When the Standardbred gelding Ryder collapsed on August 10, on Ninth Avenue in Manhattan, with carriage in tow, he was first reported to be 13 years old. Weeks later, news broke correcting his age to 26, the limit for carriage horses to be licensed in NYC and the equivalent of a 90-year-old human. An investigation by the NYC Department of Health found that owner-operator Ian McKeever’s brother, Colm McKeever, co-owner of Ryder, had falsified veterinary records, changing Ryder’s age from 26 to 13 on documents he submitted. The veterinarian who examined the horse also discovered that Ryder was malnourished, underweight, and suffering from EPM, a neurological disease that may indicate poor stable maintenance caused by possum droppings. Putting Ryder to work pulling a 1,000-pound carriage plus passengers around the congested paved streets of New York City for a few more months might have been within the law, but he was an old horse that the owners clearly intended to work past the legal age limit.
The viral videos and news articles I saw and read were shocking and made me recall my time as features editor of Animal Watch, a magazine put out by the ASPCA, as well as a cover story I wrote on NYC carriage horses in 1999. After scrounging around in my attic, I found an old copy of that issue, headlined: “Mean Streets: Why is New York City’s highly charged carriage horse debate stuck in gridlock?” As I re-read the article, I had this sinking feeling that time had stood still. Gridlock, indeed!
In fact, all of the problems I reported on back then are still being raised by opponents of the carriage horse industry today. Is the industry humane? And what’s changed (or not) for the horses?
Do they have “turnout”?
It doesn’t surprise me that NYC carriage horses still have no “turnout”—access to outdoor pasture, so they are free to move, graze, socialize, and roll in the dirt. After all, this is Manhattan, where developers and real estate moguls fight over air rights. But horses have evolved as herd animals, who need to be moving and eating for a large portion of their day. Lack of turnout negatively affects a horse’s hoof health, joint and leg health, and respiratory and digestive health, as well as its mental and emotional well-being.
Can they graze?
No. This has probably been true in Manhattan since the Industrial Revolution. Which means that, instead of nibbling on grasses in a field, carriage horses munch on hay while standing in small stalls (see below). Many horses eat hay, but many also have daily turnout and some access to grazing. Lacking these two criteria makes a horse both unhealthy and unhappy.
What are their stables like?
In 1999, there were six stables in Manhattan for carriage horses; now that number is down to three. The public is allowed to see only one of them, the Clinton Park Stable, on West 52nd Street. Those buildings are more than 100 years old and two to three stories tall—carriages are stored on the main floor and horses travel up ramps to get upstairs. Individual stalls are required by law to be 60 square feet and a minimum of 7 feet wide, which is better than the 4-foot-wide tie stalls—a type of outdated stall where animals are tethered by a halter and rope—of 1999, but still too narrow for many average- and large-size horses to comfortably turn around or lie down. “Their best barn feels like a prison,” wrote Kathy Stevens, founder and director of Catskill Animal Sanctuary, in a 2014 HuffPost blog. Spokespeople for the industry say the stalls are large enough, but Stevens continues, “Standard box stalls are 12 x 12, or 144 square feet, well over double what is mandated [in NYC] for these giant animals.” In 1999, there were 140 carriage horses in New York City; today, that number has risen to more than 200. Why are there more horses and fewer stables? And why can’t the public see the other stables?
A horse might retire to an idyllic life with pasture and lots of care, or be sold, euthanized, or take a one-way trip to the slaughterhouse.
When is it too hot or too cold?
Just as in 1999, carriage horses today are required to be taken back to the stable when it is 90 degrees or above, or 18 degrees or below. But it took until 2019 for the restrictions to take into consideration humidity, and wind chill is not factored in at all. Enforcement is spotty. The NYPD has other priorities.
How long is their workday?
Carriage horses are legally allowed to work up to nine hours a day, seven days a week, just like in 1999. They endure long hours of standing and walking on paved streets.
Traffic report, please?
Horses are nonaggressive prey animals, which means they run first, think later. Flight is their main survival mechanism. Hence the use of blinders, which limits their field of vision. In 2021, New York ranked as the No. 1 city for the worst traffic congestion in the United States. While on the job, carriage horses live a “nose-to-tailpipe” existence, breathing in the exhaust from traffic. Emissions from buses and trucks, along with high temperatures, do damage to their lungs.
