Horses Carts and Carriage Horses and Animal Rights

Arguments For and Against Using Horse Carts and Carriage Horses

Carriage horse working in snowstorm, NYC
Carriage horse in snowstorm, NYC. Donny Moss

This article was updated and re-written in part by 
Michelle A. Rivera, About.Com Animal Rights Expert


From a pure animal rights standpoint, horses should not pull carts or carriages because forcing them to do so violates their right to be free. However, this is not the only reason that many oppose horse carts and carriages. Many point to concerns about working conditions and threats to the health and safety of both people and horses.

Although urban centers throughout the United States feature horse carriages for tourists, most of the controversy has centered around New York City, which has the highest carriage horse accident rate in the country.

While some argue for a ban on carriage horses and others believe there is nothing wrong with the industry, still others believe the industry can be humane only under certain conditions.

Working Conditions

According to the Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages, carriage horses in New York City work 9 hours a day, 7 days a week, sometimes in bitter cold and oppressive heat. Around the country, horses pull carriages through traffic on pavement and sometimes cobblestone, which is hard on their joints. The horses also constantly breathe in car exhaust which leads to respiratory problems. Collisions between horses and vehicles, which are not uncommon, are a threat to both people and horses.

In the last decade, nine young horses have died and many more have been injured, reports the Animal ​Legal Defense Fund.

Although there are laws to protect the horses, enforcement is not perfect. In December of 2008, activists recorded video of horses being forced to work through a snowstorm in New York City, despite a law that prohibits working the horses during “adverse weather conditions.” The law required the horses to be recalled if the weather turned bad, but it took nearly two hours to recall the horses after the snowstorm started and authorities did not have the power to recall the horses any earlier.

When not working, the horses are confined in tiny stalls in indoor stables with substandard conditions, such as a lack of water, bedding, air conditioning and fire sprinklers. Some horses are tethered and are unable to turn around in their stalls, which frustrates their nature as highly social herd animals.

ASPCA Statements

The official position of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which is charged with enforcing the laws that protect carriages horses in New York City, is that it “is not opposed to the use of horses and other equines in pulling carts and carriages for hire.” However, ASPCA President and CEO Ed Sayres stated in November, 2009:

We have said time and time again that neither the New York City environment nor current law provides carriage horses with the fundamental necessities to ensure their safety and well being . . . The use of carriage horses in New York City is not only a safety hazard to city residents, tourists, pedestrians, motorists and the horses themselves, but horses must often work seven days a week in heavily congested traffic and extreme temperatures.

Arguments for Horse-Drawn Carriages

Carriage operators argue that the horses are their livelihood, that they love their horses, and that they have every incentive to treat the horses well.

Some argue that horse-drawn carriages are an important tradition that deserves to live on, and improved conditions and regulations can address health and safety concerns.

Ban on Horse-Drawn Carriages

Various cities in the United States and around the world have already banned the use of carriage horses. Over the years, New York City has considered several bills banning the use of horse-drawn carriages, but none have become law. Some argue that the horses will be sent to slaughter if the ban becomes reality, but at least one version of the bill has required the humane disposition of the horses. Also, spent horses are already sent to auction and uncertain fates. Several former carriage horses have been rescued from auctions and/or slaughter, despite the industry’s claims that retired horses go to private farms and sanctuaries.

The ASPCA believes the phase-out of carriage horses in NYC is "much-needed and past-due."

A ban on horse-drawn carriages came very close to being passed. A bill introduced by Mayor Bill de Blasio in January, 2014, caused a big problem in New York as animal rights activists squared off with people who wanted to keep carriage horses walking the streets of New York. Mayor de Blasio made campaign promises to phase out the carriage horse industry in New York by the middle of 2016, so an active New York based animal rights groups called  NYClass donated  $174,000 to his campaign. They advocated tirelessly to pass a bill to phase out carriage horse rides completely but compromised by agreeing to limiting carriage horse rides in Central Park. But they were no match for the Teamsters Union when they failed to support the bill after promising to do so. They argued that too many employees of the industry would be out of jobs. Irish actor Liam Neeson ingratiated himself into the issue and in an appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart said "The horse carriage industry, they made the roads in New York," Stewart called him out on this outrageous statement by asking "What do you mean they made the roads? Are the roads made of horse shit?" Stewart, who is a well-known animal advocate, continued on behalf of the horses. The segment ended in pretend fisticuffs, but Stewart stated in all sincerity "I will not be able to walk away from this." The FBI nor animal rights groups have seen the end of this debate.