Are the horse-drawn carriages plying San Antonio’s downtown streets a quaint connection to the past or a 21st century anachronism?
The tourist amenity has escaped serious scrutiny in San Antonio even as critics of horses working urban streets have gathered force in New York City and other metro areas. It’s one aspect of downtown life there that has somehow not come into play as city officials and urban redevelopment advocates push for change on other fronts.
Is now the time to reconsider the viability of horses working in the center city?
In other cities around the country, notably New York City, the welfare of horses working in vehicle traffic, breathing exhaust fumes, working hot summer days, and pounding hard pavement had led to calls for shutting down the operations. Horses simply do not belong with buses and other vehicles with drivers often overly anxious to find a route around the plodding horses on narrow streets, critics argue.
Horse drawn carriages are still at work in other major cities, including Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Savannah, Ga. and St. Augustine, Fla. Other cities, however, have banned the practice, including Las Vegas and Reno, Santa Fe, and Key West. Salt Lake City recently banned horse-drawn carriages after a horse collapsed on a street and later died last year.
Internationally, Toronto, Shanghai, London, Rome and Paris have banned horse-drawn carriages.
The national debate is hottest right now in the Big Apple. Backed by organizations that oppose the practice, the New York City Council had legislation presented before it in December, now pending, that would ban all horse-drawn carriages.
Some groups in San Antonio would like to see a similar ordinance.
While an outright ban has not received serious consideration here, city officials have adopted tougher regulations intended to afford greater protection to working horses, especially in the stifling heat of the summer.
Last year, San Antonio approved an updated city ordinance regulating vehicles-for-hire, which included horse-drawn carriages. Only horses that are three years or older and weigh at least 1,200 pounds can draw a carriage. A horse’s working hours were cut from a 10-hour shift to an eight-hour shift, which is shorter than New York City’s nine-hour shift. Each horse is required to rest for 16 consecutive hours after working a shift of any length. A log book must be kept for every shift a registered horse works.
A weekday shift can be 9 a.m.-4 p.m. and 6 p.m.- 2 a.m. Holiday and weekend shifts are 10 a.m.-6 p.m. and 6 p.m.- 2 a.m. The carriages are limited to certain roads, and are not typically available for hire during rush hour. Drivers are required to give their horses water and a 10-minute break after each tour.
A carriage horse will typically trot for a 20-minute ride once an hour on weekdays and once every half hour on weekends, said Mari, a horse carriage operator who only wanted her first name used. If a horse works an entire eight-hour shift and only pulls 20 minute rides, the shortest option available to customers, the horse could provide 16 rides in a single shift.
The carriages are only permitted to operate when temperatures remain less than 95 degrees.
“In San Antonio there is extreme heat and regulations don’t take into account the humidity. Heat is radiating off the pavement that can make it 30-40 degrees higher,” said Edita Birnkrant, campaign director of Friends of Animals, an organization that is opposed to horse-drawn carriages. St. Augustine, Fla., has a restriction of 95 degrees or a heat index of 105 degrees.
Carriage operators in San Antonio are required to carry water and a bucket in the carriages for the horses.
“Horses handle the heat fine. They do sweat. They do perspire. We make sure they get plenty of water. I think we could go to 97 or 98 degrees without harming the horse,” said Kevin Dodd, the permit holder for Bluebonnet Carriage Co.
Those that oppose horse-drawn carriages say it’s intrinsically burdensome on horse health to be “forced” to walk among traffic.
“We are opposed because of the danger posed to horses forced to work in traffic and no amount of regulation can protect pedestrians and drivers if (a horse) spooks,” said Ashley Byrne, a PETA campaign specialist.
If a horse is spooked, it can bolt in an instant, endangering the operator, pedestrians, other vehicles, and the horse itself. In April 2014 a spooked horse bolted down the streets of Savannah, Ga., eventually throwing its driver and scraping parked cars before the horse was calmed and the passengers could exit. The last time a horse spooked in San Antonio was in 2009.
The horses are trained to become desensitized to loud noises and flashing lights by the carriage companies, but that doesn’t protect them from other traffic. In December 2013, a carriage in San Antonio was struck by a car which then fled the scene. With recent pushes to develop downtown San Antonio, increased traffic and construction could become a danger to horses and passengers.
Sanitation issues are another concern. City ordinances require horses to wear diaper devices. These devices capture most solid waste excrement, but some can fall out. The carriage companies have a rotating schedule to clean the streets every night. The police department requires a person to be on call for any large amount of excrement found on the streets which must be cleaned up within 30 minutes of the companies being notified, Dodd said.
A worker for Centro San Antonio‘s downtown Amigos and Ambassadors said it’s common to have to steam clean city streets overnight to remove horse manure and urine, which is washed down the city’s stormwater system and eventually makes it way into the San Antonio River, contributing to the river’s high fecal count.
Liquid waste, however, isn’t captured. The carriage stands are sprayed with Odor Liquidator, an enzyme based odor eliminator, said James Richards Jr., director of Centro’s Public Improvement District Operations. No water is used to clean the streets, but rainwater will eventually drain into the sewers.
Once they stop working in the carriage industry, no further documentation of the horse is required. Bluebonnet Carriage Co., however, keeps their horses.
“When a horse gets too old, we keep them. Until they suffer, then we put them to sleep,” said Dodd.
The legislation before the New York City council specifically states that retired horses could only be sold to places where they would not be in danger of slaughter.
“It calls for careful record-keeping to ensure that (the horses) can’t be sold in an auction and then sold to a slaughterhouse,” said Byrne. “We encourage them to retire the horses to sanctuaries or to caring private homes, so they can have space and can socialize.”
Being put out to pasture isn’t always better, according to Dodd. Horses can’t eat every plant available. They require plenty of fresh water, and brushing is still necessary to keep the manes and tails tangle-free. The hooves need to be trimmed and the teeth floated or filed down to prevent sharp edges which can prevent a horse from properly eating.
“The horses aren’t being abused. They are doing what they were bred to do. It’s not abusing them to pull a carriage for five to six hours a day. They have a much better quality of life than horses in pasture,” said Dodd. “The horses are groomed twice a day, bathed daily, and receive excellent feed.”
City regulations require veterinary health checks every six months for registered horses and are subject to unannounced visits by animal control services.
“San Antonio isn’t the number one tourist industry in Texas because of horse-drawn carriages, (but) people are going to spend money on something if it’s available,” said Birnkrant.
*Featured/top image: A driver leads his horse and carriage filled with passengers in downtown San Antonio. Photo by Scott Ball.