A driver leads his horse and carriage filled with passengers in downtown San Antonio. Photo by Scott Ball.
A driver leads a horse-drawn carriage with passengers through downtown San Antonio. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Some San Antonio City Council members want to do away with the horse-drawn carriages that operate downtown, citing concerns about the welfare of the horses.

A council consideration request (CCR) filed Nov. 28 by Jalen McKee-Rodriguez (D2) and Phyllis Viagran (D3) asks city staff to come up with a plan that would “phase out” the industry by December 2023.

It calls for stopping the renewal of all horse-drawn carriage permits, replacing the horse-drawn carriages with electric carriages or pedicabs and offering job training to help those employed by the industry find new careers.

“For years residents have called out the use of horse-drawn carriages as inhumane, cruel means of travel,” the CCR reads. Animal welfare issues, “in addition to environmental impacts of idling cars and slowed traffic, justify a transition away from the use or horse-drawn carriages.”

A CCR is the first step in directing the city to come up with a more detailed plan, which would then be discussed and voted on by City Council.

It has the backing of Councilwomen Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4) and Ana Sandoval (D7), Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) and Mayor Ron Nirenberg, who said Thursday he’s “fully supportive of the effort to move away from horse-drawn carriages on city streets.”

The effort quickly drew praise from animal rights activists, who McKee-Rodriguez said had been circulating a petition on the issue and would be engaged in pushing it forward through the council.

“This isn’t ancient Rome, it’s 2022, and our modern-day society will no longer tolerate this gruesome abuse,” Marty Irby, executive director at Animal Wellness Action, said in a statement.

Representatives from the carriage industry said Thursday that the council members’ move came as a surprise, but that they’re quickly gearing up to push back.

“Our hope is that there’s going to be somebody that will sit down with us, because at the moment nobody’s approached us, nobody’s tried to talk to us,” said Stephanie Garcia, owner of the Yellow Rose and H.R.H. Carriage Company, which holds a permit to operate downtown. “Obviously we are going to move forward and try and fight this all the way.”

Indeed, San Antonio’s carriage companies have engaged the help of industry ally the Cavalry Group, which has lawyers to help horse-drawn carriage companies sue municipalities that try to shut down their business. In recent years it has even gone on offense, passing laws against bans on working animals in Oklahoma and Arkansas.

“These animal rights extremists are also coming after rodeos, animal agriculture, pet ownership, zoos” in cities all across the country, said Cavalry Group President Mindy Patterson.

“I never in a million years dreamed that something like this would happen in Texas, of all places,” she said. “San Antonio has not even been on the radar.”

The horses

At the heart of City Council’s proposal is animal welfare, McKee-Rodriguez said.

But Garcia said the proposal unfairly characterized the treatment of the horses, in particular the idea that they don’t get to spend time in a pasture. She owns an air-conditioned facility downtown, as well as a ranch near Somerset that serves as the horses’ primary residence.

“Our horses go home every day, so they get pasture time every day,” Garcia said.

In recent weeks Garcia and other carriage companies had been working with the city’s Transportation Advisory Board and its contracted equine veterinarian to amend some of the rules regulating their operations.

In September, the board agreed to eliminate a rule that says carriages can’t operate between noon and 8:30 p.m. on days with an Air Quality Health Alert, according to meeting minutes. The board also was considering amending a provision to the city charter that says carriages couldn’t operate when the temperature is at or above 95 degrees. The change would allow carriages to start operating at 8:30 p.m. regardless of the temperature.

“We believed that everything was going positive,” Garcia said of the discussions.

The city has one set of rules for the carriages through its Animal Care Services Department, but the San Antonio Police Department’s ground transportation unit began enforcing a second set of rules this past summer. SAPD’s rules are the ones the carriage industry was working to change.

SAPD did not respond to an email requesting comment.

Industry transition

Among the details that still need to be determined if the proposal to ban horse-drawn carriages moves forward are whether companies that hold permits that expire soon would be grandfathered into a phase-out program or if they would be forced to stop operating immediately when their permit expires.

“This is not just my livelihood, it’s 30 employees. … I’ve got horses,” Garcia said. “… How do they expect us to organize everything that we’re supposed to do within 12 months?”

Garcia expressed concern that “half of these horses would end up being put to slaughter” if the industry came to an abrupt end.

McKee-Rodriguez said that compared to the way other cities had moved to end the operation of horse-drawn carriages, San Antonio would seek to transition the industry in a way that’s fair and supports the carriage industry throughout the process.

“We don’t want workers to be without jobs,” he said. “We want those folk who would run a company or work in this industry to be able to transition as seamlessly as possible into doing something very similar, but in ways that maybe don’t involve horses.”

“I think we’re going to have to have conversations that… aren’t rooted in fear,” he added.

Patterson said her group has been pushing back on carriage bans in other cities and threatened legal ramifications for San Antonio.

“[City leaders] will be facing potential lawsuits by destroying legal businesses, and hurting the livelihood of all these carriage owners,” she said.

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Andrea Drusch

Andrea Drusch writes about local government for the San Antonio Report. She's covered politics in Washington, D.C., and Texas for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, National Journal and Politico.