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Video of a grounded horse in Central Park has reignited debate over the future of horse carriage rides in New York — with carriage drivers and opponents of the practice gearing up for a new battle.
Carriage horses work in Central Park, but live in Hell’s Kitchen — at both the Clinton Stables on W52nd between 11th and 12th Avenues, and W38th Street between 10th and 11th Avenue, opposite the Javits Center. But while some locals enjoy seeing the workhorses commute to their posts in the park, others argue it is high time to end the New York tradition, in place since before the Civil War.
The clip, shared by New Yorkers for Clean, Livable, and Safe Streets (NYCLASS), shows a carriage horse named Luciana on the ground and being pulled up by two men. According to Executive Director of NYCLASS Edita Birnkrant, a tourist reported the video to a PETA hotline, and the animal welfare watchdog group passed it on to NYCLASS. The widely circulated video has sparked outrage among animal advocates and local City Council Members — whose votes have the power to determine the 164-year-old industry’s future.
“This cruelty has no place in a modern society. It’s time to end this practice in New York City, once and for all,” tweeted District 3 City Council Member Erik Bottcher, whose area covers the West Side stables.
Former Manhattan Borough President and current City Council Member Gale Brewer (whose district covers Central Park) also tweeted: “I am horrified by the video circulating of a horse being abused by a handler in Central Park after it collapsed. I have been in touch with DOHMH’s Bureau of Animal Affairs and they are investigating. I have supported efforts to regulate this industry and protect horses.”
In a tweet, New York State Assemblymember Linda B Rosenthal said: “Animal cruelty has no place in New York City. Time and time again, we have seen carriage horses injured and abused on our streets. In 2011, I introduced legislation to ban carriage horses in NYC. Clearly, the industry remains just as cruel today.”
But fierce debate raged over the length and context of the video. NYCLASS alleged that it took place over the course of an hour — a claim contested by Christina Hansen, spokesperson for Central Park carriage drivers and herself a driver. W42ST was given a copy of the original video, which lasts 56 seconds — and has not discovered any other film record of the incident despite extensive online research.
“I actually drove by, I knew this was going on,” said Hansen. “You can see me in the video driving past with a white buggy and the spotted horse. The whole thing was two to three minutes at most.”
While many assumed the horse was being forced up to work, Hansen explained the animal was being treated for a medical emergency due to colic, a form of gastrointestinal distress that is “the most common kind of ailment that a horse can have.”
“It is the leading cause of death of horses besides old age,” said Hansen. “Horse people live our whole lives worrying about colic — fortunately our horses very rarely get it, because of the way we manage our animals here in the city, but this particular horse was out on her first day at the park being trained and this happened immediately upon her arrival at the park. Her owner and another driver, a long time carriage driver, who both have decades of experience in the carriage business, did everything they were supposed to do to save her life and get her to veterinary treatment.”
Hansen said getting a horse with colic off of the ground is critical, because without treatment the animals are at risk of a twisted or impacted bowel that can kill.
Other trainers disagreed with the method used by the drivers to stand the horse up. Kim Clouse, owner of North Jersey Equestrian told W42ST via NYCLASS: “I’ve been a horse trainer and instructor for 25 years. Under no circumstance is it OK to kick, pull the tail or pull the head of a horse that is down and in distress. The correct procedure would be to comfort the horse and gently try and coax her to her feet. This horse was in obvious distress, and kicking and pulling on her was not going to alleviate her distress, only increase it.”
Hansen countered that the video does not depict either the driver or the owner kicking the horse, and that pulling a horse’s tail to get them up is necessary in emergency circumstances.
“By hanging onto her tail, you keep her from rolling all the way over, which could cause a twist in her guts,” said Hansen. “It also keeps her from shimmying around to the point that when the trailer arrives, you’re not gonna be able to get her up and on the trailer because now her feet are pointed uphill and she’s stuck — so that’s what he’s doing”. Luciana was quickly treated for the condition, is fully recovered and now doing well, she added.
