The enduring horse and carriage industry: An asphalt paved death sentence?

Madeleine Delp Bergsjø

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In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio could bring a quick death sentence to the horse and carriage industry in Manhattan, ending a historic part of the city after more than 150 years of existence. The enduring tradition in Dublin goes all the way back to the seventeenth century. In 2015, frail horse legs are still pounding the hard asphalt through heavy traffic, every day, all year around. Under the slogan “we go where the buses don’t!”, about 40 horses remain to live their whole lives inhaling exhaust fumes, dodging cars and buses, far away from green, quiet pastures.

Horses and a sightseeing bus - by Madeleine Delp Bergsjø
Waiting for tourists in the rain outside the Guinness Storehouse – Photo by: Madeleine Delp Bergsjø

Over a short period in 2011, there were three serious accidents involving carriage horses in New York City. One of them involved Charlie, a white carriage horse who collapsed and died on his way to Central Park for the morning shift. The same month, another horse broke free from the carriage and escaped, running several blocks dodging traffic before being corralled by police. According to American Department of Health records, at least seven carriage horses have died while working in New York City.

Obtained accident records from NYPD, released in 2014, reveal twenty-five incidents over a five year period. Another American report reveals numerous documented cases of human and animal injures, even fatalities, as a result of the horses being exposed to an unnatural, urban environment. It is in the horse’s nature to panic and flee in unexpected or threatening situations. The survey reveals that 85 percent of all national horse and carriage accidents were the result of the horse being spooked, that 70 percent of the accidents resulted in human injury and 22 percent resulted in human death.

Major cities like Paris, London, Las Vegas, Beijing and Toronto have prohibited horse and carriages for tourism. While there are still more than 200 horses in Manhattan, there is only a small group left in Dublin, twenty of them spending their hours of rest in the stables in the grimy alleyway behind a take-away pizza place on Thomas Street.

Dublin Horse Drawn Carriages - by Madeleine Delp Bergsjø
The horses are staying warm outside the Guinness Storehouse – Photo by: Madeleine Delp Bergsjø

Today’s carriage service in Dublin is a 4th generation business, operating under an 1853 Dublin Carriage Act that does not require the owners to take out insurance and allows them to charge what they want for the carriage rides departing from their given place outside the Guinness Storehouse and the corner of St. Stephens Green.

Injuries and fatalities to both horses and humans have occurred in almost every city allowing horse and carriages, including Dublin. Under the 1996 Control of Horses Act, Dublin Corporation pursued the horse owners to get licenses. Former Teachta Dála and Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Noel Ahern, raised the matter of licensing again after a teenager drove a horse into a car causing thousands of euros worth of damage. Ahern was concerned with the damage that could involve more than a car, like a horse bolting down busy Grafton Street and causing serious injury.

Former Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, established himself as a supporter of the industry, saying it promotes tourism and that the activists who want to ban the carriage business are sending the horses to the slaughterhouse. Current Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised to remove the horse-drawn carriages and the City Council is working on a bill that would ban the lucrative tourist-industry. If it passes, the carriages will likely be replaced with electric-powered and eco-friendly antique cars, putting hundreds of people, and horses, out of business, even though the carriage drivers will be given the opportunity to obtaining licenses to the horseless carriages.

Kevil Keller and Del-Boy - by Madeleine Delp Bergsjø
Kevin Keller and Del-Boy outside the stables in Molyneaux Place – by Madeleine Delp Bergsjø

In Ireland, animal rights activists are concerned with the lack of Government legislation on the matter, wanting a welfare and safety monitoring including rules of required driver qualifications, operating hours, passenger loads and details of stabling and feeding of the horses. But there is some legislation. The owner of the stables in Molyneaux Place, Kevin Keller, told The Liberty about his biggest concern about their future: The expansion of the Luas. The Dublin City Council have set rules for where the horse-drawn carriages are to be located, giving them the choice between the Guinness Storehouse and the top of Grafton Street, right on the corner where the Luas might be extended around the corner and down Dawson Street, forcing the carriages away from the passing trade.

“Of course, it’s all regulated these days and Dublin City Council issue licenses subject to strict conditions. Now we all have to have insurance and that was initially a problem; no company would touch us when it first became mandatory […] These days we get on pretty well with DCC and the Gardaí, and Bord Fáilte (promoting tourism in Ireland) gives us backing”, Keller said.

On the one side, politicians like Bloomberg actively support the industry, being seemingly concerned about the certain death sentence a ban would bring upon the horses. On the other side, animal activists are concerned with the many health and safety risks that come with the collision of two worlds in a modern, urban environment – no matter the historic and traditional value it brings to the tourism industry.

UPDATED (THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 19th): Read part two, “The enduring horse and carriage industry: Saddled with controversy” here.

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Madeleine Delp Bergsjø