Beating, overdriving and overloading carriage horses in the streets stirred Henry Bergh, a diplomat appointed by President Abraham Lincoln, to lead the first organized efforts to protect animals in the United States in the 1800s.

The scale of the mistreatment is far more limited in 2022, but some of the abuse carriage horses saw in the 1800s continues today in a few major cities — but with none of the practical purposes in a pre-automobile era that motivated the use of the horses more than a century ago.

San Antonio is one of those few remaining cities, alongside places like New Orleans and Nashville, that still allow horse-drawn carriages amid ongoing automobile traffic.

Horses don’t belong in traffic on congested city streets, often slick with rain, with the overburdened animals fatigued from carting around tourists and breathing car and truck exhaust. Accidents are inevitable and while they haven’t been prevalent in San Antonio recently, they do persist. 

Since this is a tourism experience rather than an actual means of practical transportation, advocates for the horses are demanding change. Councilmembers Jalen McKee-Rodriguez (D2) and Phyllis Viagran (D3) recently filed a council consideration of request, asking for city staff to provide a plan that would “phase out” horse-drawn carriages in San Antonio.

The City of Chicago made headlines across the nation with the passage of a ban on horse-drawn carriages in the Windy City that took effect last year. A multitude of cities have already banned the use of horse-drawn carriages across the country, including Las Vegas, Nevada; Asheville, North Carolina; Salt Lake City, Utah; Camden, New Jersey; the Florida cities of Key West, Palm Beach, Pompano Beach and Treasure Island. Even the small town of Biloxi, Mississippi was forward-thinking enough to eliminate the use of horse-drawn carriages in that municipality. Internationally, Montreal, Toronto, Mumbai, Barcelona, Shanghai, London, and Paris have all banned horse-drawn carriages as well.

Today, horse-drawn carriages are a vestige of what they once were, and there are some regulations designed to shield horses from intentional cruelty. The problem in 2022 is that mishaps are inevitable, and the working conditions fundamentally at odds with our modern-day expectations for horse welfare. Keeping horse-drawn carriages in an uncontrolled environment amid traffic isn’t practical or safe for the horses or passengers.

In contrast, horses utilized in harness racing across the U.S. are driven and worked at facilities specifically designed for them with safety mechanisms in place — race tracks that maintain a controlled environment with no interference from outside forces like cars, trucks and electric scooters that whiz by carriage horses in major cities each day and can easily scare them. Horses are prey animals that depend on flight as an instinctive means of survival and utilizing them amid traffic isn’t conducive to their biological makeup.

Local restaurants, bars, theaters, and other businesses have been among those who demanded that the horse-drawn carriages be withdrawn from their commercial center in cities like Cincinnati, where the smell of manure from the horses and flies is detracting from the business-friendly environment.

The most prominent argument against the elimination of horse-drawn carriages in major cities has been eliminating jobs. None of us want to see a person lose their livelihood, and that’s why the proposal championed by McKee-Rodriguez and Viagran calls for “determination of feasibility and establishment of a program to support a workforce transition from horse-drawn carriages to electric carriages and pedicabs by December 31, 2023.”

Electric carriages are already in place and working well in other major cities like Charleston, South Carolina, and Santa Clarita, California. in the U.S., and more prominently on the international stage in cities like Mumbai, Guadalajara, Berlin, Istanbul, Santo Domingo, Petra, and Dubai. If these cities can make the change, then San Antonio can, too.

We applaud the San Antonio council members who are backing this proposal for their tremendous work, and practical consideration, and hope the body will soon take action to end this antiquated tradition. Some traditions, especially those that can cause harm to voiceless animals like our iconic American equines, should be broken and we call on the San Antonio City Council to finalize their proposal and do just that.

Marty Irby

Marty Irby, is the executive director at Animal Wellness Action, senior vice-president of communication and public policy at the Center for a Humane Economy, and an eight-time world champion equestrian...