Debate Rages Over Central Park Horses

Central Park’s horse-drawn carriages are an iconic facet of the city experience. But is it time for change?

| 12 Aug 2022 | 04:03

Last month, Queens Council Member Robert Holden introduced a bill that would replace the 68 horse carriages in Central Park with 68 electric carriages by June 1, 2024. Holden’s bill, Intro 573, is the latest in a long string of proposals to retire Central Park’s horses.

According to Holden’s spokesperson Kevin J. Ryan, “The Councilman feels that there is no reason, in this modern age, to continue using horses this way. It’s not a good life for them. It also causes public safety issues. Horses can get plenty of exercise without being forced to pull tourists around in an urban environment.”

Animal rights groups, most notably New Yorkers for Clean, Livable and Safe Streets (NYCLASS), have long alleged that the Central Park horses are mistreated. Although the horses are banned from working in temperatures above 90 degrees — thanks to legislation the City Council passed in 2019 — there have been reports of horses suffering from heat exhaustion this summer.

On August 11, NYCLASS tweeted a video of a fallen horse, with the caption: “URGENT: Carriage horse collapsed in distress right now at 45 St/9th Ave unable to get up, likely from heat distress ... This horse may die, like many others. We must pass Intro 573 to end this abuse!” Holden, NYCLASS, VFAR and PETA released a joint statement calling for the horse, named Ryder, to be retired to a certified sanctuary.

Earlier this year, in late May, NYCLASS shared a separate video of a fallen horse being dragged on the ground by two men.

The bill drew immediate backlash from the Transport Workers Union Local 100, which represents the carriage drivers. The union maintains that the horses are well taken care of. According to Pete Donohue, a spokesman for TWU Local 100, “Every expert who’s looked at this has concluded that these horses are well cared for, are treated humanely and are in good health and get excellent care.” In the past, the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American Association of Equine Practitioners, and the New York State Veterinary Medical Society have endorsed Central Park’s horse carriages.

In response to reports of horses being injured, Donohue said, “A horse could get sick in New York City, or it could get sick on a farm. It could get sick anywhere.”

Legally Protected

Central Park horses receive five weeks of vacation a year in farms outside the city, and are given physical exams at least twice a year. They are legally protected from working more than nine-hour days and may not work in extreme heat or cold.

“This is not an industry that’s operating in the shadows in the 1800s. It’s under the very extensive scrutiny and rules and regulations of New York City. The health department and five other agencies oversee this,” said Donohue.

Christina Hansen, a horse carriage driver and a speaker for the union, noted that many horses in the business are rescued from more demanding occupations. Hansen, a Lexington, Kentucky native who has a passion for both history and horses, has been driving horse carriages for 10 years in New York City. She treasures the opportunity to work with three horses: King, Billy, and Oreo.

Being a carriage horse is “a lot easier than most things that horses can do. Many horses may have had a rough life before they came to us,” said Hansen. As a horse, “you just walk in circles in Central Park and get petted and have carrots with the same person every day.”

“I Don’t Like What I See”

Nonetheless, many remain concerned for the horses’ safety. Orly, an Upper West Sider who asked to be identified only by first name, said that “when I pass by the horses I don’t like what I see.” She continued, “As a kid, the horses were really cool, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve worried more about animal rights.”

Judy, a tourist from Pittsburgh, said, “I feel bad for them, and worry they get hot and are not well taken care of.”

Holden’s bill would replace the carriages with electric ones, which will be limited to traveling at 3 mph in the park. Several cities have already made the switch, including Guadalajara, Mexico, which Holden’s office pointed to as a model.

Intro 573 ensures that current carriage drivers will be prioritized when hiring drivers for the electric vehicles. “The drivers would be able to make a better living, working all year round for a living wage, pick up passengers at tourist sites outside of Central Park and possibly even owning their rigs for a change,” Ryan said.

TWU Local 100 does not support these terms. The union says that many of the carriage drivers they represent chose their occupation because they enjoy working with horses. As Hansen said, “I’m a horse person, so I’m not interested in driving an un-crash tested, unproven, electric vehicle.”

Many carriage drivers own their own horses, and resist the council member’s claims that the bill would be better for them. Hansen said that the bill wants “to take independent contractors and turn them into wage laborers.”

Battery Life

Hansen also disputed the claim that electric vehicles would translate into year-round work. She pointed out that the current carriages in use in Mexico are weather sensitive. Many of these vehicles also have short-lived battery life.

Hansen noted that a potential switch to electric vehicles would dramatically alter the entire carriage industry. Currently, riders pay for the unique experience of being in a horse carriage.

Alan Spencer, a British tourist, noted that the horses are “part of the charm” of the carriage experience.

Kadir, a Carriage driver whose horse is named Lisa, was opposed to the legislation on similar grounds, noting that it would negatively affect business as “people come to see the horses.” Kadir noted that in the three-and-a-half years he has worked as a carriage driver, the horses have been well taken care of, and their stable even has air conditioning.

Holden’s office says that the electric carriages are ideal. “They would take up much less space than the carriage horses do, and without piles of manure for cyclists and runners to avoid,” said Ryan.

Several other City Council members have endorsed Holden’s bill, including Keith Powers, who represents the Upper East Side. The bill is still in its early stages and it is unclear when the Council will hold a final vote.