N.Y. carriages bill, film could have ripple effect

Animal rights activists say making horses and mules work in urban environments is cruel, outdated and unnecessary but equine veterinarians and carriage companies say the animals are adapted to the job and are well cared for.

This summer, the debate over New York City’s horse-drawn carriage industry will heat up again as a proposed law, introduced by Mayor Bill De Blasio in December 2014, is brought to city council for a vote.

The ripple effect of that debate likely will be felt in other tourist cities, including Charleston, where animal rights activists say the practice is cruel and outdated.

But some equine veterinarians and the general manager of the largest carriage company in the nation, Palmetto Carriage, said the industry in Charleston is not cruel and, in fact, that it saves horses and those horses live better than most.

A film, “Blinders: The truth behind the tradition,” that documented the perils that horses face in New York and has played a role in the debate there, will be shown at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Charleston County Library, located at 68 Calhoun St.

“We hope that the film will open the eyes of locals who can spread the word about the cruelty of horse-drawn carriages,” said Samantha Suiter of the Citizens for a Carriage-Free Charleston. “Carriage rides are not romantic. They are not a kind way to see our city. They are simply cruel.”

Ultimately, Suiter said the group wants to end the use of horses and mules for carriage rides in Charleston for the same reasons illustrated in the film.

“Horses are extremely sensitive to loud noises and unexpected sounds; busy city streets have plenty of both,” said Suiter, adding that horses are afforded no federal protection under the Animal Welfare Act.

“These gentle animals suffer from respiratory ailments because they breathe in exhaust fumes and they develop debilitating leg problems from walking on hard surfaces.”

Donny Moss, director of Blinders, said he was motivated to make the film after many years of walking by carriage horses.

“I found myself turning away, which felt wrong in a city where we are constantly reminded, ‘If you see something, say something,’” says Moss. “When a horse crashed into a car and died after spooking in rush hour traffic, I decided to research the issue and document my findings in a short video.”

That lead him to make the longer, 50-minute film.

“I didn’t have a strong point of view when I started making the documentary, but after hearing two large animal veterinarians explain why horse-drawn carriages cannot be operated humanely or safely in New York City, I became convinced that the ban that activists were fighting for was the right solution.”

Tommy Doyle, general manager of Palmetto Carriage, has been to New York in support of carriage operators there and seen the film, which he describes as “propaganda for the animal rights kooks.”

“The guy who made the film is an animal nut and he paints the industry in a bad light,” says Doyle.

Doyle and equine veterinarians said carriage companies save lives of older horses, typically ones that aren’t fast enough to race nor strong enough to work on a farm.

Dr. Sabrina Jacobs, equine veterinarian and owner of Performance Equine Vets in Aiken, has performed inspections on Charleston’s carriage horses for the city since 2010 and says horses usually sold to carriage companies are “rejects from agriculture,” namely Amish farmers.

While those opposed to the carriage industry contend that the horses are stressed from the cars and other urban noises of a city, Jacobs said most horses adapt to a job and that carriage horses are the most conditioned to handle noise.

Jacobs said many horses love to work and, just like humans, fare better by being physically active.

John Malark, an equine veterinarian at Edisto Equine Clinic, works with three carriage companies in Charleston and says if a horse shows signs of stress, it will be removed from service because he or she is a liability for the carriage company.

“We treat a lot of show horses, which experience infinitely more stress than draft horses in the city do,” said Malark.

As part of her efforts with Citizens for a Carriage Free Charleston, Suiter filed a Freedom of Information Act request last fall for carriage inspection documents for five carriage companies – Palmetto Carriage, Carolina Polo Carriage, Classic Carriage, Old South Carriage and the former Old Towne Carriage (now Charleston Carriage Works) – in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013.

Those reports indicated that 16 horses had to be euthanized, usually for developing equine colic, during that four-year span.

For horses, colic is a relatively common disorder of the digestive system that involves abdominal discomfort characterized by pawing, rolling, and the inability to defecate. Colic can lead to dehydration and an array of painful complications.

In severe cases, Jacobs and Malark says surgeries are expensive, costing $4,000-$6,000, and often resulting in a bad prognosis.

Jacobs said colic is the leading cause of premature death in horses and that the problem is worse in South Carolina because of the stress caused by temperature swings, such as the one currently underway in Charleston.

She adds that colic also tends to be more common in older draft horses, such as the ones used in carriage tours, because of their age. Most, she says, are between the ages of 8 and 20. The typical life span of a horse is 25 to 30.

Besides the number of horses euthanized due to reported colic, Suiter said other aspects were reports of open sores, shoe and bedding issues and incomplete records for temperature and animal health.

In the 2011 report, Jacobs identified issues with the trimming and shoeing of hooves at Palmetto Carriage, specifically that not all four were done at the same time.

“The hooves of several animals were uneven and unbalanced,” said Jacobs in the report. “The best practice for the animals is to have all four hooves trimmed and shod on the same day.”

Doyle said the problem stemmed from the horses having rubber shoes and some horses wore some out faster than others.

Doyle said horses at Palmetto, which currently has 62 horses and mules, are well cared for and get plenty of rest. Typically after five days of working during the tourism season, March to November, they are taken out to a 30-acre farm on Johns Island for four days. He said some have been on the farm since Thanksgiving.

Doyle is not worried about De Blasio’s bill in New York passing or that it will generate a movement in tourist cities across the nation.

“If passed, it would affect a lot of lower- and middle-income people. I don’t think city council wants to put 400 people out of work,” said Doyle.

He suspects some of the support for getting rid of the carriage industry comes from real estate interests who want the buildings used for barns. Some in Charleston may have similar ulterior motives.

“Some people will use animal welfare to get rid of tourists riding past their house,” said Doyle.

Reach David Quick at 937-5516.