Expert Opinion

Letter to 2013 NYC Mayoral Candidates by  Holly Cheever, DVM,  
Nationally Recognized Equine Veterinarian,
August 1, 2013

Holly Cheever, DVM
Voorheesville, NY 12186

August 1, 2013

To: All New York City mayoral candidates entering the fall 2013 election cycle:     

Re: New York City’s controversial and anachronistic carriage horse tourist industry:   


To introduce myself, I am an equine veterinarian, educated at Harvard University and at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell, with a lifetime of experience in horse management, including the driving of carriage horses.  Since 1988, I have been the primary equine advisor for 2 states and, to date, 15 municipalities (including Philadelphia) that have sought knowledgeable assistance either to ban carriage horses from operating in their cities or to devise protective codes and legislation to prevent the all too common animal abuse that occurs in this industry. In particular, I was very involved with the campaign initiated by the American Society for the Protection of Animals and the New York-based Carriage Horse Action Committee between 1988 and 1996, calling for a ban of the use of carriage horses on New York City’s streets, and have been an ongoing advisor for New York’s Coalition to Ban Horse Drawn Carriages.   

To begin with, I would like to state unequivocally that I don't believe that horse-drawn carriages and motor vehicles should share the same roadways due to the distressing history of injuries and deaths (both equine and human) that have occurred across the country due to carriage-car collisions.  There is no way that cities with their exhaust fumes, hard road surfaces, and busy traffic patterns can provide a humane (as opposed to merely survivable) environment for a carriage horse. For that reason, I recommend that a ban against city carriage horse rides be implemented in each municipality, unless the horses can be restricted to a park or other area where they will not be competing with motor vehicles for road space and where their stabling can provide the essentials for comfortable, humane, and safe housing, including the provision of daily “turn-out.  In the case of New York, the only safe place for this tourist attraction would be to restrict them to Central Park, to which the Park Commissioner has expressed adamant opposition—therefore, I ask that you ban this industry in your city.    

In debating whether urban carriage horse rides as tourist attractions are a benign entertainment or an inherently abusive misuse of animals, we must examine all aspects of the horses’ lives, care and use in the inherently inappropriate and hazardous (to horses) environment provided by busy city streets. Relevant aspects include the horses’ source, training, stabling, proper management by their stable hands and drivers, availability of veterinary care, rest periods, and final disposition when they are no longer capable of pulling a carriage.   

The owner of a carriage horse operation adheres to the strict bottom line to achieve a maximum profit with a minimum of expenditure of time or resources. For this reason, the horses that are purchased for New York’s carriage rides are selected based on their prior experience in carriage pulling—the new owner has no interest in training a new horse to be proficient and reliable in an entirely new skill set and environment. Therefore, the horses selected and purchased at horse auctions (often from “killer sales”) are typically from one of two backgrounds: the draft breeds in the northeast come from Amish farms wherein they served as draft animals doing field work, while the smaller horses may also come from the Amish community where they were used for road work, and may also have come originally or immediately from the Standardbred tracks, where they raced as trotters or pacers pulling light sulkies (personal conversations with New York owners, 1988-92).    

Due to their previous use, they require little additional training but may come into the urban carriage horse industry with preexisting injuries (lameness, arthritis, strained and bowed tendons, laminitis) and illnesses such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease—COPD  (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or“heaves” in equine terms.) These preexisting conditions can have a significant impact on the horse’s well-being, suitability for and longevity in his/her new occupation.    

Based on my experience interviewing New York carriage drivers between 1988-1994, I found that a distressingly large percentage of drivers were not knowledgeable about horses and certainly had no prior experience as carriage drivers in a hazardous urban environment. Many were recent immigrants given employment through their American connections, becoming drivers with no equine background whatsoever. Thus, it is common to witness New York drivers chatting over their shoulders to their guests rather than keeping their attention strictly on the horse and his/her surroundings ahead. It is also common to see drivers who have no control over the horses’  heads due to their lack of a proper grip (if any) on the reins, and who even stand up in the driver’s box, which is forbidden in expert driving standards and competitions. In fact, expert carriage drivers who breed carriage horses and drive then as a vocation or for the love of their animals are not the ones who are involved in these urban carriage tourist trades.  A topnotch breeder/driver would never subject their prized animals to these hostile and hazardous conditions, and such individuals are often most vocal against the urban tourist trade’s abuse.    

