It's always been tough to look them in the eye, and not just because they wear those blinders. The mere sight of them -- lined up on Central Park South like a carnation-festooned chain gang, trudging wearily behind buses in 93-degree heat, hauling cheerful rubes to within Instamatic-flash distance of the Dakota -- was enough. But now it's become easier for us all to meet that equine gaze with a little less guilt.
Marmaduke, a huge fellow the color of a mustard lollipop dipped in mud, is playing around with his oat bucket. "Marmaduke knows how to open gates," says Sara Whalen, stepping into the horse's paddock and kissing him. "He has a sense of humor. He's a silly horse." Whalen, the granddaughter of a Romanian horse thief and the founder of Pets Alive, a sanctuary for homeless animals, has created the first retirement home for New York carriage horses. So far, Marmaduke has been joined by three other retirees, Kuba, Timmy, and Blackie.
"I always wondered what happened to these magnificent animals when they became too old to pull a carriage," says Whalen. "I always hoped there was a retirement place for them. But I discovered there wasn't any. And I thought, Well, we have all this land up here! Wouldn't it be a wonderful thing to do for these ambassadors to the Big Apple?" By "up here," she means a serene 78-acre farm in Orange County with rolling pastures, wildflower fields, lightning bugs, maple trees, a stream -- hell, if the place were a dung hill, it'd be a million times better than where the horses would otherwise be headed.
On June 23, Pets Alive will throw a "New York City Carriage Horse Retirement Celebration" at the Crane Club to raise money to build more paddocks. "They work so hard!" says Whalen, who notes that the horses adjust quickly to their new life of leisure. "They deserve it!" Now all they need are some shuffleboard and mah-jongg sets.