The video also raised questions about veterinarian Dr Camilo Sierra, who is assigned to care for Central Park horses. Dr Sierra, who Hansen says was called to the scene to assist Luciana, has faced suspension by the New York State Education Department for previously prescribing Albuterol to a horse without proper examination of the animal.
“We’re disappointed that this city would allow a vet like this to have any kind of credibility,” said Birnkrant. “Dr Sierra has a history of illegal, harmful behavior to horses. As of now, there has not been any other vet to check out this horse. It seems as if the city is just relying on his approval that this horse is okay, but we do not. We do not take anything that he says seriously at this point, because he is a disgraced veterinarian.”
Birnkrant also cited a 2020 incident in which Central Park horse Aysha collapsed and later died of polysaccharide storage myopathy, a genetic disease in horses that effects how food is converted to energy and stored in the muscles. Dr Sierra was consulted on the case and stated that the horse’s death was not due to neglect or abuse. Birkrant and NYCLASS argue the disease should have been caught with proper genetic screening.
NYCLASS is calling for Dr Sierra’s removal as the veterinarian to the Central Park carriage horses as well as a ban on horse carriages. In a rally on Thursday, Birnkrant stated, “We want this vet removed from ever looking at another horse, and we also want Speaker Adrienne Adams to get these horses off of the streets.”
Hansen said that this was the first she had heard of any allegations against Dr Sierra and couldn’t comment on the specifics of the 2016 incident, adding: “This is related to the gaming commission, has nothing to do with our horses, Dr Sierra’s vet license or his ability to practice veterinary medicine.” Hansen also noted that there is another vet who treats the carriage horses, Dr Dennis Farrell.
While 26 of the 51 New York City Council members would need to vote in favor of banning the practice to move forward, Birnkrant argued that public support for a ban was picking up pace. Former Mayor Bill DeBlasio promised a ban on his first day in office, which, as of nine years later, has yet to materalize. However, in 2019 the City Council approved the Carriage Horse Heat Relief Bill, which bans horses from working in high temperatures as determined by the equine heat index.
“We have some support in the Council,” said Birnkrant. “We’ve had two council members retweet it —Council Member Bob Holden and Council member Kristen Richardson Jordan both saying, ‘We need to ban this already.’ We have had a lot of verbal and behind the scenes support from council members who agree that this needs to end. We need to find a way to phase these horses off of the streets.”
Hansen countered that not everyone’s interest in the issue was tied to animal welfare. “It’s not about the horses. It’s whether or not the stables are in the way of real estate development,” she said. “It would be more convenient for the real estate developers [to purchase the space].”
She argued that horses looked after by Central Park carriage drivers receive better care than most. “The average horse population in America does not have 24-hour a day care. They’re left unattended for long stretches overnight and even long stretches during the day.”
Hansen added: “Horses are domesticated. They’re highly adapted to an urban environment, because there’d be no New York City without them — they’ve been living on the island of Manhattan since 1625. Our horses get all the hay they can eat and plenty of exercise, a lot more appropriate exercise than most other horses. They are attacking horse people for helping the horse deal with a medical issue that is not unusual to have, despite all the best care in the world — they don’t actually care about the horses. This is about an ideology that on the one hand seeks to remove humans from animals and animals from humans.”
Birnkrant says it is time to move past the practice, which other metropolitan areas already consider outdated. “Many cities have outright banned horse carriages. There is a worldwide trend of evolving away from the 19th century tradition to a 21st century tradition of either getting them off the streets altogether or replacing carriages with a 21st century electric version that does not create a safety hazard and abuse horses,” she said.
“We cannot keep waiting for more carriage horses to crash into cars, collapse in traffic, run out of control, and injure tourists. New York City is a progressive city but as of now we’re far behind on this issue,” she added.
Until the City Council reaches a consensus, however, it appears that the fight will rage on between those who believe horse carriages are an essential New York tradition, and those who view them as a problematic relic of the past. For now, we will keep seeing the horses on their nightly commute back to their Hell’s Kitchen stables.