Sunday, March 21, 2010

Color me stupid

I recently got an e-mail from someone who disagrees with me about PETA and is genuinely, relentlessly upset about the plight of the New York City carriage horses. She cited last year’s comments from New York Governor David Paterson, who advocates banning the practice of using horses in the city. He said: “These animals are kept in stables that are too small, often they're cold, they work long hours and they don't have time off. … There was a horse about three months ago that got his foot caught on a parking meter and had to be destroyed—it's awful.”

Yes, it’s awful, and yes, I’ve seen horrible accidents involving horses, sometimes with death resulting. Sometimes riders die as well, and I am firmly in the Jim Wofford camp of doing everything we can think of to make equine sports safer for people and animals—three-day eventing makes racing on the flat look downright benign, and the chief difference is that eventing accidents tend to be on the radar of people who spend a lot of time managing, training, and participating in the sport—in a nutshell, people who may or may not be ethical but who at least have their heads wrapped around what the transaction called eventing consists of.

PETA says, “An animal’s inability to understand and adhere to our rules is as irrelevant as a child’s or as that of a person with a severe developmental disability.”

This raises the legitimate question, never asked by PETA, of what the rules are and who makes them in the horse-human relationship. Horses are not helpless, nor are they children with a developmental disability. They are horses. They are very strong. Anyone who thinks that responsible training between horse and rider has any relationship with coercion has clearly never tried to bully a horse, because it can’t be done—I’ve been handling horses all my life, and know firsthand that man proposes, horse disposes.

PETA also claims, based on no evidence I can see, that “animals are not always able to choose to change their behaviors, but adult human beings have the intelligence and ability to choose between behaviors that hurt others and behaviors that do not hurt others.” I reject this—domestic animals choose, refine, and selectively deploy different behaviors all the time. When I can’t catch my horse, I know my horse is expressing an opinion that I need to internalize and repair; when my horse approaches me apparently willingly but in a too-straight line (horses always travel in arcs, and so do good handlers), then I need to spend time on building our partnership and our mutual cooperation.

Color me stupid, but I submit that the governor of New York knows nothing about the species and what triggers certain behaviors. This doesn’t mean he’s not wrong about any individual carriage horse in the city, who may be poorly housed or not kept in good condition, but it does mean that a horse that got a foot caught on something is a horse with a catastrophic problem. Horses are prey animals, and this means they are obsessed with the status of their feet; when their feet are in danger, they are programmed to do everything in their power to find a remedy, even if it means they die trying. But the other side of the ledger is that they also hand their feet over willingly to us people for trimming, picking, shoeing, and routine inspection; this insight seems to be something outside the understanding of the e-mailer, the governor, or people who claim to know something about interspecies ethics.


  1. Hello Helen -

    Really happy I stumbled across this thoughtful entry about my beloved little industry.

    I got my first NYC carriage driver license in 1981, so I have been in the business for almost 3 decades. My husband and I currently own and operate our own carriage.

    I am drawn to your insight, critical thinking, and obvious experience with horses.

    I would just like to let you know of course, you are correct - the Governor has admitted he knows absolutely nothing about horses.

    But what he didn't admit publicly was that he was making up out of whole cloth EVERY SINGLE charge he leveled at us.

    A little background:
    The Governor was courting the League of Humane Voters with this rhetoric; indeed, he was standing at the podium as an honored guest at their annual shindig when he spoke these words. There was a very prominent supporter of Gov. Paterson's at this particular gathering; a deep-pocketed real estate mogul who covets the land that our stables sit on.
    Ah, intrigue.
    I won't go on at length (you can read the whole backstory at my blog, if you are interested), but you get the drift.

    Back to the Governor's slanderous accusations:
    1) Each and every carriage horse in NYC occupies a box stall;
    2) NYC carriage horses, by law, may not work in temps below 19 F or above 89F;
    3) By law, they may work (be in harness) a total of 9 hours a day. The average horse is out of the stable 8 hours a day, with the lion's share of that time spent standing at rest while waiting for rides;
    4) This horse that allegedly "caught it's foot on a parking meter and had to be destroyed" DOESN'T EXIST - this incident never occured, period. We have only had 2 horses euthed due to injury or accident in THIRTY YEARS - a nice Belgian named Chester in 1985, and a sweet piebald named Spotty in 2007. This is easily checkable - all horse deaths in NYC - natural, accidental, or by euthanization - are a matter of public record, and are available from the NY Dept of Health, Bureau of Animal Affairs.

    When the Governor's outrageous comments were picked up by the media, we contacted him and demanded he either show proof of his accusations, or release a retraction. What we got was a weak statement from his press secretary, "The Governor believes the horses are part of the fabric of NYC, but should be treated humanely..." blah blah blah. No retraction. We pursued it, but then (you may remember) the Governor was swamped with one scandal after another, and our issue fell by the wayside.

    There is so much more I would like to tell you about our horses and our business, but I fear this has already been too long lol. I invite you and your readers to view my blog, which is woefully in need of an update, but which contains much you may find interesting.

    Glad I found your blog - I'm gonna stick around, if you don't mind! :-)

  2. Whoops, forgot my blog link:

  3. I'm off to your blog--and it's a great comfort to find a fellow traveler on this topic.

  4. It is indeed!

    There are more of us out there than you might think ;-)

    A carriage-driving acquaintance of mine keeps a deliciously written blog peppered with entries on this topic:

    She, like you, has an amazing gift for writing, you are guaranteed to enjoy.

  5. I do--I'll search and send a request.