Why are there still carriage horses in New York City after Ryder’s collapse over the summer?
Published December 28, 2022 01:04PM EST
One of this year’s most well-known stories of animal abuse occurred in August when Ryder—an underweight and sick 26-year-old carriage horse falsely reported to be healthy and 13 years old—collapsed while pulling a carriage in Midtown Manhattan. The viral videos of the horse being whipped by its owner and hosed down by police officers brought widespread attention to a longtime animal rights issue: horses working in crowded, dangerous urban environments. (Ryder was euthanized in October after a cancer diagnosis and a seizure.)
After this incident, Intro 573—a bill proposed in September 2022 calling for banning the use of horses in the New York City carriage industry—was renamed Ryder’s Law. The bill has massive public support: According to a poll, 71% of New Yorkers are on board with making horse-drawn carriages a thing of the past. The long work hours, insufficient stable conditions, and neglectful record-keeping and regulations are all cited in the argument that the current industry is cruel and in need of modernization.
Why, then, are horses still pulling carriages in Midtown Manhattan today?
In order for Ryder’s Law to pass, 26 of the 51 New York City council members need to sign on, and as of this article’s publication date, only 18 have done so. Animal rights organizations, such as NYCLASS (New Yorkers for Clean, Livable, and Safe Streets) and Voters for Animal Rights, are currently focused on persuading council members who have verbalized support for the bill but have yet to officially sign on.
“It’s the hardest, most challenging animal right issue to tackle in New York City,” Allie Taylor, the founder and president of Voters for Animal Rights, tells Treehugger. Still, she pointed out, renewed public outrage for the treatment of carriage horses is pushing council members to pledge their support for the ban.
“Every class of council members that come up, at least since I’ve been involved, has gotten increasingly more progressive on animal rights issues,” she says. “I think Ryder’s death was a rallying cry.”
Ryder’s collapse in August is far from the only horse carriage incident in the past year. Edita Birnkrant, executive director of NYCLASS, estimates at least one accident or disturbance per month in New York City. However, she adds that it is difficult to quantify because there is no requirement to report incidents when they occur.
Past incidents in New York City alone have included collapses due to summer heat, illness, injury, exhaustion, and collisions with vehicles or bystanders. Because they are prey animals with a heightened flight response, horses are also likely to startle and run off course from loud noises in urban environments. And when this happens, as you can imagine, there are not many places for horses to take solace in the bustling streets of Manhattan.
“The blinders can only do so much,” Birnkrant tells Treehugger. “There’s so much frightening stimuli that can spook a horse at any moment, and it happens all the time. We’re not going to change the conditions of New York City to ever make it humane for these horses. So the only thing that makes sense is to modernize [the industry].”
Other areas of concern are the horses’ long work hours and their stable conditions. New York City’s government website states that carriages horses are not supposed to work more than nine hours per day and that the stable stalls must be at least 60 square feet and provide enough space for horses to turn and lie down. The horses are also given at least five weeks of “vacation” per year somewhere outside of the city with daily pasture access. But even these requirements are insufficient.
“Horses are herd animals,” notes Birnkrant. “They’re supposed to have pastures of grass, or if not grass, at the very least patches of land to move about freely to be with other horses.” Instead, the animals are “strapped to the carriage [with] no freedom of movement. Then, they return to these tiny stalls with, again, no freedom of movement. They’re denied their natural instincts.”
A Humane Solution
The carriage industry—driven by the droves of tourists that come to the city throughout the year, and especially in December—can go on without horses. In addition to phasing out carriage horses, Ryder’s Law proposes low-speed electric carriages to pick up tourists. These vehicles have already been successfully implemented in other cities that have banned horses, such as Mumbai, India, and Guadalajara, Mexico. The bill also states that carriage owners would be required to pay drivers a prevailing wage set by the Comptroller.
“[eCarriages] would provide a modern, humane, sustainable means of employment for the existing carriage drivers,” says Taylor.
This potential shift raises the question: What would become of the current carriage horses after they are banned? Ideally, sanctuaries and organizations, such as The Gentle Barn, will place retired carriage horses on farms to heal and carry out the rest of their lives. Currently, there are no retirement requirements in place for carriage horses.
“These carriage horses, when they’re rescued, they don’t even know how to be a horse,” Birnkrant says. “Like they get on grass maybe for the first time, they don’t know how to be with other horses. It takes them a while to adjust.”
While animal sanctuaries provide necessary rehabilitation and care, carriage horses should not have to work themselves sick for the benefit of the tourism industry only to heal at the very end of their lives. It is only a matter of time before the next carriage horse incident.
“[Ryder] doesn’t have to die in vain,” says Birnkrant. “His story and the outrage can help pass Ryder’s law and prevent future horses from being worked to death like he was.”
What You Can Do
If you live in New York City:
- Find and contact your NYC Council Member and urge them to co-sponsor Ryder’s Law (Intro 573) and end horse carriage abuse. The more people who call and voice their concern for the city’s carriage horses, the more likely we are to get the NYC council’s support to pass Ryder’s Law.
If you live outside of New York City:
- You can sign this petition from the Animal Legal Defense Fund against New York City’s horse carriage industry.
- Follow NYCLASS and Voters for Animal Rights to learn about events, webinars, and legislative updates.