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New York’s horse-drawn carriages: An iconic attraction or cruel animal abuse?

A bill proposes replacing horses with e-carriages by June 2024.
A bill proposes replacing horses with e-carriages by June 2024.   -   Copyright  Jerome Correia / Getty Images
By Angela Symons  with AFP

A charming, must-do tourist attraction or a cruel, outdated commercial activity? New York's horse-drawn carriages have operated since the 1800s, but some lawmakers now want to replace them with electric vehicles.

Recently, a video of a carriage horse collapsing on the streets of New York went viral, prompting a fresh wave of protests against the controversial tourist attraction.

Business owners have clapped back, claiming the industry is regulated and the animals are well looked after.

Why are people protesting against New York’s horse-drawn carriages?

For some, carriage rides around Central Park are as much part of the Big Apple as yellow taxis and Broadway shows. But for others, the horses-for-hire are not in keeping with the ethos of a leading progressive city in 21st century America.

Animal rights activists have been trying to shut down the industry for years. Opponents say the horses live in cramped conditions, are often malnourished and dehydrated, get spooked by cars and are worked against their will.

"They're literally treated as machines, and they're not machines," says Edita Birnkrant, executive director of anti-horse-carriage group NYCLASS. "This shouldn't be happening in modern-day New York City."

Last month, their protests gained steam when a video of a collapsed horse being slapped and shouted at by its owner on busy 9th Avenue went viral.

When a bystander questions, “Why are you slapping him?”, the owner replies “Because I’m trying to get him up. The horse is then seen being hosed down by police officers.

This was not the first such incident. In 2020, a carriage horse collapsed and was euthanised in Central Park, where 45-minute-long rides cost upwards of €160. In June this year, the park also saw a frightened carriage horse gallop into oncoming traffic.

Following the horse’s collapse, protestors gathered in August holding signs demanding “21st century horseless carriages” and labelling the horses as victims of abuse.

Their requests have not fallen on deaf ears.

Could e-carriages replace horse-and-cart in New York?

"Manhattan is probably the worst place in the world to have a horse work, in traffic, in noise, with pollution, in terrible heat and terrible conditions," says New York City council member Robert Holden, who has introduced a bill to replace the animals with horseless e-carriages by June 2024.

On Instagram, supermodel Bella Hadid urged lawmakers to pass Holden's legislation, calling the tourist rides "barbaric."