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.
“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.”
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.”
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.