The Deceptive Charm of the Horse-Drawn Carriage



Insomniac since my twenties, I have tried every herbal, narcotic, meditative, ocean-waved, breath-counting trick there is. The best, hands down, was the time I spent at a friend’s apartment in downtown Chicago. Snow fell lightly, outlining the gracious old hotels and turning the streetlights numinous, and every night the heavy clop-clop of the carriage horses’ hooves lulled me into an older, softer world. I lay there imagining a young woman, her cheeks flushed with wine and cold, snuggled under a wool blanket with someone she loved or hoped to love. Could there be a more pleasant way to end an evening?

Well, yeah. Because now I know horses get frostbite through their hooves, which get worn to a nub on city streets, and they choke on exhaust fumes, and sirens scrape their nerves raw, and sudden noises can startle them into bolting into traffic. The soporific has lost its appeal.

Animal rights activists tried to warn me about this problem years ago, and—honestly? I shied away from it, unwilling to condemn a practice I found so utterly charming. Surely there were good, responsible, horse-loving carriage companies? A few bad examples must have caused an overreaction. I wanted, with some urgency, to believe that those horses liked their job, enjoyed that placid four-beat walk their heads bobbing in time. They were bred to do heavy work, right? And this was retirement, after farm work, like an easy job shelving books at a library or greeting customers at a store entrance. Sensitive creatures, they could tell how much we loved them, how much pleasure they gave us. . . .

They are pulling a thousand-pound carriage. On a humid summer evening, they cannot sweat enough or gulp enough water to cool their system, so they overheat.

And then there are the humans.

In the past three years: A man in St. Louis was arrested after deliberately ramming his pickup truck into the back of a carriage. In New York, a man punched and kicked three carriage horses. In Charleston, a carriage was struck by a truck, and the horse bolted in panic. In North Carolina, a dog broke free from his leash and sank his teeth into a carriage horse’s throat. In New York, a horse stepped on an electrical plate and bolted at the shock, running loose for several blocks before crashing into a pole. A carriage horse collapsed in Central Park and was euthanized. Two spooked horses in Highland Park, Texas, bolted and slammed into a concrete wall, the impact fracturing one horse’s skull and breaking its back. In Ontario, a horse tripped and fell after the carriage he was pulling veered and hit a parked vehicle. In Cincinnati, a car traveling the wrong way struck a carriage and fled, leaving both horse and driver injured.

The incident I cannot forget, though, happened in 2016, when a St. Charles carriage horse got spooked, ran into the frigid Missouri River, and drowned.

Nostalgia can be cruel. Eager to pretend we can travel back in time, we ignore who we might hurt in the process. It felt good for White men to be a protected class and the undisputed authority in their own home, so the racists and incels want to set the clocks back. It was soothing to live in a country that called itself the world’s superpower and trusted its bedrock institutions, so the Trump supporters want to magically restore “greatness.” Me, I fancy myself long-skirted in literary Boston, circa 1890, so I refuse to acknowledge the collateral damage done to those clop-clopping carriage horses. We have impossible, rude, loud, reckless traffic now; our world is full of screeching wailing noises; the smooth cobblestones and mossy paths have been paved over; people are angry and often violent. And a horse’s nervous system has not changed.

Sick to my stomach at the naivete that kept me besotted with horse-drawn carriages and blind to the risks of anachronism, I look up the Animal Welfare Act and see to my relief that it protects horses.

Then I realize I am looking at the Animal Welfare Act in the UK.

Our own AWA is not strenuously enforced and does not cover all species. We have a Horse Protection Act for the horses. The HPA, I read, is “a federal law that prohibits sored horses from participating in shows, exhibitions, sales, or auctions.” Soring is the common but cruel practice of blistering or inflaming a horse’s forelegs to spark up their gait. It is similar to the old-fashioned practice of gingering involved rubbing a heat cream on a horse’s anus to prompt what looks like a prance.

Soring is all the HPA covers.

A long list of cities has banned horse-drawn carriages, that tourist-money stalwart. A few years back, a St. Louis alderman, alerted to the small cruelties and occasional catastrophes suffered by carriage horses, tried to follow suit. The Missouri Senate swiftly passed a law prohibiting local governments from prohibiting horse-drawn carriages.

Chicago, meanwhile, has banned horse-drawn carriages. The law went into effect just this year.

Much as I will miss those beauties, I will sleep better knowing they are gone.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.