The debate over banning horse-drawn carriages in Central Park has gained momentum since Mayor de Blasio — an avid critic of the practice — entered office.
On one side, animal rights activists call the carriage rides inhumane because of the hot asphalt and tough city conditions the horses are forced to endure; on the other, carriages are a novelty and show the more romantic side of the city.
Not to mention, thousands of people depend on these horses to work.
“The horses are part of Central Park,” Natasha Kabanova, a Middle Village resident and carriage driver, said. “They are tradition, a landmark almost. The job sounds so simple but it’s not that simple. It is our life.”
Most carriage drivers, including Kabanova, are outwardly against the ban and said the leaders pushing for legislation, including de Blasio, aren’t doing it for the horses’ sake.
“Those people who want to do it, they understand what they’re doing,” Kabanova, a Russian immigrant who has been a driver for four years, said. “They have their own plans for the stable land.”
There have been allegations made against de Blasio and the animal rights groups NYCLASS and PETA that removing the horses would open up much-desired land that could be used for new residential or mixed-use buildings.
“The mayor is absolutely after the land,” Paul McDaid, a Sunnyside resident and driver, said. “He has been pro-horse-drawn carriages in the past as public advocate and in the City Council. But there are people who financed his campaign who want to get a hold of the Hudson yard area where we have two of our stables.”
As for animal cruelty, McDaid, who owns fives horses and has been driving for 25 years, said there is nothing to worry about.
“Horses actually built Central Park,” he said. “They fought in wars, they’ve been in construction. Even to this day in the more rural countries they are used for farming, harvesting and transportation. These people who think this is cruel think having any animal is cruel. As far as they’re concerned, having a horse pull something is abuse. That’s not abuse, it’s what they’re bred for.”
He added that asphalt —which NYCLASS has said is dangerous for horses to walk on — was created with work horses in mind, and that worrying about the wear and tear is just ridiculous because each horse wears four shoes.
Almost all of the horses used in Central Park are draft horses, which were and continue to be used for towing heavy loads.
“The horses like to work, they are hyper,” Kabanova said. “They get days off but it’s better to work on a daily basis. If not, it’s like telling a kid they have to stay inside all day every day.”
While the question of de Blasio’s motives remains a mystery, Kabanova and McDaid said they believe the general members of animal rights groups believe what they’re doing is what’s best for the animals.
“The leaders use public opinion and manipulate it,” Kabanova said. “There are some people who took the side of these groups who may not understand horses. People who deal with horses every day, they take our side but often they are not the people who are as involved on Facebook as the others are.”
As a replacement for carriages, NYCLASS proposed having drivers use vintage-looking electric cars. McDaid and Kabanova shudder at the thought.
“I’m not a car driver,” Kabanov said. “I’m a carriage driver.”
Contrary to popular belief, the horses do not work relentlessly. Drivers will not take their animals out if it is too cold or warm and each horse spends at least five weeks in Pennsylvania in Amish country.
McDaid said his horses often get furloughed for even longer, up to six months.
“These are the best-regulated animals in New York City,” McDaid said. “They are checked thoroughly by vets, we have five agencies looking over the business. This is easily one of the most regulated businesses in the city. The only reason we’re here is because we’re running a fantastic business.”
Both drivers are confident that in the end, the City Council will do the right thing, but want to guarantee that in the meantime, activist groups won’t sway people too much.
“Sometimes, it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the oil, you know? They make a lot of noise,” McDaid said. “But I have kids, adults and other people come up to me all the time to pet the horse and tell me how healthy they looked.”
A recently released Quinnipiac poll shows 66 percent of city residents approve of the carriages, a two percent increase from last year.
“We welcome inspection,” McDaid said. “If there really is animal cruelty going on, shut us down today.”