Like Sultan, a typical carriage horse comes from Amish country in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The horse usually has worked for several years pulling an Amish buggy along rural roads—a perilous apprenticeship. Visiting Amish country with my family last summer, I was surprised to discover that though these roads are narrow, winding, and hilly, with sudden curves and rises that make it impossible to see if an oncoming vehicle is passing someone in your lane, the speed limit is a brisk 40 mph. The result is an ongoing slaughter of people and horses, with numbers of both species killed or maimed every year.
When a horse no longer serves the buggy owner’s purpose, it is often hauled down to the New Holland Sales Stables in New Holland, Pennsylvania. Twenty-five to 35 percent of the horses for sale at that massive weekly auction end up at slaughterhouses in Canada or Mexico, sometimes for as little as $50 apiece. The less unlucky horses get bought by New York horse-drawn-carriage owners for anywhere from $1,500 to $3,500. If the Amish-country horse cannot acclimate itself to city life, the owner will return to the auction to resell it and buy another.
In New York, the horse will make its home in one of the city’s four remaining stables, situated between the Thirties and the Fifties on Manhattan’s far West Side. All the stables are in old buildings, two to three stories high. Following concrete ramps from one level to the other, the horses live in stalls on the upper floors, while the carriages are housed downstairs, often with the harnesses. Sometimes the stalls have windows, sometimes they don’t. At night, many of the stalls are pitch-dark.
A lot of carriage owners have three horses. Two take the pair of each day’s now-nine-hour shifts, while a third horse is up on a farm in Pennsylvania or Wallkill, New York, enjoying the minimum five-week vacation that was mandated by law in 2010. For those in the city, the day shift begins when the horses are led out of their stalls down ramps around dawn and harnessed to the carriages, early enough for the carriage to be in Central Park at 10 a.m. (In the winter, there is usually only one shift, from around noon through the early evening.) After that, they make their way through the thickening rush-hour traffic from the far West Side to the park, where they wait along 59th Street for fares.
For the next nine hours, each horse pulls her carriage along the same single circuit that Sultan did, along 59th Street, into the park at Sixth Avenue, along a short loop of the park, then out again at Fifth Avenue. (There’s also a longer, 45-minute loop that ends on Central Park West.) At the end of the shift, it’s back through midtown traffic to the stables, at which point the second horse starts its nighttime shift. The next morning, the routine begins anew. This goes on for years—for fifteen, possibly even twenty years. Then it’s out to pasture on the carriage owner’s or some animal-advocacy group’s dime. After that, the likelihood is strong that the horse, old and tired, will be sold to a slaughterhouse, where she will be euthanized, chopped up, and packed into cans of dog food.
Like a fracturing marriage, a city in the process of being transformed manifests its changes incognito, in conflicts that seem on the surface to have nothing to do with the churning shifts that are driving them. In 1992 and then again in 1993, Mayor Dinkins vetoed an attempt by the City Council to relax the earlier restrictions so that the carriages could once again range throughout midtown Manhattan. In 1994, Mayor Giuliani allowed a version of the City Council’s legislation to pass—giving the horses more time in the park but no freedom outside of it. But in the mid-aughts, a series of mishaps—among them a carriage horse named Smoothie that bolted and died, and one named Juliet that collapsed on the street and died in its stable—brought the carriage horses back onto the public stage at the very moment when liberal worries about the general course of the city under Bloomberg were starting to rise. In 2007, Bill Thompson, then comptroller, announced the findings of an audit that cited numerous abuses in the industry, including horses standing in filthy water (the Times reported it as “waste”). That year, Queens councilman Tony Avella introduced a bill to abolish the carriages outright. Three years and several more unsuccessful legislative attempts to outlaw the carriages later, the carriage-horse industry and some of its opponents got together and hammered out a bill raising carriage fares and mandating larger stable stalls and the five-week vacation for horses. The new legislation also required that horses be between five and 26 years old, banned them from south of 34th Street, and prohibited them from working between 3 and 7 a.m. About 100 years after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and the industrialization that had displaced the urban horse, these horses—living on as museum pieces from a time before industrialization—finally got their own workplace protections.