Retired at Twenty: New York City Carriage Horses


City Horse

A carriage horse gets ready to take tourists for a ride in Central Park. Photo: Catherine Griffin.

Walk past Columbus Circle and along Central Park South next to the stone wall overhung by trees.  There you will find the carriage horses, lined up in their livery and hitched to their carriages, ready to take tourists for rides.   On the weekend, the carriages are busy.  A little girl tugs on her mother’s hand, “I want to ride the black one,” she says.  A woman in a wheelchair pauses as a man gets ready to take a picture of her in front of a grey horse.  He waves away the people behind her as they stroke the horse’s nose and coo.

The age of the horse drawn carriage in New York City may soon be coming to an end. Intro. 86, a new piece of legislation designed to phase out carriage horses and replace them with electric, vintage-inspired cars, has already been signed by fourteen city councilmembers, one more than half.  Recent carriage accidents within the city, including the collapse of Charlie, a 15-year-old carriage horse who was later ruled to have died of a stomach ulcer, have fueled the efforts of organizations such as the Coalition to Ban Horse Drawn Carriages and NY Class.  Yet while the debate has focused mainly on whether or not horse drawn carriages should be allowed, very little attention has been given to where these horses will retire if this piece of legislation is passed.

“The point is that if one of these horses is spooked, they or someone else could get hurt,” said Elizabeth Forel, founder of the Coalition to Ban Horse Drawn Carriages.  Since 2006, when a horse named Sporty crashed into a station wagon, her organization has been working to ban horse drawn carriages in New York City.

“The industry just wants the status quo because improving the conditions means loss of money,” Forel said.

The debate is highly polarized, and those who support the carriage industry have equally strong views.  A carriage horse driver herself and co-founder of the Blue Star Equiculture horse sanctuary in Massachusetts, Christina Hansen fights against prevalent public perceptions about carriage horses.  “Well the carriage drivers are against horse abuse, too,” she said.  “Why doesn’t anyone believe them?”

Stand at the southern edge of Central Park and you’ll see carriage drivers feeding and watering their horses, sometimes giving them carrots as treats. One of these drivers, Steve Malone, has worked in the carriage horse industry for the past 24 years.  Driving horses is in his blood; his father, a blacksmith from Ireland, first came to the United States in 1964.  He started driving carriage horses and his son followed in his footsteps.

“You have a special bond with a horse,” he said as he clicked his tongue at his Morgan, a black horse by the name of Tyson.  “I’ve spent as much time with my horse that I’ve had for 11 years as I have with my kids.”

Malone says that the horses are well looked after.  Each carriage is assigned three horses that work in shifts, ensuring that they have time to rest back at the stables.  Malone owns two carriages and six horses, though two of them, at present, are taking their five-week, annual holiday at a farm.

“I didn’t take over my dad’s business because I wanted to drive a car.  If I wanted to drive a car, I would have become a taxi driver; I want to work with horses.”

Intro. 86 may indeed put an end to horse drawn carriages, but the more serious issue is what will happen to the horses afterward.  According to Forel, who has asked every year for the names of the horses registered in New York City, there is a turnover rate of about a third each year.  In addition, most of the over 200 horses at work in the city at any time retire at 20, though many live well into their thirties.

New York City horses are easily identified by a four digit number on their hoof. Yet even though Forel has tried to track them down, she’s met with limited success.

“I think they probably go to auction,” said Forel.  “What happens in the auction is anyone’s guess.”

Susan Wagner, president of Equine Advocates and the owner of a horse sanctuary in upstate New York, believes that there’s a reason that Forel may be having so much trouble tracking down the horses, despite the identification number on their hooves.

“I personally think that what they do is they sand off the hoof number,” Wagner says.  Without their identification numbers, the horses would be far harder to track and recognize, and could potentially end up at kill auctions.

