The end for Central Park carriage rides?

23:58, Feb 12 2014
Horse carriage
CARRIAGE FOR TWO: It's one of those New York moments we've seen in countless rom-coms, but it may not be around much longer.

Time may be running out for the iconic horse carriages that carry tourists around New York City's Central Park.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has already declared his intention to shut down the industry, saying it is inhumane to keep horses in modern-day Manhattan.

While that debate could be over, at least one nagging question  remains: What will become of the horses?

Both sides in New York City's carriage horse battle insist they will find a sanctuary for the approximately 200 horses licensed to  pull carriages in New York City.

But drivers warn that shutting down the city stables might have the unintended effect of eliminating a rare outlet for surplus horses pouring out of the farming and racing industries - sending  them faster to the slaughterhouse.

''If they did not come to New York City, most of these horses would be dead,'' said Ian McKeever, an Irishman who owns nine Central Park horses and has been driving a carriage in the city since 1987.


That's an argument that infuriates critics of the industry, who say the nation's unwanted horse dilemma is no excuse to preserve an inhumane business.

''Anyone who cares about a horse wouldn't think that taking it and sticking it in Midtown traffic is the right answer to that problem,'' said Allie Feldman, executive director of a leading anti-carriage lobbying group, New Yorkers for Clean, Livable and Safe Streets.

Last year, roughly 140,000 US horses were shipped off to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico when they became unaffordable, or unprofitable, for their owners.

The root of the problem is unregulated breeding, said Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States. 

Every year, far more horses are produced than can possibly get  lifetime, or even middle-aged, care.

The number of sanctuaries for retired horses is small - only around 500 nationwide.

In Pennsylvania's Amish country, the source of many of the horses that wind up working in Central Park, this oversupply plays out weekly at the New Holland Livestock Auction.

Every Monday, buyers for foreign meat factories snap up horses - many still young and healthy - that once pulled ploughs, buggies and carts, or even served as family pets.

McKeever cited the case of his oldest horse, Roger, who was neglected and malnourished when he bought him from a Pennsylvania  farmer in 1999.

Roger is set to finally retire this month to a reserve on Long Island, McKeever said, after 15 years on the job in Central Park.

Another of his horses, Danny Boy, won trotting races in Australia and the US before suffering a tendon problem. He, too, was headed for slaughter before getting a second chance as a  carriage horse.

''When you give a horse a job, he is protected,'' McKeever said.

Carriage opponents note that, for a lot of horses, New York City is far from a permanent home.

City records on 720 carriage horses from 2005 to 2013 show about 30 per cent spent two years or less on the job, according to an analysis by the Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages.

Industry critics say that turnover represents large numbers of  horses who are given a brief tryout in New York but don't last  because they can't adapt to the job or urban life.

Carriage owners insist their horses are as healthy and happy as  any in a well-run rural barn.

Most live in one of four stables, hidden away inside old  three-to-four-story buildings on Manhattan's far West Side.

On days  they work, the horses clop through city traffic, amid honking cabs, for up to 3.2 kilometres before reaching the spots where they line up for customers near Central Park.

Most of the rides are in the park itself but the horses are allowed to visit a handful of other nearby attractions such as Rockefeller Centre.

De Blasio favours replacing the hansom cabs with old-timey electric cars.