NY carriage horses: when does burden become abuse?

| 16 August 2014 8:06 am
John Blackburn

John Blackburn

Renowned equestrian architect and author John Blackburn takes a stand on the controversial issue of carriage horses in cities. 

New York, along with metropolitan areas like Philadelphia, Salt Lake City and Chicago are at a turning point concerning the value of carriage horses and if they have a place in cities today. Similar to the arguments surrounding the Arabbers in Baltimore, there is a wave of controversy surrounding the issue in NYC.

At the eye of the storm is New York Mayor Bill De Blasio, who is in favor of eliminating the $19 million industry. He is supported by animal rights activists and groups like NYCLASS and the ASPCA who argue that the conditions are inhumane for horses in the city. Antique car rides or horseless “e-carriages” have been suggested as a safe and cost efficient replacement.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, some consider carriage horses in the city as a staple that should remain unchanged because of its roots in tradition and tourist draw. It is looked at as an integral part of the city’s community and heritage.

Throughout his research, Blackburn, who has designed more than 160 horse farms and wrote the book Healthy Stables by Design, was disappointed to find that the controversy has often been skewed to fit the separate and irrelevant agendas of those detached from the heart of the issue – equine welfare. Like any political matter, the heated debates had hatched a new breed of conflict.

“I found that the responses and letters to the editors became more of a soapbox for libertarian issues, conservative and liberal politics, socialism and every other political persuasion,” said Blackburn of the cyber war he had discovered.

Carriage horses can be exposed to harsh conditions.

Carriage horses can be exposed to harsh conditions. © Lesekreis

“Readers showed very little concern for the horses or the focus of the article.  After 30 years designing equine facilities that promote the health and safety of horses and as illustrated in my book, I am clearly an advocate for the horse.”

Somewhere in between a tourist and a resident, Blackburn is no stranger to New York. From the time-share he owns and in which he spends part of every year, to the pro bono work he has done to draft plans for a city and horse-friendly equestrian center, he is quite familiar with the tasks of horses in the city. As a prominent figure and proponent of the well-being of the horse, his perspective is based not on the city’s economics, jobs, tourism, or history, but solely on the horses.

As supported by countless equestrians and veterinarians, Blackburn does not believe the act of pulling a carriage to be inhumane. However, he does believe the current system in New York is. He argues that there is a clear place for horse carriages, but the dangerously hectic city streets are not that haven.

“During my visits I am always saddened watching these animals standing amongst polluting vehicles in traffic or waiting on the curb for patrons without the option of lying down to rest if tired,” said Blackburn. “I guess it is the history of horse drawn carriages that attracts riders and they are perhaps unaware that these animals are sentient beings who suffer the same way we do. Humans have domesticated horses for centuries and though they have historically been used as cart horses, there is a difference between what ‘burden’ is acceptable and when ‘burden’ becomes abuse.”

Unlike many of his fellow opponents of the current industry, he passionately believes that the answer is not to abolish it in total. “My goal is to increase equine activity in the park, not to limit or eliminate it,” Blackburn says.

“During my visits I am always saddened watching these animals standing amongst polluting vehicles in traffic or waiting on the curb for patrons without the option of lying down to rest if tired.”
John Blackburn

He proposes that a set of stables be established in Central Park. One to house working carriage and trail horses and another to provide a safe, unified space for patrons to pursue equine related activities. The stables could be adapted from suitable, existing structures and one could become the hub to equine affairs in the city.

Though he is aware that there are many more carriage horses working than can be housed within the park, he feels they could continue their current routine of rotating in and out of duty and returning to their permanent stables while on extended breaks (provided that the current permanent stables are safe and healthy environments for the horses).

Besides providing the basic necessities and care for on-duty horses through Central Park stabling, Blackburn also suggests expanding the current trail routes, reinstating horseback riding, designating lanes for equine use and limiting public equine activities to Central Park. If implemented, these limitations would remove carriage horses from the streets altogether and revitalize the park’s equestrian draw. Blackburn hopes a central stabling area designed for public equine interaction would also include a space for carriage horses to safely and comfortably wait for prospective patrons on ground covering more suitable to the needs of the horse.

Of course, plans like this would be years in the making because of historical, environmental and recreational departments who rightfully have their own agenda for Central Park. Blackburn is confident that preservation and protection of both the park and carriage horses can be effectively merged with time. Unifying the two legacies without sacrificing the authenticity of either would create a utopia for the hard working carriage horse, the history lover and tourist alike.

“There is nothing inhumane about the existence of horse carriages when treated properly and appropriately placed,” Blackburn said. “But just because they pulling carriages doesn’t mean they should be subjected to a live-or-die-trying situation. My concern is that horses standing for long hours on hard surfaces whether it be on the city streets or in a barn aisle or wash stall is abusive treatment. If these practices are replaced by creating a regulated safe haven for these animals within the safety of Central Park and off of the public streets, then I will be a major supporter.”

A carriage horse at work near Carnegie Hall in New York.

A carriage horse at work near Carnegie Hall in New York.
© John Manuel


John Blackburn serves as the President and Senior Principal of Blackburn Architects, a Washington, D.C., firm. He has 35 years of expertise in architecture and 30 years of work focusing specifically on equestrian architecture with more than 160 horse farm designs to his credit. His award-winning work is widely known for its beauty, functionality and sustainability.

Blackburn has built facilities for racing, polo, dressage, hunters and jumpers and quarter horses in a variety of climates and evolving site conditions and he has been featured in dozens of equestrian, architecture and luxury lifestyle publications.

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Comments (13)

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  1. David says:

    Great intentions but how can he expect the city to subsidize millions for a private industry that benefits only a handful of owners. It is time to end the cruelty sooner than later. Park is crowded already, there is no room for horse stable. Please end the abuse.

