What Will Happen to the Horses?

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:00

The city's horse carriage industry may be coming to an end ? but no one is quite sure where the animals will go The horses pulling carriages through Central Park aren't aware that their working days are numbered, which is probably for the best, considering their uncertain future. Currently there are about 220 horses registered with the Department of Health as working carriage horses in the city. If the city or state succeeds in banning the industry -- moves that now seem likely -- the question of what exactly will happen to these 220 horses is one that few people involved in the debate seem able to answer. But the issue is highly charged, evoking alternating images of slaughter houses or retirement sanctuaries, depending on who's talking.

Eva Hughes, who owns horses with her carriage driver husband Thomas, fears that the city will try to dictate the fates of their beloved animals even after a ban is instituted.

"These people who are trying to put us out of business and who have crafted legislation that effectively seizes our private property, our horses, will get our horses when they pry them out of our cold and lifeless hands," Hughes said. "We will never surrender them. We are fully prepared to suffer the consequences. Our horses will never be taken from us in that way."

While she and her husband, who have owned dozens of horses throughout their 16 years operating carriages and have found humane retirement homes for all of them, may not be able to fight back against the tide of opposition to their industry, they may be in the right, legally, on one point.

"Unless there's some incredibly obscure law that I don't know about, I would find it extremely difficult to believe that anyone from the city could mandate who you sell your property to," said New York attorney Steven Sladkus. "If you abolish the horse and carriage that's one thing, but if I own my horse, nobody can tell me who I can or can't sell it to. There's a property right there that no one can interfere with."

Sladkus likened such a scenario to a law that bans car dealerships in Manhattan also requiring the dealership owners to give their inventory away when they close down.

"I couldn't see how a law like that could be upheld," he said. Sladkus said that if the city instituted some kind of quid pro quo when renewing carriage licenses ? giving operators a final year to run their carriages but with the provision that they sell their horses to pre-approved buyers at the end of that year, for example ? that could hold up. But it would only work for those who chose to sign such an agreement.

Those working to end the horse carriage industry say that there are many options for equestrian retirement.

"The aim is to not have these horses work," said Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal. She's had a bill before the state legislature for several years now that would ban the industry in the state. Known for her pro-animal protection work in the assembly ? she's written and passed laws cracking down on bear poaching, eating shark fins, selling unlabeled dog fur ? Rosenthal's reasoning has always been that the horses don't belong in the city, clopping alongside trucks and buses and living in cramped quarters. But she can't say, exactly, where the horses would go if they were kicked out of their Central Park routes and West Side stables.

"It's imperative that they not be brought to slaughter and that they not just be taken elsewhere to do the same?'job.' I'd encourage the current owners to donate them to a sanctuary," Rosenthal said. "I guess they can't compel them to. I'm not sure about that. It's a good question to ask."

It's not that she hasn't thought about it ? her office has spoken to a number of horse sanctuaries who could take on some of the horses, she said, and her bill would require carriage horse owners to give to sell their horses to pre-approved sanctuaries or individuals, which the state would monitor. Rosenthal hopes that with concurrent support from Mayor de Blasio and the city council, the state law will establish the illegality of carriage horses and a city law could be written to address how the horse owners are to handle their horses. The next question, though, is how can two opposing sides, who both paint their opponents as the worst kinds of animal-haters, figure out what to do with 220 draft horses forced into sudden retirement?

The animal activists maintain that the carriage horse owners carelessly send their horses off to slaughter when they outlive their usefulness, and that's one of the reasons to stop the cycle of horses through the carriage industry. They also maintain that no horses need to suffer once they stop that cycle.

The industry and its supporters scoff at the idea that their horses end up in Mexican and Canadian slaughter houses, the products of auctions in New Holland, Pennsylvania where buyers for these meat companies often get horses for a couple hundred bucks.

