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POSTED: 7:39 am EST January 3, 2006
UPDATED: 7:12 pm EST January 3, 2006

NEW YORK -- It's difficult to imagine a less hospitable place for horses than midtown Manhattan -- and the risk of taking the big, shy animals onto the city's frenetic streets became apparent in tragic fashion this week.

A horse pulling one of Central Park's graceful carriages to a stable on the far West Side became spooked in traffic Monday night and galloped down a busy street until it collided with a car.

The seriously injured horse was euthanized. The carriage driver, Carmelo Vargas, of the Bronx, was hospitalized in critical condition Tuesday.

Such accidents aren't frequent, but they underscore the difficulty of keeping horses in the country's flashiest, noisiest city, animal control authorities said.

"I think it is a less than ideal environment for them," said Joseph Pentangelo, an agent with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and a former mounted police officer. "There are air horns. There are loud air brakes on trucks and buses."

Carriage horses are given blinders and tested for their temperament, Pentangelo said, but "there is only so much you can do. Asking an animal to deny every instinct they have, every day, is difficult."

Efforts to ban horses from city streets have been trumped by tradition and the delight tourists take in seeing the old-fashioned carriages and colorful drivers circle Central Park.

Actress Mary Tyler Moore sought more humane treatment of carriage horses as part of an ASPCA campaign in 2000.

Activists for years criticized the conditions at some of the stables serving Central Park, saying they were decrepit, noisy and improperly ventilated and had stalls so small the horses couldn't turn around.

Conditions, however, have improved in recent years, ASPCA senior vice president Lisa Weisberg said.

The ASPCA brought a team of veterinarians to New York to study carriage horses last year and found them to be in "much better shape" than they were 10 years ago, she said, in part because they have been moved into more modern facilities.

There are 68 licensed hansom cabs and 360 licensed drivers in New York.

Horses are banned from Manhattan streets between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m. on weekdays and may work pulling carriages in Central Park or adjacent streets only until 9 p.m. After that, they can leave the park, but they must avoid zones with heavier traffic.

Carriage drivers must complete operators' courses and have liability insurance to be licensed by the city. Vargas received his license to operate a carriage in May, the Department of Consumer Affairs said.

The West Side stable where his mount was kept has a clean record with no recent health or safety violations, city officials said. The facility, in a nondescript industrial building surrounded by taxi cab repair shops, was locked Tuesday afternoon.

Telephone messages left at several stables were not returned.

Minor accidents involving horses happen every so often, though rarely with the dire results of Monday's crash.

Last year, two horses ran loose in traffic after a driver hit their coach, toppling it and setting them free. In October 2003, two hansom cabs carrying four passengers tipped over after their horses were spooked in Central Park.

Bolting horses galloped into traffic every year between 1997 and 2000, causing various amounts of mayhem

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