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Horse-drawn carriages, once relied upon by humans as a means of transportation, have in modern times descended into yet another form of animal exploitation that exists solely for the amusement of humans. Thankfully, human entertainment is becoming less and less of an acceptable excuse for exploiting animals across the globe.
Many cities around the world have implemented bans or heavy restrictions upon the horse-drawn carriage industry, responding to the public’s growing concerns regarding the welfare and wellbeing of horses. Sadly, there are many cities still lagging behind in adequately reflecting the evolving ethics of society in regards to the ways in which we interact with animals.
Horses used for the industry are often forced to work 12 hour days in weather extremities, unable to express natural behaviours, kept in inadequate housing, forced to pull heavy loads and made to navigate heavy traffic, among a plethora of other issues. Horses are one of the most exploited animals throughout entertainment industries; their needs, welfare and health are commonly misunderstood by the general public. Horses are complex, social creatures who, when given the opportunity, will selectively graze for most of the day in their herd.
One huge detail that seems to often be forgotten when using horses for recreational and entertainment purposes is that for them to obey commands in these situations, they have previously been ‘broken in’. Much like the name describes, this process involves breaking horses’ spirits, forcing them into submission, ensuring they will follow human orders.
The breaking in process involves a number of techniques that are intended to exhaust or cause pain to horses, which will ultimately lead them to submit. Take for example the ‘mouthing’ process, which can involve placing a bridle on the horse’s head and bit in their mouth, attaching the reins to a roller around the horse’s girth and pulling the reins tighter and tighter, consequently pulling the horses head further and further down. This process is meant to force a horse to ‘soften to the bit’, making them more responsive to the direction the reins are pulled. It can also cause the horse’s mouth to become increasingly raw and painful.
Horses exploited for pulling carriages are often kept in inappropriate and inadequate housing in the inner city – a reality that has been well documented in New York. This housing is often small, offering little space for horses to express natural behaviors, seldom providing appropriate shelter from extremities of weather, exposing horses to city fumes and debris, as well as offering little security or protection from the public. In some cases, horses may be turned out to pasture for a ‘spell’, however this is not representative of the entire industry. Many horses are kept in city housing for months on end, with no regulation requirement to provide them any time away from the city.
Horses kept in small, barren and isolated living conditions often leads them to engage in abnormal behaviours, which reflect poor or lacking welfare. Cribbing, also known as wind sucking is a stereotypic behaviour where horses place their upper teeth on a hard object and suck in large amounts of wind. This behavior increases horses’ risk of developing stomach ulcers and colic, and is attributed to boredom and stress caused by a lack of mental stimuli. Other behaviours, including weaving, box walking and wood chewing, are also indicative of poor welfare and lack of mental stimulation in horses, and are commonly observed in horses housed in inappropriate conditions.
Horses used to pull carriages are frequently forced to work 12 hour days, tethered to street poles between customers, restrained, made to withstand members of the public posing with them for pictures and touching them without first establishing trust, unable to escape or move freely.
Codes of Practice in cities have proven to do little for the welfare of horses, acting more as a comfort to members of the public that there are standards to adhere to and that horses are protected. Where codes exist they are often not followed; in Melbourne, Australia, prior to a partial ban of the industry in 2017, operators frequently broke relevant rules and the council seldom enforced them due to a lack of resources and care.
Working in weather extremities
Horses are frequently made to work in weather extremities, particularly heat, being forced to work in the peak of summer when temperatures often reach higher than 30 degrees. Black tar roads often radiate heat 20 degrees higher than the recorded temperature, meaning horses can be exposed to temperatures exceeding 55 degrees celsius in cities with hot summers (like Melbourne) for entire work days. Horses have difficulty regulating their body heat in hot, humid environments and their normal cooling mechanisms can become ineffective. A lack of easily accessible water troughs compounds this issue and increases the risk of heat stress and exhaustion, which, in severe cases, can be fatal.
Working on hard surfaces
Forcing horses to ‘work’ on hard surfaces, like roads, can be extremely damaging to horses’ hooves. Horses used to pull carriages are at a higher risk of developing a condition known as laminitis, sometimes also referred to as founder, where the laminae of the horses foot becomes inflamed. In extreme cases a horse’s pedal bone can detach from the hoof wall and puncture the sole. This condition is incurable, painful and can require euthanasia.
Horses exploited for pull carriages are also exposed to city fumes and debris when they are working. Inflammatory airway disease is a condition caused by environmental irritants; exposure to air pollution from cars and general city filth could place horses at a higher risk of developing the disease. This is compounded by the way in which horses are housed – often in inadequate stalls in the city, with constant exposure to the same irritants.
Horses are made to navigate around cars, trams, buses, cyclists and any other mode of transport in between; this poses a huge risk to the safety of horses, and on a number of occasions has ended in injury and fatality. There have been countless incidents that have occured around the world, many resulting in the death of horses. Incidents that have occured in recent years include: cyclists crashing into carriages, cyclists being kicked by horses, drivers being thrown from carriages (resulting in crashes and injury), horses collapsing in the street, and a horse even being steered into a tram, with their head smashing through the glass [note] [note] [note].
Discarded when no longer ‘useful’
It is commonplace for horses to be sold once they are no longer considered ‘useful’ to their operators. Horses previously used to pull carriages have been documented ending up in sale yards where operators have no control over what type of homes these horses are placed in, or if they end up in knackeries and are slaughtered for pet food.
A horse previously used to pull carriages being sold off at the livestock exchange. Image: Melbourne Against Horse-Drawn Carriages