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Charleston carriage horses pulled off the streets due to heat, prompting mixed reactions

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horse carriage

Charleston's horse carriages were pulled off the streets because of the heat Wednesday afternoon. File/Leroy Burnell/Staff

Charleston's carriage horses were pulled from the streets because of the heat Wednesday afternoon. It was the first time they have been ordered back to the stables since City Council changed the limit from 98 to 95 degrees in March.

The horses got the afternoon off, and city officials said it demonstrated they are watching out for the animals. But the action left both a carriage company owner and an animal-welfare activist unhappy.

The order went out around 2:40 p.m. after four consecutive readings of 95 degrees or more, according to Livability and Tourism Director Dan Riccio.

The city relies on the Weatherbug network to monitor the readings of a thermometer atop the Doubletree Hotel on Church Street. Weatherbug starts sending phone alerts to Riccio and his tourism-enforcement officers when the temperature hits 93 degrees and updates the readings every 15 minutes. 

"On hot summer days like today, we keep a close eye on the temperature and heat index to ensure the carriage horses are not working in extreme conditions," Riccio said in a press release. "That’s why the recent ordinance changes lowering the temperature for calling in the horses were so critical. They gave us the tools we needed to act quickly as the temperature began to rise to very high levels."

The horses were cleared to go back out on the street at 4 p.m. after two consecutive readings of 94 degrees, but the carriage companies decided to keep them in the stables, according to city spokesman Jack O'Toole.

Tom Doyle with Palmetto Carriage Works said the city pulled the trigger too early.

"The city shut the carriage operations down before there were the mandated four readings of 95 degrees 15 minutes apart," Doyle said in an email. "Since the law was disregarded when it came to closing, we had no reason to believe it would have been followed when the temperature was once again within the limits. Without the protection of the law we gave up."

O’Toole said Riccio saw the temperatures continuing to rise through three readings and turned back carriages who showed up at the starting gate several minutes before the final reading came in.

The new rules also lowered the heat index when horses must be stabled from 125 to 110 degrees.

The ordinance was changed after months of debate and often rancorous confrontations between the carriage industry and animal-rights activists.

The Charleston Animal Society wasn’t happy with the compromise and continues to push for an independent study of horses at work in the heat.

"Our position remains the same," Chief Executive Officer Joe Elmore said Wednesday. "Ninety-five degrees is still tops in the nation. We carry more than twice the load of any other place in the nation. So we can say, 'Yay, we’re No. 1 again. We’re No. 1 for the harshest working conditions in the nation.'"

Temperatures downtown are expected to climb near the 95-degree limit daily until at least the weekend, according to the National Weather Service office in North Charleston. Not until Sunday does the expected high drop into the 80s.

"It looks like we're on a cooling trend, but for a few days it's going to be pretty close," meteorologist James Carpenter said.

The next two months could be touch and go for carriage rides. July routinely tends to be blistering. In the steam bath of 2016, 18 days had a high temperature at 95 or above. In 2015, seven days did, and six days did in 2014.

August tends to be cooler, but not much. In 2016, four days were 95 or above. In 2015, no days were. But in 2014, eight days were.

On the peninsula, a sea breeze or an afternoon shower can make all the difference. For instance, the Weather Service recorded a high of 95 at the airport Wednesday but a high of 90 near the water in Charleston.

Bo Petersen contributed to this story.

Reach Dave Munday at 843-937-5553.