Let data drive horse decisions

A horse carriage tour traveling downton in September, 2011. ( Leroy Burnell/postandcourie )

It wouldn’t be fair to suggest that City Hall has ignored people’s concerns about horse-drawn carriages. More than a decade ago, it spent three years studying the issue and developing guidelines for the industry, and recently it has doubled down on oversight.

But neither would it be fair to turn a deaf ear to critics who believe carriage horses are not adequately protected by those guidelines. The city received about 50 complaints in June and July, as Charleston suffered through record-breaking heat.

So Dan Riccio, who became director of the Department of Livability and Tourism in December, is forming a committee to consider those concerns anew. Wisely, his first two priorities are to discern how hot it should be when horses drawing carriages are brought in out of the heat, and how heavy a load horses should pull.

Animal lovers have pointed to both as areas of concern. At present, horses are brought in when the temperature reaches 98 degrees. Charleston and Savannah, which use the same standard, have the highest approved heat limits in the country. Mr. Riccio said some cities, including New York City, call in horses when the temperature reaches 90 degrees.

And while city regulations here limit the weight of the loads that horses pull, those loads are not weighed as such. The city has records of the weight of each horse, mule and carriage, and it allows ample additional weight for passengers.

After addressing those two questions, Mr. Riccio says his committee will take on others.

The committee’s diversity should help convince the public that findings will be credible. Mr. Riccio is including a meteorologist, city staff, people from the carriage industry, neighbors and a representative from the Charleston Animal Society, a longtime critic of city carriage regulations.

They should be instructed to make recommendations based on solid scientific data. And if those data show that carriage horses need more protections, the city should waste no time making necessary changes.

But if data — irrefutable data — indicate that the present rules are working just fine, or that tweaking the regulations will resolve problems, animal lovers should be prepared to accept those findings, even if they have personal objections to horses working at all.

Horse-drawn carriages have been part of the Charleston scene for generations. They are on the must-do list for many visitors.

Charleston isn’t the only city where animal activists are unhappy. They have tried to shut down the horse-and-carriage industry in New York City. It appears they will be successful in doing just that in Melbourne, Australia.

Meanwhile, however, Alton, Ill., and Big Bear Lake, Calif., have approved horse-drawn carriages in their cities. Branson, Mo., is allowing additional carriage routes.

In Charleston, carriage debates are over more than the horses’ health: the benefit of jobs versus the impediment to traffic; the appeal for tourists versus the frustration of people who live and work on the peninsula.

All are worthy topics to consider — after the committee deals with the job at hand: ensuring that the horses and mules that pull the carriages are sufficiently protected against the heat.