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An uneasy ride

By Lizzie O'Leary Columbia News Service March 30, 2003

It is a typical scene in the cinematic ideal New York. A happy couple climbs into a beautiful horse-drawn carriage. Hooves clip-clop as the buggy winds its way through Central Park. Romance ensues.

Cut to reality. The New York carriage horse industry, long a fixture of romantic films and city tourism, is under constant scrutiny. Complaints from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and civic activists plague drivers and owners weary of defending their profession, stable space is expensive and hard to come by, and the economic downturn and lack of tourists has deflated business.

NYC & Company, the city's official tourist bureau, estimated that the post-Sept. 11 decline in tourism cost the city roughly $1 billion in domestic visitor spending. Combined with the current economic climate, NYC & Co. predicted that travel spending will not fully recover until 2004.

Carriage drivers are especially feeling the pinch.

"People just have no discretionary spending," said James, a driver who would not give his last name. His statement was reinforced by a group of tourists who declined a ride upon hearing the price: $34 for the first 30 minutes, and $10 for each additional 15 minutes. And at nearly five p.m. on a typical weekday afternoon, James has made only two trips. When business is good, on major holidays, it's closer to a dozen rides.

One owner, who operates six carriages, would not discuss financial specifics, but said that business is poor. He attributed this to the tourism decline, fear of terrorism and negative publicity. The tourism conditions, he said, were beyond his control, but "it's hard to imagine the impact of all this negativity that was circulated about the carriage people."

Drivers, too, are tired of what they see as attacks on the industry, and hesitant about speaking to the press. "One woman came by one day," said James, gesturing at his horse, Simba. "She saw his head was down and she started yelling that he was tired. He wasn't tired, he'd hardly been out. He was bored." More rides, he maintained, would keep Simba more energetic. Other drivers rolled their eyes when asked about the controversy surrounding the carriage industry.

Tino Cretella, who owns a carriage and has been in the business since 1995, proudly displayed his horse, Trottino. "They think it is strange to have a horse in New York City in the middle of the park," he said. "But we train them the right way. We take care of the horses."

Drivers are also quick to point out that they abide by all the city's regulations that govern buggy operation, and indeed support them. One driver, an Irish immigrant who declined to give his name but said he had been driving for ten years, said he supported the regulations but resented the fact that drivers were "a soft target." He added that he drove one horse, a gelding named Casey, and held sole responsibility for his care, including brushing, feeding and watering him at a stable on the west side of Manhattan. "Most of the guys here have a thing about horses," he said. "You have to like it."

Still, the business end of the operation is difficult. The drivers, or "hacks" (a blend of horse and carriage) as they call themselves, work specific strips of territory near Central Park.

There are 68 licensed medallions for carriages in the city, and each one generally has two drivers, roughly 150 total. They congregate on Fifth Avenue near the Plaza Hotel, and again on Central Park South at Sixth and Seventh Avenues. Carriages also line up near the restaurant Tavern on the Green in Central Park. Each area has its own informal rules.

At Fifth, prime "hacking" ground, any driver can try to entice customers on the strip of sidewalk in front of his carriage. The other areas abide by a strict line system -- first carriage first, automatically. They also take on a strong ethnic character. The drivers at Fifth Avenue tend to be a mishmash of ethnicities, while Sixth is predominantly Irish, Seventh is Italian and Tavern on the Green is Turkish.

The horses are slightly less diverse. The majority are draft horses -- large, hearty work horses like Belgians and Percherons that the drivers say are generally purchased from Amish farmers.

They work maximum of 9 hours a day, taking 15-minute rest breaks every two hours. They are also kept to the park between 10 a.m. and 9 p.m., roaming only afterward to spots like Rockefeller Center and Times Square. In addition, drivers must abide by temperature restrictions, returning horses to their stables when the thermometer rises above 90 degrees or drops below 18 degrees. The ASPCA and several city agencies, including the police department, enforce the regulations.

The current carriage laws came into existence in 1989, after a horse collapsed in Central Park from heat exhaustion. Other high-profile deaths, including the 1999 accidental electrocution of a horse named Jackie, led to protests. In August 2000, the actress Mary Tyler Moore spoke at an ASPCA-sponsored rally on the steps of New York's City Hall to protest the carriage horse industry and call for tougher protective laws. "I think if tourists knew how these horses are treated, they would not want to ride in a horse-drawn carriage," she said at the time.

"Every time there is a big campaign," James said, "the people from the Midwest come by and look at the horses and see that if anything, they're fat. They're not being mistreated."

The ASPCA, which has not mounted a major campaign since 2000, maintains that the horses are performing unnatural and unnecessary work, and living in substandard conditions in crowded stables.

Even some guidebooks now caution tourists about potential animal abuse. The Rough Guide to New York City advises visitors to "bear in mind that there has been longstanding vocal opposition to the buggy practice being allowed at all." Still, the drivers maintain that the horses are an intrinsic part of the New York City tourist experience. "After September 11th," said James. "People were so happy to have us back

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