Thirty two million dollars is a conservative estimate. This would be the annual revenue produced by the approximate 220 registered carriage horses based in Manhattan. Rides start at $50 for a ¾ mile tour of Central Park. Reserved rides for 45 minutes begin at $165. During peak season with add-ons, expect to pay much more. Horses work nine hours a day on the line. There are 68 licensed carriages. When you do the math, you see exactly why the carriage owners desperately want to keep their horses working for them.
The organization, Save NYC Horse Carriages, recently released a short film narrated by the actor Liam Neeson. In full support of the carriage owners and operators, what emerges from the film are essentially four themes. Each of these themes is significant and deserving of some consideration.
Neeson starts out at the very beginning of the film telling us that horses helped build the modern world. As a carriage driver later states, it was horses who built New York City. This is true. In the 19th century alone, there were tens of millions of horses working in every city, on every farm, and in every mine. They were global, everywhere you looked, and in sheer numbers that are hard to even fathom. Their work created our society and produced a level of wealth that probably can’t even be measured.
The film then goes on to describe this historical bond between humans and horses as one of companionship. This is not true. For my dissertation, I researched a four hundred year period, roughly from 1600 to the present, examining the relationships between humans and working animals. For horses and those individuals who used them for their labor, it was very rare to find any sort of friendship or companionship. It was wonderful when I did come across such things but this was the exception to rule. Whether for farmers, loggers, wagon drivers, canal boaters, coal miners, or cotton millers, their primary relationship to horses was exploitative. The attitudes ranged from indifference to hostility to sadism. This was all about work and getting it done. These above individuals were the ones who oversaw that the horses did just that. This was the rule.
The Teamsters Union has just recently come out in vocal support of the NYC carriage drivers. This is most edifying because what you probably don’t not know is that “teamsters” originally referred the teams of horses who transported the goods across the United States. It was these teams who did the work and made the profit. The drivers were middle management and their job was to get the horses to work harder, longer, and faster. In fact, the drivers’ wages were dependent upon this arrangement. It is with a strong sense of irony that the drivers would eventually choose to take the name teamsters for themselves. Sure, two horse heads were featured on the union logo but the actual horses got nothing out of the deal. They continued to work until they could no longer be productive. Their final job was to be made into glue. Significantly, the current Teamsters’ website contains a few historical photos of horses pulling wagons and such, but their history, their labor, and the wealth that they created are completely absent from mention.
This primary relationship has not changed. The NYC carriage horses do the work by pulling the tourists through Central Park and Times Square. The drivers manage this work. Their job, indeed their wages, come from making the horses work harder, longer, and faster. More rides equal more money, both for themselves and the carriage owners. This is not about companionship.
In 2007, the New York City comptroller office audited the city’s policies concerning carriage horses. It found that the city had abandoned most of its oversight duties towards the horses thus allowing the owners and drivers to maintain “substandard conditions.” The department of health, which was supposed to review and inspect the health of every horse, had not done so for a period of no less than 21 months. The audit went on to state that the horses themselves were not being provided with enough water during working hours. At the Central Park South site, for instance, there were no designate water spigots, a general lack of shade, and no proper drainage. The horses were being forced to stand in their own waste. In addition, the audit found that the owners provided “lax veterinary care” and that they were actually falsifying certificates of health. In just over a one-year period, 57 of 135 certifications were incorrect. While the horses had the same license numbers, they differed “in age, color, breed, name, and in one instance, gender.” In other words, the owners were dumping worn-out horses furtively and switching them with fresh ones. This is exploitation. It is about keeping expenses at a minimum and production levels at a maximum in order to extract the largest profit possible.
Back to the film, it speaks of continuing a tradition. Neeson has said that horses are always “at their happiest and healthiest when working.” I have heard this a lot and from many quarters. For those of you who thought that the Protestant Ethic only applied to humans, you would be most mistaken. All working animals have to deal with this ideology. Horses, sheep, cows, and pigs have long since been domesticated. They could never survive on their own. Their very existence is predicated on them working for humans. But we have to ask, is this true?
The definition of domestication itself has undergone significant changes over the centuries. Originally it meant to make a member of a household. This would slowly over time become more defined as being attached to a home and duties. Our more modern meaning, to tame or bring under control, did not come about until 1641. Interestingly, it was first applied to the Irish people, as they were brought under British imperialist control, and only much later to sheep in 1805. None of these definitions, in fact, made any distinction between humans and other animals. All were included: men, women, children, horses, cows, and sheep. The division, wherein the word only applies to non-humans, occurred very recently.
But whatever definition we choose, none of them means the removal of agency. It has been the story of my life’s work to prove this: from discovering resistance to highlighting autonomy. It’s always been there. You just have to look for it. In the Appalachians of Kentucky, wild horses can be found. In Harlan County, they have been there for decades. More towards Pikeville, newer communities are beginning to be formed. All of these horses were domesticated and lived on farms, generation after generation. But at some point, they were let go or just left behind. After the most recent economic collapse, hundreds have been abandoned. The horses, though, figure it out. They, just like their far western counterparts once did, learn to survive. They form their own communities and develop their own culture. In the Danube delta of Romania, some 4000 horses live autonomously. When the communist regime collapsed, many farmers and villagers turned their horses loose. These working horses left their plows, wagons, and carriages behind and learned how to make it on their own. Without humans, they have thrived. Indeed, for every type of domesticated animal, there exists their counterpoint: maroon communities.
Neeson concludes the film by stating that there is honor at stake. I am not sure what he means. The carriage owners and drivers, for instance, like to point out the horses get five weeks of vacation per year, wherein they are sent out of the city to pasture. This certainly sounds decent enough but there are two major problems. First, these vacations were mandated by the city in 2010, after the scandal caused by the release of the comptroller’s audit. This decision did not come from the owners or drivers. Second, I doubt the horses are even getting such a vacation. Most of NYC carriage horses are former Amish draft horses. The Amish work them through their productive years, profiting greatly off their labor. Only then do the Amish sell, or possibly lease, them to the carriage industry. During these vacation periods, many of the horses end up being sent back to the Amish—who, I would bet, are either working them even more or subleasing them out. It has been observed that when the horses return from these supposed vacations they often look thinner and more worn out than they were before they left. When the horse’s carriage-pulling days have ended, most, if not it all, will eventually find their way to a kill buyer, who will sell them for slaughter. With an annual turnover rate at a steady 30%, this is quite a few horses per year. I don’t see any honor in this. There is only avarice.
Anthropomorphizing is a political act. We are always told not to do it and from all sorts of directions. In responding to the possible ban, Harry Werner, a former president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, warned that the critics of the carriage industry are guilt of anthropomorphizing. “They see a circumstance where they wouldn’t want to work in it, and think a horse wouldn’t work in it.” I can understand this fear, for it is from such actions that class relations can develop. Carriage owners have 32 million reasons to be afraid of such a development. So to New York City Mayor de Blasio, I say stand up to the industry and its supporters like Save NYC Horse Carriages. Tell them that carriages are just instruments of labor. Instead, you’ll take the side of those who actually do the work and pull those carriages. Horses have done enough for New York City. They built it. They suffered for it. They died for it. That’s enough. Each of the registered 220 carriage horses deserves a retirement to a carefully selected sanctuary. Who will pay for it? Let the carriage owners. The horses made that money anyway. This is the definition of honor.
Jason Hribal is a historian and author of Fear of the Animal Planet: the Hidden History of Animal Resistance (CounterPunch / AK Press). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.