It was a freak accident. The twilit street was covered with snow. Salt had shorted the underground wires. The three-by-five-foot steel service-box covers had somehow become electrified, and so, when the metal-shod hooves of a seven-year-old carriage horse called Jackie came into contact with them, 110 volts of electricity shot up her forelegs. The mare stumbled another 15 feet toward Park Avenue at 59th Street and then toppled driver Stephen Hand’s carriage as she fell down dead.
An EMS truck towed the horse 100 feet and covered it with a tarp. An ASPCA veterinarian confirmed the cause of death. The agency then hauled away the corpse. The story flickered for a minute on the 11 o’clock news. “We confirmed that it had died of the suspected cause,” said Peter Paris, a humane-society spokesperson. “But had the day been 65 degrees and a lovely summer day, the horse could have stepped on the same plate the same way.”
Was it a freak accident? “It’s the most disturbing thing I’ve seen in a long time,” eyewitness Kevin Beisler told the dailies. It’s always disturbing when a one-ton animal dies in midtown traffic. It happened in 1985 when a speeding limousine cut off another horse, causing it to bolt into an intersection and get slammed by an automobile. It happened in 1989, when a carriage horse collapsed with heat exhaustion on Central Park South. It will happen again because the hack trade is archaic and kept alive primarily by hacks of another kind in the City Council. “I don’t think it’s right that these horses are subjected to the elements of the city,” Beisler said after witnessing Jackie’s electrocution. “From the heat of the summer to the traffic to something random like this.”
What’s random in the death of Jackie? The horse was where it should never have been in the first place—on a city street. Despite the fantasias that lead some blinkered journalists to call the carriage business “charming” and write that it “lends a touch of history and romance to the bustling Manhattan streetscape,” there is no valid reason for its continued existence. The use of carriage horses has been banned in most European cities with heavy vehicular traffic. No more than 300 people are locally employed by the industry. The ASPCA—whose agents reputedly inspect the carriage stables monthly and the Central Park South hack line once a night—as well as the Parks Department, the NYPD, the Department of Health, and the Department of Transportation all have oversight. Yet, despite the efforts of one mayor (David Dinkins) and various activist coalitions over the past two decades, the business remains grossly underregulated.
In 1988 a law was instituted restricting the city’s then 88 horse-drawn carriages (there are currently 75 carriages and “about 150 horses” in Manhattan) to Central Park during daytime hours. The law also banned them from operating at all during rush hour and limited them on midtown streets from 7 p.m. to midnight.
But the law has had little effect on the often squalid conditions in livery stables (in at least one facility, now defunct, a horse once fell through the urine-rotted boards of a stall). It has been powerless to prevent the use of lightweight thoroughbreds and standardbreds to pull heavy draft-horse rigs. It hasn’t kept drivers from breaking the rules by fast-trotting and even cantering horses through traffic. Multiple layers of agency supervision have accomplished nothing when it comes to keeping malnourished horses from showing up routinely on the hack line, or lame ones, or horses plainly suffering from the raw harness chafings called girth galls. It takes no special veterinary qualifications to spot these conditions. All you have to do is look.
One of the “quaint” facts often hauled out in writing about the carriage horses is that many animals are purchased from the Amish. Most are “bought at auctions…for between $50 to $500” wrote one particularly credulous Times writer in 1994. “They range in age from 10 to 16.” What the Times neglected to add is that the price paid is a pound rate. Most of the horses at these famous auctions are destined for Canadian meat trucks. It’s unlikely most Amish would part with a sound horse in its prime for about the cost of a bike.
So you end up with Sally, who collapsed and died on the grass in Central Park in April of 1994. Or Parker, the horse felled by a “heart attack” two weeks later on Central Park South. You end up with Jackie, shocked to death on a snowy street.
You end up with discarded animals sold to an industry that works them relentlessly and keeps them in substandard shelter. (According to the Carriage Horse Action Committee, an early animal rights group, most local stables provide four-foot stalls, too narrow for horses to turn around in; there is, of course, no access to paddocks and pasturage, and limited access to water, bedding, or salt.) Sally and Parker were mourned at a vigil at the Plaza Fountain at Fifth Avenue and 59th Street. “This memorial service should not be taking place because the City of New York never should have legalized the brutality that led to the demise of two innocent creatures,” Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney said at the time. Jackie was mourned at a small rally in Columbus Circle. “City government couldn’t care less,” said organizer Elizabeth Forel, director of the Coalition for New York City Animals. “At this point it’s just a ragtag coalition trying to bring attention to these suffering horses, to focus on all these agencies that are supposed to enforce the laws but that look the other way.”