There are two main horse auctions in the northeast, D.R. Chambers & Sons in Unadilla, New York and another auction in Holland, Pennsylvania.  Although at least two New York City carriage horses have been found in the Holland auction, slated to be sold as meat. D.R. Chambers & Sons, though, is another matter.  Kimberly Chambers of D.R. Chambers & Sons says that no New York City carriage horses pass through their horse auction.

So where do these horses go?  Some end up in horse sanctuaries throughout the northeast. Blue Star Equiculture claims to be the official retirement home for New York City carriage horses, though they currently only have one New York City carriage horse named Rosie.

Pamela Rickenbach, co-founder of the sanctuary, was once a carriage driver herself in Philadelphia.  She first became involved in the business in order to learn how to drive horses for organic farming.  Surprised by the views that the public had of carriage drivers, Rickenbach began to speak up for the carriage industry, eventually forming a sanctuary for retired horses.

“When we opened up the sanctuary, we received more farm and rider horses than any carriage horses,” Rickenbach said. “The carriages horses in general don’t really have trouble finding retirement because they’re such skilled workers.”  Many carriage horses go on to become everything from riding horses to carriage horses again, though if they do continue to work in the carriage industry, their work is usually far less strenuous.

Her colleague, Equiculture co-founder Christina Hansen, is quick to note that draft horses are working horses and that they need the exercise.  “We have this one horse who’s now actually been adopted out to someone else.  He’s 32 years old and named Jesse.”

Jesse, unfortunately, wasn’t doing very well.  He was a former carriage horse in Connecticut and pulling a carriage became too much for him.

“We just put the harness on him and took him for a walk,” said Hansen.  “He perked right up and carried himself all proudly and he began gaining weight again.”

“It’s a mental stimulation as well for him.  It’s healthier than them standing around in a field doing nothing.”

While Blue Star Equiculture believes that the horses are snapped up by new homes, Equine Advocates has another view.  Wagner believes that she doesn’t see many New York City carriage horses in her sanctuary for one particular reason.

“We don’t have any other carriage horses because it’s of my opinion that the operators take them to slaughter rather than putting them in a sanctuary,” she says.

Malone is quick to dispute Wagner’s claim.  “I’ve never had trouble finding a home for my horses,” he said.  “I’m fortunate enough that I’ve had my horses for a number of years and haven’t had to retire them.  It’s not like we’re retiring horses every couple of months.”

In addition to the equine sanctuaries that house carriage horses, the Humane Society of New York has a carriage horse adoption program for any driver who needs to find a place for their horse.  However, only six horses have gone through the program.

“Taking care of a horse is time consuming and expensive” said Sandra DeFeo, Executive Director of the Humane Society of New York.  When placing a carriage horse, the organization has to make sure that both the owner and their property are suitable for the animal.

“Currently, I don’t know of any other official retirement program,” she said.  “I only hear about banning the carriage horses.”

Even after counting up the horses at equine sanctuaries and adoption programs,  a majority of them are unaccounted for.  Hansen has an explanation.

“The one thing to remember is that all carriage horses are privately owned,” Hansen said.  “There are several drivers that have their own farms outside of town, so they will keep their own horses on their farm.”

DeFeo agrees.  “I think the carriage people have connections with others,” she said, commenting on where she believes carriage horses go for retirement.

At least one carriage horse driver backs up that assertion.  A few years ago he retired his horse, Captain, to a farm in upstate New York, owned by another carriage horse driver named Frank Roden.

Malone has retired his horses to a therapeutic riding program in North Carolina.  “They need gentle, easy-going horses for the program,” he said.

If Intro. 86 were passed, many more horses would eventually need to find retirement.  The ASPCA has offered to find homes for any horses displaced by Intro. 86.  However, funds and manpower are huge issues in housing and caring for retired horses.

“Thousands and thousands of horses need homes,” said Hansen.  “One, you’re taking away homes for horses that already exist, and then make it impossible for them to find homes.”