Horse Sensitivity

Animal-rights groups want stricter laws--or outright bans--on horses in urban areas.
by | February 2003

For longer than anyone in Baltimore can remember, horse-driven carts loaded with fruits and vegetables have plied city streets, the clip- clop beat drowned out by a vendor's yell: "Frrrresh strrrrawberrries!"

It is a scene that modernity relegated to the past in almost every city, and even in Baltimore, only a couple dozen horse-cart vendors, known locally as "A-rabbers," remain. Now, the city is working on new horse-safety rules that the A-rabbers fear could put their trade out to pasture.

A draft of the rules, which may become final this month, says horses must come off city streets when winter temperatures drop below a wind chill of 25 degrees Fahrenheit. In the summer, it would be considered too hot for the horses when the "heat index," a measure that accounts for humidity, exceeds 92 degrees. In addition, A-rabbers would be limited to roads with slow speed limits and would have to demonstrate their horse-driving abilities each year. "We have animal-rights groups that want to exclude all horses from city streets," says Robert Anderson, the city's administrator for environmental health. "But we can't just put the A-rabbers out of business, either."

This may sound like an antiquated debate in the automobile era, but it is the sort that dominated city councils a century ago when horses first shared the streets with "horseless carriages." And some of the old rules, although seldom enforced today, were never scrubbed from the books: Pennsylvania law, for example, technically still requires drivers to pull over and cover their cars with a blanket when they see a horse-drawn carriage coming, so as not to spook the horses.

Ironically, more and more cities these days are finding they need to re-visit their urban horse regulations. The reason? Even as the A-rab trade fades in Baltimore, in other places a resurgent business in horse-drawn carriages is booming. The gimmick draws ambiance-seeking visitors downtown, but horse-carriages can also have some foul side effects. In Memphis, for example, restaurants along touristy Beale Street complain that the animals stink. The city passed a law last year to prevent horse-carriages from parking within 100 feet of eateries. Carriage operators are fighting the rule in court.

As buggy rides grow in popularity, animal-rights activists are making treatment of carriage horses a cause celèbre. "Nose to the tailpipe" working conditions, they say, cause respiratory trouble for the horses. National and local groups are lobbying cities to ban the rides altogether. Short of that, they want strict rules that limit the horses' working hours, keep animals off the streets during inclement weather, provide regular veterinary check-ups and require space for horses who have been harnessed all day to stretch out in their stables. "We really shouldn't have carriage horses in an urban environment," says Lisa Weisberg, head of government affairs at the ASPCA. "It was one thing back in the 1800s when horses were the primary mode of transportation, but now it's purely for entertainment."

In Florida, activists succeeded in getting Palm Beach and Key West to ban carriage rides. Now, they're working on the city of Delray Beach, which gave the carriages a test run over the winter holidays. This month, the city may vote on whether to make them a permanent fixture. "The horse-and-carriage rides accentuate the ambiance we have downtown," says Mayor David Schmidt.

As many folks in Delray Beach see it, horses aren't the same problem for their town as they are in the congested streets and cramped stables of New York City. If Delray Beach votes to keep the horses, it will likely limit rides to after 6 p.m.--when the afternoon rush hour is over and the hot Florida sun has set. "My horses work only 20 hours a week," says local carriage operator Joe Mangano, noting that when the horses aren't working, they run free at a 10-acre farm where they have hot and cold water baths and stables with rubberized mats that are soft on their hooves. "These horses are living better than some people do."