Tourists and residents alike have taken in the beauty of New York’s Central Park from horse-drawn carriages since 1858 when President James Buchanan was beginning his second year in the White House.

In the 156 years that have passed, New York City tourists still take tours in leather and felt-lined hansom cabs that often are driven by men and women adorned in top hats and coats. Despite its popularity, newly inaugurated Mayor Bill de Blasio vows to put an end to the tradition.

“We are going to quickly and aggressively move to make horse carriages no longer a part of the landscape in New York City,” he said during a Dec. 30 news conference. “They’re not humane. They’re not appropriate to the year 2014. It’s over. So just watch us do it now.”

While legislation has yet to be introduced, de Blasio’s declaration stirred a hornet’s nest among activists on both sides of the issue. Advocates of the industry say the horses receive outstanding care. Organizations such as New Yorkers for Clean Livable and Safe Streets claim the horses are abused and imprisoned within “tiny stalls.”

“The cramped space doesn’t allow these enormous animals to lie down or to move about freely,” according to NYCLASS. “Nor are they afforded any turn-out or pasture time that equine veterinarians agree is needed for horses to live healthy lives.”

Carriage horses within the city are protected by the most comprehensive set of laws of their kind in the country, according to the Horse and Carriage Association of New York. New York City Administrative Code Title 17, Chapter 3, Subchapter 3, mandates that the horses must be housed in stalls that are 60 square feet or larger, allow them to turn around and safely lay down within the stall. To enforce this law, the stables are subject to inspection at any time by city officials, law enforcement, veterinarians and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

During an unannounced inspection in December of Clinton Park Stables on 52nd Street, Dr. Stephen O’Grady of Northern Virginia Equine found that the stalls were not cramped.

“I went to every stall,” he says. “They can get up. They can lie down. They can turn around. It is not fined whatsoever. In other words, it’s not inappropriate for these style horses.”

In addition, city law mandates 5 weeks of vacation at a stable that allows daily access to paddock or pasture turn out. The roughly 220 licensed carriage horses are sent to farms in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and upstate New York for a minimum of 5 weeks, according to the Horse and Carriage Association of New York. Records must be maintained to prove the vacation time was received.

Carriage horses also are examined by a veterinarian two to four times a year, and must be appropriately trimmed and shod.

“The farriery on the horses was very, very good,” says O’Grady, who was a farrier for 10 years before earning his veterinary medicine degree and maintains a practice devoted to therapeutic farriery. “One of the biggest things that keep these horses sound is what you do with their footcare. We made some recommendations that were carried out straight away, and in a very good manner.”

Aaron Hoover, a Lancaster County, Pa., farrier, shoes about 40% of all of the carriage horses in the city. He chuckles at the mention of allegations of abuse and cruelty by animal-rights activists.

Aaron Hoover, a Lancaster County, Pa., farrier, rasps the 
clinches while finishing shoeing Vasco, a New York City 
carriage horse. Hoover, who has been shoeing for 9 years, 
provides farriery for about 40% of all of the carriage horses 
in the city. 

“I think the horses get treated better than I do,” Hoover says. “There’s a law that every horse gets 5 weeks of vacation. They’re not allowed to work when the temperature is above 89 degrees or below 19 degrees. I’m lucky if I get 1 week of vacation a year.”

While the law requires that the stables and stalls must be clean and dry, O’Grady was surprised to the extent that workers carried out that mandate.

“When you walk into stables, a lot of times they’ll have a smell to them,” says the International Equine Veterinarian Hall Of Fame member. “In other words, they smell like a barn. They smell like horses. They smell like horse manure. During my visit, when you walked into this place, there was no smell whatsoever.”

As anyone who spends any significant amount of time in a barn, this is no easy feat, O’Grady says.

“You could not get the smell out of there in a week to 10 days if you tried,” he says. “This is just another indication as to the conditions and cleanliness in which these horses are housed.”

Oscar-nominated actor Liam Neeson has taken the leading role in advocating for the horse carriages.

“These horses are well-cared for,” he told about a dozen City Council members March 9 during a tour of Clinton Park Stables. “It’s a connection with our past, it’s a connection with our history.”

De Blasio, who did not attend the tour despite an invitation from Neeson, wants to replace the horse carriages with a fleet of replica antique-style electric cars. Should the carriages be banned, de Blasio proposes that the 300 licensed out-of-work hansom cab drivers would be given the opportunity to get behind the wheel of the cars.

“That’s exactly what New York needs, more cars,” Neeson scoffs. “This experiment has been tried with electric cars in San Francisco. [It] failed abysmally.”

De Blasio’s proposal does little to assuage Hoover’s concerns. If the city outlaws carriage horses, he will be left to fill the void after the city wipes out half of his entire clientele.

“Yeah, I’ll pretty much be between a rock and a hard place,” he says. “I guess I’ll have to find customers around my home.”

Neeson is not alone in his opposition to banning horse-drawn carriages in New York. Quinnipiac University polled registered New York City voters from March 12-17 and found that 64% were opposed to a ban of horse-drawn carriages.

“On an issue that has generated an immense amount of interest — with celebrities speaking loudly on both sides — voters reject almost 3-1 Mayor de Blasio’s opposition to horse-drawn carriages,” says Quinnipiac University Poll Assistant Director Maurice Carroll.

In a poll of its members, the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce reported March 10 that 76% were against the proposed ban.

“If this is overwork for a horse, I don’t know what the jumpers do that I see every day,” O’Grady says. “I mean, if I had my choice and I were a horse, I wouldn’t mind being in this situation. You go out and smell the roses and kids are putting flowers on you every day.”

In the upcoming May/June issue of American Farriers Journal, master farrier Jerry Trapani goes to the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan where he discusses the challenges of shoeing New York City’s carriage horses with farrier Aaron Hoover.