  2. John Royce says:

    On the other hand, THIS is great and something to support:

    “He proposes that a set of stables be established in Central Park. One to house working carriage and trail horses and another to provide a safe, unified space for patrons to pursue equine related activities.

    • Jil Derryberry says:

      So, do the racing, polo, and high-level dressage and show jumping horses Mr. Blackburn designs luxury stables for have the option of “lying down to rest” if they become tired during the course of a day of high-level equine competition? Please be aware the anti-carriage brigade led by PETA has already come out firmly AGAINST eventing and racing; ALL equine sports are at risk of the same abuse the carriage-horse industry in NYC now endures. And, yes, I do live in NYC.

    • Jil Derryberry says:

      Mr. Royce — A lovely idea, yes, but the anti-carriage groups (PETA, NYCLASS, Friends of Animals) have already established that they want NO compromises made in this matter. They want the horses to be forcibly retired and OUT of NYC, full stop.

  3. Sarah Chase says:

    Very thoughtful.

  4. Laura McFarland-Taylor says:

    Gee, Mr. Blackburn, an architect who builds equine stables, thinks stables should be built in Central Park. How incredibly self-serving.

    To say that I am disappointed in Mr. Blackburn is an understatement. On several occasions I have provided him with factual, verifiable information that refutes many of his contentions. If he chooses to project his own feelings on the carriage horses, fine, but he cannot pretend that those feelings are based on facts – they are not.

    The air quality of NYC is quite good. According to the American Lung Association’s “State of the Air” report (http://www.stateoftheair.org/), New York County, NY (i.e., Manhattan) has better air quality than Lancaster County, PA (Amish country) or Hunterdon County, NJ (horse country). And let’s not forget that people and other animals, such as the Mounted Police, are also “standing amongst polluting vehicles in traffic”.

    In addition, the veterinarians cited by the anti-carriage crowd as supporting a ban have not actually examined the carriage horses and some are not even equine vets. The equine veterinarians that have examined these horses have all found them to be in excellent health – you can read their reports here: http://bit.ly/198JNAd and here: http://bit.ly/OytR12

    Further, many of the equestrians the anti-carriage crowd claims support a ban have asked to be removed from their list – Doug Payne being one of the most recent (http://bit.ly/Xpsgj5).

    His comment about the carriage horses don’t have “the option of lying down to rest if tired” is simply ludicrous and tells me he does not know much about horses, regardless of how many stables he has built. Additionally, this statement, “My concern is that horses standing for long hours on hard surfaces whether it be on the city streets or in a barn aisle or wash stall is abusive treatment.” is equally worthy of disdain. Asphalt has give – ask any runner why they prefer running on asphalt – and many horsemen leg up their horses on asphalt since it actually strengthens the horses’ legs. And, again, equine veterinarians that have examined these horses have all found them to be in excellent health.

    Oh, and by the way, the horses would still be walking on asphalt even if stables were built in the park and they still would not have the “the option of lying down to rest if tired” while working.

  5. gypsyrose says:

    Mr Blackburn may know how to build a stable, and he may not have an objection to a horse working for a living, but he doesn’t know much about horses themselves. Horses are prey animals.They spend most of their life standing up. They are able to sleep while standing. They will only lie down when they feel totally safe, and don’t usually stay down very long.
    The idea of building a stable or utilizing existing buildings in the park is not practical from several standpoints.
    The carriage horses are in good health under current conditions. Do-gooders need to just leave them alone, and should concentrate on helping other horses that are truly in need.

  6. John Royce says:

    “end the cruelty, but no the horses can’t be there, end the abuse…”

    It isn’t a horse lover who made the comment “David” made … having horses in a 700+ acre historic park originally made for them would have some value.

  7. Barbara Grimaldi says:

    His ideas are workable compromises, as I do not believe DiBlasio will be able to eliminate the horses entirely–which, to me, is tragedy–those horses live tragically every day and night. No mercy. I am for total elimination, but the jobs complaint will always occur. If the mayor did go for this compromise solution, do you think New Yorkers of all stripes will agree that he could spend millions on horses rather than hospitals or infrastructure repair or schools or police or fire fighters? I would love to think they would support this humane concept, but my experience with horse abusers and users tells me that this will never happen. I have seen these horses over the years. They suffer and often die in the streets, and their so-called barns are horrid places. NYC is not concerned about animals, except for those who can make money for their owners and add to the tax flow. My heart breaks for these horses…and we have picketed and marched and complained and begged to have them released–to no avail. If visitors knew this about these horses’ lives, and knew that the drivers of these carriages have questionable backgrounds and no real horse experience, I think they would boycott the rides.

    • gypsyrose says:

      Apparently no one told the horses themselves that they have tragic lives. They seem pretty content with their circumstances. Experienced horsemen and veterinarians have all testified to that. It seems to me the one with no real horse experience is you. I’ve owned horses for 38 yrs and operate a small boarding stable. What about you?

    • Jil Derryberry says:

      Barbara — regarding “the so-called barns are horrid places” — each stable was designed and built to be used AS A STABLE in the pre-car era. NOT ONE was ever used as an apartment building, as has been falsely claimed. They have been modernized with box stalls large enough for a draft horse to lie down in — yes, I do have photos — sprinkler systems, and automatic waterers of the type found in high-end stables. Have you actually visited any one of NYC’s four stables yourself recently?

    • Sandy Wallis says:

      Any horse who is well fed and well cared for, gets regular exercise, is in daily contact with other horses, and is doing work that he or she is well-suited to is not leading a “tragic” life.

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