As a carriage driver, it pains me to hear the misinformation floating around the internet about carriage horses, and horses in general. Not only are some of the myths surrounding carriage horses outright lies, but abolishing horse-drawn carriages won't even begin to solve the problems highlighted by their existence.
Unlike many of my friends, I have not driven carriage horses in NYC or Philadelphia, where most of the debate is taking place, but as the vitriol from the anti-carriage horse industry has started to spill into my quieter corner of the world, I can't help but protest. There are bad eggs in every industry, but please do not assume that all carriage drivers are cruel.
Here are the myths about carriage horses I hear most often, from the perspective of the person behind the lines.
Horses are domestic animals. We have worked beside them for most of our existence. Turning all horses loose to run free on pastures that don't exist is a pipe dream that would be disastrous for all involved, especially the horses. Officials are already struggling to control existing wild horse populations. Adding more horses to public rangelands would stress the natural resources of the grasslands and add to the current overpopulation problem.
Depriving humans of interaction with horses, I believe, is also cruel. Whether you ride horses, rescue horses, drive horses or work with horses on a therapeutic level, horses add depth and meaning to many human lives. This is a two-way street. Even if you want to deny that horses could possibly enjoy these interactions without the love and financial support of humans, these horses would end up overcrowding rescues and many would end their lives at slaughter. Death is not an option I would ever choose for my horses.
Sure, some of them would rather stand by the hay feeder all day, but most of the horses I've known and driven have genuinely enjoyed their job. They perk up the minute they are hitched and are eager to step out, whether it's on a city street or a country road. I am a firm believer that horses, dogs and people are generally happier with something to do. Horses get bored, just like dogs and people. They need stimulation and exercise to stay mentally and physically healthy. Boredom results in destructive behaviors that regular exercise and socialization prevent. Pulling a carriage is both physically and mentally stimulating, and contrary to public opinion, not actually that hard.
If you have never driven a carriage or worked with horses, I can see how those carriages might look heavy. The reality is quite different. I am a 150-pound woman and I can move most of the carriages you see on the street by myself. The secret to my incredible strength is simple: carriages are on wheels. Pulling a carriage on well-maintained streets is an easy job for a horse, especially a draft horse, and a horse in decent physical condition should have no problem working a daylong shift. NYC limits their horses to 9-hour shifts with two breaks, but most small carriage horse companies outside of major cities don't work anywhere near those hours.
I saw far more horse "abuse" riding in horse shows than I ever saw while driving carriages. The long whip that drivers carry is a communication device, just like the reins. A light tap, while often unnecessary in a well-trained horse, is not painful or abusive. I have never seen a driver whip their horse, although I am sure some do. There are bad eggs in every basket and the horse industry is no exception.
An abused horse is a dangerous horse. I have worked with horses with a history of abuse, and the last thing I would want to do is hitch an abused animal to a carriage full of tourists. That puts everyone at risk. Like most drivers, I want happy, well-adjusted horses, not a nervous animal motivated by fear.
Of course pollution is bad for horses, just like it is bad for people, dogs, cats, birds and all other living things. Rather than banning horses from cities because of pollution, and perhaps dogs, cats and any outside human jobs while we are at it, maybe we should work instead to limit pollution.
Carriage drivers and cities work together to ensure that our horses are safe and comfortable. While regulations vary slightly from city to city, most carriage drivers do their best to make sure their horses work in suitable conditions and that they are well taken care of at the end of the day. Horses are accustomed to both chilly and warm temperatures. Carriage drivers are often more affected by the weather than the horses are.
Accidents do happen, and when they do, they are tragic. I am sure as more people text and drive they will continue to happen, claiming both horse and human lives. Banning carriage horses is an easy way out of a much more difficult problem: careless drivers. Personally, I would love to see more city parks and carriage rides offered in those parks instead of on the street, but villainizing the entire industry is close-minded and unnecessary.
Some carriage horses do go to slaughter, as do racehorses, pet horses and horses from all different backgrounds. Banning carriage horses will not stop horse slaughtering. Some carriage horses get to retire to nice family farms, in part thanks to rescues. Others do not. I would love to see carriage horses all receive loving homes at the end of their tenure, but banning the industry because horses don't get paid retirement with benefits is not the solution — working with the industry is.
In today's increasingly connected and modernized world, carriage horses serve as a touchstone with our agricultural heritage. For many people, a carriage horse is the closest they will ever come to a horse or another farm animal. This connection with history and nature is even more important as we struggle to combat climate change, problems in our food systems and a lack of education about where our natural resources actually come from. Sure, carriage horses as transportation might be outdated, but we need the reminder of what they stand for more than ever before.
So next time you decide to scream "animal cruelty" out the window at a carriage driver, potentially startling the horse you are trying to protect, why not stop and talk (politely) instead to the carriage driver and get the other side of the argument? If we stop screaming long enough to listen to each other, we might find a compromise that makes everyone happy — especially the horses.
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