prepare for the worst. Regarding the support they have received from horsepeople across the country, who understand and value the horse as a working partner, she simply states, "It makes our day, it's what we pray for, to know that personally you care about us."
To follow news about the drivers and their horses, visit their Facebook page here.
To follow the MFHA's attention to legislative activity that could potentially adversely affect foxhunting, click here.