Aside from the animals’ past injuries and present handling by inexperienced drivers, urban environments have inherent characteristics that make the safe handling and wholesome existence of carriage horses impossible. They are inescapably exposed to the following health hazards.    

Horses working in traffic lanes shared with motorized vehicles are constantly nose-to-tailpipe, whether waiting for their next fare by the curb or moving in the traffic lane. They show corresponding respiratory impairment, as was detailed in an unpublished study conducted by Dr. Jeffie Roszel (personal communication, 1989). Dr. Roszel’s study analyzed New York carriage horses’ respiratory health in 1985 when they were still confined to Central Park; it showed that the horses suffered significant lung tissue damage and cellular changes due to their exposure to the noxious emission fumes of the vehicles—and this at a time when the horses were not out on the city streets, as they are now. For a horse with any preexisting respiratory impairment such as the common COPD or “heaves”, the congested atmosphere is a significant stressor to their health.

A lack of “soundness” is a major problem for horses who must pound the city streets' unnaturally hard, concussive surfaces for their long shifts. Many are not given adequate farrier care (i.e. hoof trimming and shoeing) and since many horses come into this industry with preexisting injuries or arthritis incurred in their previous uses on race tracks or Amish farms, their lack of soundness may become a growing problem. A horse’s hoof is healthiest when left unshod and properly trimmed on a regular basis. The excessive pounding on the paved surfaces makes the use of shoes indispensable, and many horses do not get the frequent maintenance needed to keep their feet sound and healthy, especially if their hygiene in their stalls is inadequate and they develop infections (“thrush”) in addition.

In the 1980’s, death by heat stroke (hyperthermia) was a leading cause of death in the working carriage horse populations of New York, Atlanta, and Boston. Horses in harness on the hot streets, denied sufficient access to water and time in which to cool down, collapsed on the street and in their stables. For this reason, equine experts recommended that horses should be kept off the streets when the combined temperature-humidity index (THI), which is the sum of the temperature in degrees Fahrenheit and the humidity in percentage points,  exceeds 140; as the THI increases, so does the horses’ risk for heat stress.  One expert source states that a THI above 150 represents a serious threat to horses’ health, especially if the humidity value is more than half of the combined sum (Mackay-Smith, M. and Cohen, M. 1982. Exercise physiology and diseases of exertion. In Mansmann, McAllister, and Pratt (eds.), Equine Medicine and Surgery, 3rd edition, Santa Barbara CA, I:125-129).   

The issue of safe temperature ranges for the operation of carriage horses is typically the most contentious problem for city councils seeking consensus between their carriage horse industry and those citizens and agencies seeking to protect the animals. In the critical temperature range of 89 to 96 degrees Fahrenheit, a large horse, particularly one of the draft breeds, is greatly challenged in its ability to dissipate its body heat into an increasingly warm environment, especially if high humidity is a factor.  A horse can lose 8-10 gallons of fluid with exercise in a hot environment, but if the air is saturated by high humidity, cooling by evaporation cannot occur—the atmosphere is too saturated to absorb more fluid, and the horse’s core temperature continues to climb.  If the horse becomes dehydrated and cannot produce sweat, anhydrosis (the lack of sweat production) ensues and can be life-threatening, but keeping a horse on an urban street well-hydrated can be a challenge in these modern days with no public horse troughs. The few public troughs that do exist (e.g. in New York) are prone to be polluted by trash and worse.   

