Ryder, the bay gelding who has been in the headlines since he collapsed on August 10 while pulling a carriage on a busy New York City street on a hot day, had a soft expression and a willingness to oblige. His poor condition—muscle atrophy, weakness, severe malnutrition—brought him fame just over two months before he was euthanized, on October 17, at a farm in upstate New York. What do we know about him prior to the day he fell to the ground, flat out in distress as his driver and co-owner at the time, Ian McKeever, hit him with the reins, yelling, “Get up! Get up!”? How should he be remembered?
Born in 1996 with a lineage that traces back to 18th-century England, Ryder was a handsome Standardbred colt. According to the United States Trotting Association, he competed in harness racing as a pacer from 1999 to 2002, under the name Hi Ho Cheery O. (His career was lackluster, with wins of less than $20,000 during his four years on the track.) When Ryder’s racing years were up, he was likely sold to an Amish dealer or farmer in Pennsylvania, a common practice in the industry, finding himself hitched to a buggy or a plow instead of a sulky.
Many years later, sick, at the age of 26 (the top limit for carriage horses to be licensed in NYC and the equivalent of a 90-year-old human), Ryder began working pulling a carriage in Manhattan. He had been purchased in April 2022 by two brothers in the carriage trade, Ian and Colm McKeever. According to the NYC Department of Health, Colm McKeever unlawfully falsified veterinary records, changing the horse’s age to 13 on documents he submitted. Clearly, the brothers intended to work Ryder past the legal age limit. But what they hadn’t counted on was his collapse in the middle of a busy street, his anguish shining a spotlight on a small but powerful industry that has remained largely unchanged for more than two decades.
The horses are workers too—doesn’t their situation contradict everything unions stand for, negotiating for workers’ rights and safer working conditions?
“From now on, we’re calling Intro Bill 573 ‘Ryder’s Bill,’” shouted 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, to a crowd of approximately 100 people gathered at a vigil on Tuesday at 45th Street and 9th Avenue—the exact spot where Ryder fell. The bill, introduced by Council Member Robert Holden, has garnered 4 more council members’ support since Ryder’s death, bringing the total to 18. It proposes to transition horse-drawn carriages in NYC to electric carriages by June 1, 2024, and needs only 8 more supporters to pass.
According to veterinarians who had been caring for him since he was moved to the farm upstate (and sold to the farm’s owner), Ryder had cancer, and likely more underlying ailments yet to be determined. We now know Ryder did not have EPM, an equine neurological disease that causes incoordination and muscle atrophy, as had been initially suspected but not confirmed; yet for far too long, industry spokespeople clung to this diagnosis to explain his collapse, making it sound sudden and unforeseen. On October 17, Ryder was euthanized shortly after suffering another collapse and a seizure. Forensic veterinarians at Cornell Equine Hospital, under the mandates of the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, are now performing a necropsy to learn more about his condition.
Was this neglect? Absolutely. Ryder did not get the care he needed. At his age and condition, he should never have been forced to pull a carriage through the city streets. Was it abuse? The falsification of veterinary records, the absence of veterinary care the entire time he was in NYC, and the videos of his treatment after he fell all speak volumes. Ryder’s co-owner and driver on that day, Ian McKeever, is being investigated for animal abuse by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office.
What consequences will the McKeevers face if convicted for their alleged crimes? Will they simply pay a fine? Will the public be kept informed, or will the Transit Workers Union (TWU) Local 100, which represents the carriage industry, try to smooth it over with promises of better treatment and oversight? (This from an industry operating since 1863.) The horses are workers too—doesn’t their situation contradict everything unions stand for, negotiating for workers’ rights and safer working conditions?
Just before publication of this obituary, the ASPCA gave the Voice a statement, via email, updating its position on the carriage horse industry after Ryder’s death. The previous statement, as of today still found on the organization’s website, reads, in part, “The ASPCA is not opposed to the use of horses and other equines in pulling carts and carriages for hire, provided that all of the animals’ physiological and behavioral needs are fully met.” Here is the statement the Voice received this morning:
The ASPCA is deeply saddened to learn of Ryder’s passing and we regret that he was not able to enjoy a longer retirement in greener pastures. We continue to support the Manhattan District Attorney’s active investigation by providing forensic and legal support and facilitating Ryder’s independent forensic exam and necropsy.
There’s no question that using horses to pull carriages through very busy and loud New York City streets is unsafe and an undeniable strain on the horses’ quality of life. This tragic incident demonstrates that the most humane, responsible, and sensible action is for New York to eliminate horse carriages from its streets.
Ryder’s surviving compatriots—approximately 200 big draft horses and Standardbreds—work and live under the same conditions Ryder did. In lieu of donations, concerned citizens and animal lovers can pay honor to Ryder by asking their NYC council member to co-sponsor “Ryder’s Bill” (Intro 573), so he will be remembered as the horse who helped end the abuse once and for all. ❖
Tracy Basile was features editor for the ASPCA magazine, Animal Watch. Her work has appeared in the Village Voice, Orion, WeAnimals Media, Animal Welfare Institute Quarterly, and Spirituality & Health. She lives in New York’s Hudson Valley.