Boredom? That’s only half the story.
Industry proponents claim that the horses live a pampered life, and enjoy it. But with no turnout, no grazing, and little equine companionship, it is not surprising to find some NYC carriage horses exhibiting behaviors that once were associated with “stable vices”—repetitive weaving (Queens council member Robert Holden shared a video clip on Twitter in January, noting, “This carriage horse is displaying an anxiety, stress behavior called “weaving,” seen in horses kept in solitary confinement with no freedom”), biting on objects while sucking in air, door banging, and more. Studies suggest that these behaviors are not vices but coping mechanisms born out of frustration, caused by a lifestyle that does not suit them. This shift in perspective reflects a growing trend in scientific research to include an animal’s emotional state when studying its well-being.
What about time off and retirement?
Carriage horses are mandated to get five weeks of furlough after 12 months of working in the city, but no government agency is required to inspect the facilities where the horses are sent, or even keep a list of these places. This is just as true now as it was in 1999. At age 27, carriage horses can retire, but there is little if any follow-up on what exactly that means. A horse might retire to an idyllic life with pasture and lots of care, or be sold, euthanized, or take a one-way trip to the slaughterhouse.
Twelve years ago, a carriage horse named Billy stood in a kill pen at the livestock auction of New Holland Sales Stables, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Luckily for the 18-year-old bay gelding, the four-digit number carved into his left front hoof that identifies all NYC carriage horses was spotted in time and Elizabeth Forel, president of the Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages, was contacted. Horse advocates say it is rare to save a carriage horse from slaughter because their ID numbers are typically sanded off before going to auction, so the horses cannot be traced. Billy (renamed Bobby II) lived for many more years at Equine Advocates Rescue and Sanctuary, in upstate New York.
As for Ryder, the Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100, which represents carriage horse drivers, has reported that the horse is now retired and living at a farm privately owned by someone in the carriage horse industry, in upstate New York. Edita Birnkrant, executive director of NYCLASS (New Yorkers for Clean, Livable, and Safe Streets), a nonprofit animal rights group leading the initiative to ban carriage horses in the city, believes that all retired horses “must go to a sanctuary to ensure lifelong care.”
Are the laws protecting carriage horses enforced?
Many of NYC’s carriage horse laws seem to be too little too late. Donny Moss, an NYC-based animal rights activist who made the 2007 award-winning documentary Blinders, and still produces short videos on this controversy on his website, Their Turn, told me recently, “Enforcement has always been a problem. Lack of will. Lack of resources. At the end of the day, there are things about the industry that simply cannot be corrected…. No amount of regulation or restriction will make the carriage horse industry humane and safe. Even if every driver took the best care of their horse as they could, that wouldn’t change the fact that the industry is inherently inhumane.”
What lies ahead?
Since video of Ryder’s collapse has gone viral, animal advocates have been stoking the fire. Voters for Animal Rights (VFAR) publicized a survey conducted by Zogby Strategies showing that 71% of NYC voters polled support a ban on horse and carriage rides. And 25 celebrities, including Billie Eilish, Joaquin Phoenix, Hilary Swank, Sarah Silverman, Edie Falco, Joan Jett, and Ricky Gervais, in partnership with the Animal Legal Defense Fund, signed an open letter to the New York City Council urging the ban of horse-drawn carriages.
In 1999, there were 140 carriage horses in New York City; today, that number has risen to more than 200. Why are there more horses and fewer stables? And why can’t the public see the other stables?
In an effort to tamp down negative press since Ryder’s collapse, TWU Local 100 proposed measures in early September that would, they claim, improve oversight and care of the horses. Items on the list include a new stable in Central Park, a full-time veterinarian who would perform twice the number of checkups currently required, more training for drivers, and additional water troughs for the horses. City Hall says it will review the proposal.
However, it’s probably unrealistic for the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation to allocate such a large parcel of land to a private industry in order to stable more than 200 horses, and, even then, the horses would still lack turnout. (Plus, a full-time veterinarian and twice the number of health checks are things that should have been in place decades ago.) But what it really comes down to is this: The TWU’s proposal is an admission of guilt. “After falsely claiming the horses have been treated with exceptional care for years, they now produce a long list of recommendations that only proves what hellholes these horses are living in,” responded NYCLASS’s Birnkrant, in an article in the Daily News.