Horse carriage owners say that they don't need the state to tell them to humanely retire their horses; they do that already. The industry partners with Blue Star Equiculture, a sanctuary in Palmer, Massachusetts that supports both the idea that draft horses can and should be used for working purposes and that they should be well-cared for after they can no longer work. Eva and Thomas Hughes say they have placed horses there and regularly donate to the facility, as do many carriage horse owners. But their argument that there are plenty of places for retired horses to go is a tricky one ? it can easily be used against them as just another reason their industry should be shut down.

There are many horse sanctuaries who do regularly take in horses rescued from auction or seized by police under cruelty complaints ? but few of them have ever seen retired carriage horses. Susan Wagner runs Equine Advocates in Chatham, New York. Her farm, which cares for about 85 equines, including donkeys, ponies and mules, became somewhat famous for rescuing a carriage horse, now named Bobby, from a slaughter auction several years ago. Bobby has become a symbol for those who seek to end the industry, an example embodying the worst and the best places a retired carriage horse could end up.

Wagner said that she thinks all of the horses could end up in happy homes like her sanctuary ? but not all at once.

"We certainly could help but we couldn't take 200 horses," she said. "The problem is that the carriage horse owners call them business assets," limiting the legal ability of rescue organizations to take the horses.

Wagner said that the Humane Society and the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries have both pledged to help find homes for the horses, and that none of them should end up at a slaughter auction.

"If they go to slaughter, it's because [owners] sent them; they refuse to allow them to come to an organization like ours," Wagner said.

While there may be enough spots around the country for the horses, the accumulated cost of keeping 220 horses in a capacity where they aren't making money is in the millions of dollars. Wagner said that on her farm, it takes roughly $4,800 per horse annually to cover the costs of hay, feed, bedding, hoof trimmings, and veterinary and dental bills. Draft horses can live to their late 20s, and many are retired as teenagers.

Sanctuaries aren't the only spots for carriage horses to go. While animal rights groups cringe at the possibility, owners could potentially sell their horses to operators in cities like Philadelphia and Atlanta that still have thriving carriage industries. But they could also sell them to people and institutions who simply want a calm, well-behaved horse ? something carriage horses are known for.

"My personal opinion is that each of the horses will be sold to someone that wants to use them as a carriage/driving or riding horse and not for slaughter," said Lynda Roemer, who runs Equine Rescue, Inc. in Walden, New York and mostly takes in horses who have been confiscated by law enforcement when an owner is found guilty of animal cruelty. She's never had to rescue a carriage horse in 18 years of operation.

Roemer is well aware of the slaughter auctions but thinks that the carriage horses are too valuable to end up there.

"Kill buyers don't pay top dollar (they generally only pay .40-.50/pound - for a 2,000 pound horse that would be $800). The 'allure' of having been a NYC carriage horse will open many doors in the private sector and most likely bring a better selling price," she said.

Joanna Feffer, a lifelong horse competitor and equine attorney who lives on the Upper East Side, said that there is no shortage of organizations desperate to purchase retired carriage horses. She's a horse-lover and strong supporter of the carriage industry. She also sits on the boards of six horse-related charities, including Horse Ability, a group that works with handicapped people and teaches them to ride, and a group that Feffer said is just one example of the kind of non-profit that needs steady, sturdy, calm horses for its work.

"Between colleges, universities, even companion horses for injured horses, because they don't like to be alone - there are a lot of uses for retired horses," said Feffer.

Colleges often use older horses to teach students about horse anatomy and care, and that they will take horses in nearly any condition, she explained.

"I ride in Old Westbury, and people there are always posting to buy retired horses. I could find a home for 100 horses today," Feffer said ? though she hopes she won't have to.

"All the friends who I grew up riding with are all on the committee [supporting the industry]," she said. "We support it because these horses were meant to pull carriages."

Eva Hughes said ending the industry won't prevent more horses from being killed.

"Instead of going down to [the] New Holland [auction] and buying the next 220 horses coming off the truck for slaughter," she said, "they want to come take our horses."