The Romance of a Carriage Ride Belies a Hard Life
Moviegoers are lining up to see “The Horse Whisperer” and weep as patient love redeems a badly injured horse and just coincidentally fosters a gauzy romance between whisperer and mom. And recently readers – in best-selling numbers – were moved by “The Man Who Listens to Horses,” Monty Roberts, and his denunciations of cruelty. But these gallons of tears, I suspect, will do exactly nothing for the thousands of actual horses who suffer at our hands.
Like the folks who cheered the escape from the axe of one cunning little pig names Babe, then went home to enjoy a baked ham, Americans like to have it both ways when it comes to animals. Thus the estrogen drug Premarin is endlessly prescribed with never a mention of the thousands of pregnant mares tied in stalls so their urine might make this magical remedy possible.
In New York, the horses we keep to give us pleasure – the canter through the park, pony rides for kids, a carriage trot past the Plaza – rarely have the favor returned. Let out of their stalls only on the condition of a human on their backs, the city’s school horses do receive baskets of carrots from their young adorers but never the thing their equine natures most require: space to run and graze.
Often enough the quiet lesson horse who introduced hundreds to riding is so agedly beyond hope that soon even the massive amounts of bute – “horse aspirin” – he is fed daily will be for naught. Then his well-deserved retirement will consist of a truck ride to the abattoir.
But it is the carriage horse who definitely shames this duplicitous love of ours. Their lives are a misery of too much work, gall sores, heat, fumes, lameness, dank stalls. They come from the sales of last resort, given one more chance to make someone a buck before being sent whence they came. Under current law, they are allowed to work nine hours a day, seven days a week, though even the stern Old Testament declared one day for universal rest. (In 1994, carriage horses lost some of the meager protections they had.) The horses are not supposed to work when it is above 90 degrees, but according to what thermometer? Not the one that knows that the pavement is frequently 50 degrees hotter. There they stand, these beacons of tourist-style romance, with their noses perfectly situated to receive the tailpipe’s full perfume.
Some of them drop dead. On one memorable July day in 1982, three dropped in their traces; another collapsed in 1988. Every year horses are spooked and injured and smashed into. You do not forget the unnatural sight of a horse on pavement. Is that why a vision of the downed horse I saw one night from an office window high above Sixth Avenue still visits my dreams?
It was the first time that horse had been able to lie down since he entered New York. Now, as I drive up the West Side Highway and catch sight of a horse with his head tied 10 inches from a brick wall, I reflexively avert my eyes. The lifeless pose he is forced to adopt is the prophecy of his end.
These days, the phone number listed for the Carriage Horse Action Committee goes unanswered, a casualty, I am told, of too many years futilely attempting to get someone to care. No, let our suffering horses remain on the page or screen so we may better mourn their pain. Meanwhile the real ones can whisper all they want. We are not going to listen.
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