What would Henry Bergh do?
In a recent story in the New York Post, ex–carriage industry advocate Ken Frydman spoke about Ian McKeever. Frydman claimed that McKeever knew the horse was too old for the job when he purchased him, in May, saying that McKeever told him he “bought the horse on the cheap and figured he’d squeeze what he could out of it.”
Those words—“bought the horse on the cheap and figured he’d squeeze what he could out of it”—conjured up for me stories of Henry Bergh, who founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, in 1866. Had it been 1866 instead of 2022, the incident of August 10 would not have surprised Bergh; it was in scenes similar to Ryder’s collapse that he witnessed the pain and suffering of city horses, which rallied him to come to their defense and found the ASPCA more than a century and a half ago.
The approximately 150,000 horses that lived and worked in the city in the 1870s literally moved everything required to keep the city going, and in return, they were treated like machines. They lived on average two and a half years. In 1880, horses died in the streets at the rate of 41 each day. The biggest source of horse abuse was the trolley cars, typically overloaded with commuters and pulled by two-horse teams in all kinds of weather. It was the drivers (also called teamsters), stable managers, and corporate owners of this mass transit industry who were the main culprits in this abuse.
Right from the start, Bergh knew he needed enforcement powers. One week after the state legislature granted Bergh a charter for the ASPCA, he succeeded, with the help of influential friends and the press, in getting an anticruelty law passed that granted the organization the authority to arrest abusers. And it worked. His agents developed a reputation for arresting drivers caught in the act of abusing their horses, and hauling those drivers to court. The more New Yorkers became aware that ASPCA agents were out patrolling the streets, and that those who were arrested were often being prosecuted, the better treatment New York City horses received.
In the 20th century, horses were outnumbered and replaced by automobiles, and the carriage-horse industry eventually became a tourist attraction, selling rides to visitors. The responsibility for enforcing the laws concerning the care of the horses came to be shared by multiple city agencies, in addition to the ASPCA. But in 2013, citing insufficient staffing and resources, the ASPCA disbanded its Humane Law Enforcement Division, leaving the NYC Department of Health, the Transportation and Parks departments, and the NYPD to pick up the slack.
Christina Hansen—TWU shop steward, carriage driver, and defender of the carriage tourist industry—claims to know the history of horses in New York City. She’s often interviewed in the media after a horse has fallen ill, collapsed, run into or gotten hit by a car, or met with another tragedy. On August 26, in a WNYC radio segment on the collapse of Ryder, she described New York as being “a city built by horses.” But history proves her wrong: It is a city built by horse abuse.
Hansen stated, “Anybody who has actually worked with horses knows that they have to give their consent to do anything you ask them to do,” adding, “The carriage horses do this happily,” implying that if the treatment of the horses weren’t humane, the horses would simply refuse to work. But sick, weak, beleaguered horses don’t refuse to work. They collapse. Just like Ryder collapsed.
A fallen horse passed out in the middle of a busy NYC street brings traffic to a halt just as surely today as it did in the mid-to-late 19th century. Ryder, lying with his legs curled under him, McKeever jerking the reins and allegedly flogging him to get up, is practically the spitting image of the logo of the ASPCA, designed by Bergh himself. The only thing missing is the angel hovering overhead, one hand raised to stop the beating, the other hand ready with a drawn sword.
In July, Council Member Holden proposed legislation to transition horse-drawn carriages to vintage-inspired electric vehicles by 2024. It’s not yet been announced when a vote will take place, but already 14 council members have signed on to the bill. Still more will need to boldly stand up for the horses to finally bring New York City’s horse-drawn carriage era to an end.
After centuries of abuse, maybe Bergh’s angels will finally have triumphed. ❖
Tracy Basile’s career in writing about animals began when she was features editor for the ASPCA’s magazine, Animal Watch. Her work has appeared in Orion, WeAnimals Media, Animal Watch, Animal Welfare Institute Quarterly, and Spirituality & Health. She recently received a grant from the Animals & Culture Foundation for a forthcoming book on American history and teaches writing at St. Thomas Aquinas College. She lives in New York’s Hudson Valley.
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