When it feels unbearably hot outside, just be grateful that you don’t have to pull a carriage full of tourists.
As the summer heat keeps beating up New York City residents, animal rights advocates say the city’s carriage horses in Central Park almost definitely have it worse than the rest of us.
Listen to WNYC's Mara Silvers report on the debate about carriage horses' working conditions during the extreme heat
“I think it’s rational to ask if there is a citywide heat advisory in effect, that horses should not be be allowed out of their stables those days,” said Edita Birnkrant, Executive Director of New Yorkers for Clean, Livable, and Safe Streets, or NYCLASS. “It’s too dangerous for them.”
When heat advisories go into effect, carriage horses are often still lined up along Central Park South, or clomping through Columbus Circle. The city does not require horses to be stabled unless it hits 90 degrees in the summer, or goes below 18 degrees in the winter.
“The Health Department works with the NYPD to both enforce temperature regulations and help determine if conditions are too hazardous for carriage horses to work,” said department spokesman, Christopher Miller. “Once a determination is made that operations will be suspended, the NYPD will monitor the hack stand where carriage horses congregate, and the Health Department will notify stable owners.”
The 90 degree cut-off, advocates say, is too high. Their proposal, that carriage horses be stabled during a citywide heat advisory, is part of a years-long campaign to pressure city officials to improve conditions for the horses. NYCLASS has long argued that horses should be taken off the streets entirely, but has also said it is open to negotiating about reforms.
Mayor Bill de Blasio was once an ardent supporter of NYCLASS’s proposal to ban carriage horses, but has not been so outspoken since reform efforts hit a series of brick walls in the City Council. The push to eliminate the use of carriage horses failed in de Blasio’s first term. A second set of reforms to keep the horses’ routes within Central Park and to relocate their stables fell apart in 2016.
Working conditions for horses still need to be improved, advocates argue, including lowering the standard for when it is considered too hot for horses to work. On Monday, Birnkrant took a video of a horse standing on Central Park South “a little before 10 a.m.” The high that day reached 92 degrees. The video shows the horse panting, in what Birnkrant called “respiratory distress.”
“We’ve had the same heat regulation for 35 years without issue,” said carriage driver spokeswoman Christina Hansen. “This is nothing new.”
This wave of activist concerns comes as 2018 remains on track to become the fourth hottest year on record. The last three years also broke heat records. Since 2001, 17 out of 18 years have been the warmest recorded since 1880, according to analyses from NASA and NOAA.
Nevertheless, the laws surrounding summer working conditions for horses don’t need to change, according to Hansen, who said NYCLASS is wrong to apply the heat advisory measurement to carriage horses. “That’s for humans who are elderly, sick, or doing real physical labor,” she said. “Our horses are just walking and standing.”
Discomfort and dangerous working conditions for horses go beyond overheating in the summertime, said Birnkrant. On Thursday afternoon, she and another NYCLASS volunteer were stationed outside of the Clinton Park Stables on 52nd Street, between 11th and 12th Ave. A carriage driver whose horse had open wounds on its lower legs had come there after being questioned by police, said Birnkrant, and the two activists decided to follow him.
Carriage horse with sores (Image courtesy of Edita Birnkant / NYCLASS)
Birnkrant and the volunteer called the NYPD after noticing the sores. Two officers proceeded to file a report, but the Department of Health said no suspensions were made. A spokesman for the department said it was “aware of this horse and we are looking into [the] matter.”
Conor McHugh, Clinton Park's stable owner, confirmed there is not a full-time veterinarian on site. He declined to make the driver available for comment.
Spokeswoman Christina Hansen said Friday that the veterinarian who had looked at this horse in the past had been contacted.
Despite the health department’s investigation and the police report, Birnkrant said she is generally concerned about the horse’s well-being.
“I don’t know how this horse got these kinds of wounds on its legs, or how any responsible horse owner could take a horse out, especially in this heat, with festering wounds,” said Birnkrant.
In response to NYCLASS’s argument that horses should not work during heat advisories, a spokeswoman for the mayor said it plans to “aggressively enforce the current policy” that dictates the 90 degree cap, but “will always evaluate changes if they can improve the health of the horses.”
Mara Silvers is an assistant producer at WNYC. You can follow her on Twitter at @mara_silvers.