Since New York City's asphalt surfaces have reached temperatures of 200 degrees Fahrenheit as reported in the New York Times (7/9/89), keeping horses sufficiently cool on hot summer days in the humid northeast becomes impossible. To add to the challenge that the horses face, the U.S. Weather Bureau’s cited temperature readings are significantly lower than the temperatures that the carriage horses’ microenvironment (three to six feet off the pavement) provides. A study conducted by Cornell’s Urban Horticultural Institute between 1983 and 1985 revealed that the temperature at street level in New York could be as much as 45 degrees F. higher than that recorded by the U.S. Weather Bureau (Bassuk, N. and Whitlow, T. 1988. Environmental stress in street trees. .Arbocultural Journal 12:197


As any knowledgeable horse person can tell you, the horse is an animal with a highly developed and highly effective flight drive when startled by an unexpected or threatening stimulus. Spooking can happen to even the best trained and well-mannered horse; their evolution as herbivores (i.e. prey animals) has conditioned them to bolt first and consider the situation later, dictating the need for the driver to be constantly in contact with the horse's head, whether by holding the reins securely from the carriage box or by standing at the horse's head with the reins in hand.  The driver must also learn to anticipate potentially threatening stimuli in order to control the horse before it attempts to flee in panic, which is unlikely when the drivers are novices. I have heard carriage owners/drivers in several city council debates claim that their horses are “spook-proof”—there is no such thing.   

The inevitable result of a horse being spooked while pulling a carriage in traffic is a tragic collision between the horse and the crossing vehicles at the next intersection that he/she gallops through in panic. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) maintains a data base of horse and carriage accidents available on their website ( Some accidents have resulted in both human and equine fatalities, and are much less likely to occur if the horses are restricted to areas with no motor vehicles in operation.

The essential provisions for appropriate stables for horses, often of draft breed size, whose daily shifts are spent between the extremely confining shafts of their carriages, are beyond the scope of this discussion. However, for a humane existence for the inhabitants, the stables must include: box stalls (not tie stalls) that are a minimum of ten by ten feet (twelve foot square is much better for the larger breeds); constant access to clean, potable water in each stall; good quality hay and grain secured in rodent- and moisture-proof containers; bedding that is sufficiently absorbent and deep to provide comfort to the animal when resting; proper ventilation and cooling provided by fans to keep ammonia fumes to a minimum.    

In addition, each NYC horse should have—and does not get—daily turn-out in which he/she is given a period to relax with a compatible stable buddy in a large enclosure where they can roll, mutually groom one another, lie stretched out, and generally obtain relief from their arduous shifts and the discomfort of tight-fitting harness. In so doing, they satisfy both behavioral and physical needs.    
During the several years that I inspected New York’s carriage horses on the street and in their stables at the request of the ASPCA and the Carriage Horse Action Committee, I found their housing and routine care to be a far cry from the precepts outlined above. I noted repeated violations of basic humane equine husbandry and care principles, as follows:    

  • The horses were not given adequate water during their work shifts since no public water was readily available to them, and most were denied the basic presence of water buckets in their stalls.    

  • Many horses were afforded inadequate hoof care and shoeing, adding to their likelihood of developing or exacerbating lameness.    

  • The stables were distressingly inadequate, with poor hygiene, temperature control, and ventilation. Bedding was nonexistent or grossly inadequate.

  • Many showed harness sores that should require them to be removed from work till healed; however, there was never sufficient enforcement of this regulation, and many horses worked with infected and inflamed sores.

  • No opportunity for “turn-out” was provided since there was no room for such a space in the stable areas. Therefore, the horses had no opportunity to perform natural movements or experience normal socialization, so necessary for a herd animal, for their entire lives in this industry.


    Although carriage horse training and driving can be done with due attention to making the experience both humane and pleasurable for the horse in a proper setting, the tourist trades seen in urban settings cannot provide a safe and healthy environment as long as the horses must work in city streets where they are threatened by motor vehicle traffic and physically injurious environments. I hope that this tourist attractions is banned in New York City in the near future, to be replaced (for example) by a nostalgic ride in a “green”, i.e. electric, antique model car.


Thank you for your attention to this matter.




Holly Cheever, DVM

Vice president, New York State Humane Association

Chairperson, Leadership Council, Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association

-200). This makes it critically important that the ambient temperature must be taken at the horse’s elbow height to determine when the animals should be returned to their stables, rather than relying on the temperature reported by the media. Practically speaking, since New York has many days per annum in which the temperature/humidity is too high for horses’ safety, a ban altogether is preferable to a burdensome system attempting to regulate when the horses must be removed from the streets.    

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