Stephen Malone is a city-slicked John Grady, driving his black and plumed horse in loops around Central Park. After decades in the business, Malone has a relationship with his horse that he finds hard to explain — he knows his horse’s mannerisms and mood, and the beast in turn has adjusted to the rhythm of the city and his owner, moving in sync with traffic lights. Yet Malone’s career may soon be cut short, thanks to New York City’s new mayor.
“We are going to get rid of horse carriages, period,” Bill de Blasio said Monday. “We are going to quickly and aggressively move to make horse carriages no longer a part of the landscape. . . . They are not humane. They are not appropriate for the year 2014. It’s over. So, just watch us do it.”
The city council would have to pass the ban, which would face immediate legal challenge from carriage drivers, many of whom have built their own small businesses with their horses and buggies.
Malone owns his own carriage and two horses, and uses his earnings to support his wife and three kids. His father, an Irish immigrant, drove horses in Central Park before him, teaching his son the trade from age 9. Before that, four generations of Malone’s family worked as blacksmiths in Ireland, “so you can say horses are in my blood,” he says.
“I’m a New Yorker — I don’t scare easy,” Malone adds. “But don’t get me wrong. Any time it’s not in your hands, it’s scary. . . . What it would mean to me personally would be the end of my lineage. It would be unconstitutional, un-American to steal my business, to take my horse away from me. And I’m 44, been doing this for 26 years. That pretty much makes me unemployable for anything else.”
Malone may fare poorly if de Blasio gets his way, but his horse could fare even worse.
Horses are expensive — with food and boarding, they can cost thousands a month — so they’re particularly vulnerable in the bad economy. And a horse’s unemployment crisis can have deadly implications; the fact that no slaughterhouses are currently in operation in the United States, far from preventing horse deaths, has resulted in the outsourcing of slaughter for animals that have become too pricey for their owners. Up to 100,000 American horses are shipped to their demise in Mexico and Canada each year.
“A lucky horse is a horse with a job and a purpose,” Malone explains. Central Park’s tourism circuit employs about 200 horses. If the industry were banned, these horses would be jeopardized, and even if their high profile won them a new pasture home, they’d almost certainly displace other horses around the country, causing more slaughters — a fact acknowledged by de Blasio’s predecessor.
Contrary to popular belief, the Central Park horses are well cared for, says Christina Hansen, a Central Park carriage driver and the founder of Blue Star Equiculture, a nonprofit group that helps provide for and pasture homeless and retired horses.
The horse-carriage industry faces some of the most rigorous regulations of any industry in the city, Hansen says. Right now, five separate city agencies monitor operations, as does the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The four barns in Manhattan that house the horses feature roomy stalls, 24-hour staff, and multiple protections against fire. Regulations require horses to spend no more than nine hours on the clock. They must be blanketed in the cold and raincoated in a storm, and carriage rides are suspended when the temperature rises above 90. Horses are required to have at least two veterinary exams a year, though most get four. And each horse is guaranteed at least five weeks’ vacation in a pasture each year.
Nevertheless, animal-rights groups have alleged mistreatment, and their supporters have substituted good intentions for facts. Fearing the end of their livelihood, Central Park’s carriage drivers are already gearing up for a legal battle, citing the protections for property contained in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.
De Blasio has suggested that the horse carriages, which have been an iconic Central Park attraction since 1858, should be replaced with electric cars. Hansen says that would be comparable to allowing teetotalers to shutter all of New York City’s bars, then forcing the owners to replace them with Starbucks frachises.
“It can’t be constitutional for the government to shut down an industry because a few small, politically connected groups with a lot of money don’t like us,” Hansen says.
— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.