Charleston's carriage operators say they've had enough of the "Just Say Neigh" billboards on one of the region's busiest stretches of highway.

The latest version, which is visible to drivers and passengers on I-26 coming toward Charleston near Dorchester Road, equates a horse pulling 17 passengers in 95-degree heat with animal abuse. It was put up by Charleston Carriage Horse Advocates.

Carriage rides are a major attraction in a historic city that's been named the nation's top tourist destination by several travel magazines. The city counts about 40,000 carriage tours a year, with up to 20 carriages being on the streets at any one time in the spring and summer. A city ordinance regulates how the tours are conducted.

+4 
Just Say Neigh

This billboard tells drivers on I-26 heading toward Charleston near Dorchester Road to "Just Say Neigh" to Charleston's carriage horse rides. Brad Nettles/Staff

Representatives of three Charleston carriage companies gathered in Palmetto Carriage Works' Big Red Barn near the City Market early Tuesday to call on the public to persuade the group to take down the sign. The other two companies were Charleston Carriage Works and Old South Carriage Co.

Tommy Doyle, general manager of Palmetto Carriage Works, called the billboard "false and misleading" and "an embarrassment to Charleston."

First of all, he said, the animals don't work in 95-degree heat; the city ordinance requires them to be recalled to the stables when it gets that hot. 

Secondly, Doyle added, the weight limit that the city sets is only half of the animals' capacity, so they're not under any great strain.

"The work our animals do in these conditions is considered light exercise for the type of animals that we use," he said. "It’s not near their full capacity and certainly not abuse."

Veterinarian Dr. Justin Miller said he has never heard of a horse or mule being treated for heat exhaustion in his 13 years in Charleston.

"The kind of work they are doing is nothing for them," he said. "This is very easy compared to what they are capable of doing."

"The misinformation campaign coming from the Charleston Animal Society and their political groups is an embarrassment to Charleston," he said. “So today we are calling on the Animal Society and their affiliated groups, including the Charleston Horse Advocates, to take down this deliberately inaccurate billboard and tone down their hateful rhetoric."

Charleston Carriage Works recently sued the Animal Society, Charleston Carriage Horse Advocates and founder Ellen Harley for defamation. The case is in its early stages.

Harley said it was "no coincidence" that the news conference came shortly after her attorneys challenged the lawsuit for lack of evidence.

“The press conference today is simply yet another example of desperation by the industry to shut down any discussion on the working conditions of these animals,” she said. “No carriage animal should be required to pull that many people, especially in a hot, urban environment. The fact that the carriage operators believe the animals' current conditions is just ‘light exercise’ … shows exactly how the industry feels working animals can be treated.”

Charleston Animal Society CEO Joe Elmore called the press conference "yet another attempt to distract the public from the real issues."

The Animal Society did not put up the billboards but it "will continue to advocate for reforms lowering the temperature, lightening the loads, lessening the spooking of horses in the urban environment and ensuring full compliance and enforcement of the laws," Elmore said. "The carriage industry’s misleading press conferences and lawsuits will not stop us from doing so."

Reach Dave Munday at 843-937-5553.