Last weekend New York City’s Horse and Carriage Association hosted ClipClop NYC to educate people about the carriage industry. MOLLY MULDOON explores the daily routine of the industry which has received increasing opposition from animal rights activists in recent years.
Emerging from the subway at Central Park South, the smell of horse drawn carriages stirs your senses before any animals are in sight. On a mild afternoon, Stephen Malone, president of the
Horse and Carriage Association, is casually brushing his horse, Paddy, as the large white-haired steed stands poised on the edge of the park.
This has been Paddy’s existence for over a decade. He hauls enthusiastic tourists around Central Park, typically for 20-minute intervals at $50 a pop.
Last year, Paddy had a VIP passenger when the 2011 St. Patrick’s Day parade grand marshal, Irish American author Mary Higgins Clark, led the parade in a black vis-à-vis horse drawn carriage up Fifth Avenue.
But after 12 years of life in Manhattan, the 19-year-old horse is set to retire to Blue Star Equiculture Draft Horse Sanctuary in Massachusetts, the new official retirement venue for horses in the Horse and Carriage Association of New York City.
Paddy is one of an estimated 215 horses that comprise New York City’s licensed carriage horse industry -- a business that has long been the target of animal rights activists, eager to ban horses from the city’s streets.
Malone told the Irish Voice he has known no other job in his adult life and that his career as a New York carriage driver is something he inherited from his father, an Irish immigrant.
“My dad taught me -- you put on your top hat and your bow tie. If you’re a big man, you have a big horse,” Malone said of his father, who came from Co. Louth as a blacksmith in 1964.
Carrying on his father’s tradition, Malone displays his 25-year experience as he seizes a sale opportunity as two approaching tourists admire Paddy.
“Hi ladies, want a horse and carriage ride?”
Moments later the two female passengers are perched in the carriage, awaiting their amble through New York City’s most famous park, as Paddy trots on.
Like many of the city’s industries, the horse and carriage trade is almost entirely reliant on tourists. And many of those who work in the industry are Irish.
“The tourists love them,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg has remarked in the past. “They are well treated, and we’ll continue to make sure that they are well treated.”
TESTAMENT to their popularity among the city’s tourists, the Irish Voice observes a couple and their two children descending from their carriage ride on 59th street, as the two flame-haired daughters feed the horse a carrot.
On vacation from Orlando, Florida, they request to be simply referred to as the Bedford family. The husband and wife don’t think there is anything wrong with having horses in Manhattan.
“I think they treat the animals well; it gives them a different opportunity to do something unique,” the mother told the Irish Voice.
“It’s a very iconic memory that (our children) will have of New York City and Central Park,” she added.
“People live in the country, people live in the city, these happen to be city horses, it’s a different style of life,” the father added.
City regulations are in place to focus on the animals’ well-being which the city’s 68 licensed carriages must observe. Horse and carriage rides are not permitted before 10 a.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. on weekends, and they must conclude before 2 a.m.
Horses cannot work in temperatures above 89 degrees or below 19 degrees or in blizzards. They must have a minimum of five weeks of non-consecutive vacation per year.
A spate of incidents last year, including the death of a carriage horse in October, has resulted in increasing opposition from animal rights groups. The NYCLASS organization is devoted to banning the industry and has won the support of a host of celebrities such as Academy Award winning actress Anjelica Huston, Glee star Lea Michele and fashion designer Calvin Klein.
In a March 1 letter on behalf of PETA to New York City Councilwoman Christine Quinn, Huston said she was surprised that a city known for its progressive spirit still allows this cruel and dangerous tourist trap.
“Several accidents over the past few months highlight the immense safety hazard and lack of regulation of this industry,” the letter continued.
Almost 75,000 people have signed the NYCLASS petition to replace the horse drawn carriages with electric powered vintage replica vehicles, based on the legislation introduced by Councilmember Melissa Mark-Viverito.
Despite this, Bloomberg continues to endorse the industry. Speaking about horse and carriage opponents last year during a press conference, Bloomberg stated, “I have no idea what goes through their minds.”
“Carriage horses have traditionally been a part of New York City,” he said.
Protesters eager to ban the industry can be regularly seen on the edge of the park, but their presence doesn’t deter tourists from climbing aboard a horse and carriage.
Two such tourists are Irish mother and daughter Anna and Ann McKee. From Belfast, they told the Irish Voice they planned to do the horse and carriage ride as part of their first trip to New York City.
“We planned to do it as we knew Central Park was really big,” Anna McKee told the Irish Voice.
City dwellers themselves understand why some people are opposed to the industry.
“The thing I would be concerned about is traffic,” McKee said. “But the horses didn’t seem scared.
IT’S almost 5 p.m. For today Paddy’s workday is complete as we begin the ride back to his home at Clinton Park Stables, located just off the West Side Highway at 52nd street.
Seemingly undisturbed by the noise of a bustling Seventh Avenue, Paddy leads the way down the busy street as cabbies and tour buses whiz by.
Before his life in the city, Paddy was used for transporting vegetables to a market.
“He was used to being on the road already,” Malone told the Irish Voice.
“The difference between being on the road on Pennsylvania and Manhattan is that 90 percent of the job is waiting,” Malone said. “You have to teach the horse to wait and be patient.”
As for the speeding cars, the cyclists and sirens of rush hour New York, Malone says they don’t tend to spook the horses.
“What has impact is obscurities that they have never seen before, whether it be a street sweeper, a construction site, diggers and things like that,” he said.
As we pass through quieter cross streets between avenues, Paddy picks up his pace as Malone admits that not every horse could survive the bright lights of the city.
"When you go to buy a horse, you want the one with the head down and not the head up. The one with the head up has too much energy,” Malone says. “The horses that are spirited are not for us.”
We arrive back to the Clinton Park Stables on 52nd Street about 30 minutes after leaving the park.
The stable hands tend to Paddy, as Malone offers the Irish Voice a tour of the three-story Hell’s Kitchen stables, home to 75 horses.
“One of the criticisms is that it is multi-level stable,” Malone states.
“We happen to have fire rescue just down the street. That is the beauty of being in the city. We have a plan for everything here in case of emergency.”
After they return from a day’s labor the horses are led up a steep ramp to their allocated uniform stalls, where their ID information is displayed. Malone points out the sprinkler systems overhead and the misters for the high summer temperatures.
“Everybody has a schedule, the stables hands are here 24-hours,” Malone says.
“We are an open book,” he says. “Whoever wants to come and see us is welcome to come and see us.”
Following on from the industry’s open door policy, over 100 people attended the stable tour open house this past weekend as part of the association’s ClipClop initiative.
As for the future, Malone says the association remains dedicated.
“We will continue to protect our industry. We will continue to keep doing the business that we have been doing for 150 years,” he says.