Should a sustainable city be horse-friendly? Yea or neigh?

A plan to end New York's famed carriage rides raises the question for cities, including Seattle and its own horse-drawn heritage.
Crosscut archive image.

Modern-era Pioneer Square horse-drawn carriage rides are for tourists.

A plan to end New York's famed carriage rides raises the question for cities, including Seattle and its own horse-drawn heritage.

In the spring of 1964, I visited New York for the first time. For a boy who grew up in Seattle, it was a city of wonder. I saw my first Broadway musical ("Oliver!"), visited the Empire State Building, then still the tallest building in the world. I went to the Statue of Liberty, the museums, the Cloisters. I hunted for beatniks in Greenwich Village.

Small things stick in memory: I loved the multi-colored taxi cabs — especially the spacious Checkers, the only ones who would take our family of five, legally at least. I was almost run over standing in the middle of the street mesmerized by the steam wafting from manhole covers. It was like being in the midst of a concrete Yellowstone. We visited the Plaza Hotel, home of Eloise, and it was near there that I first saw the horse carriages near Central Park.

I begged my mom to take us for a ride. I remember the sound of the clopping hooves and the slow, graceful speed with which the carriages moved through one of the world's premier parks. I was amazed at the way nature seemed to flourish in the middle of Manhattan. Seeing it flow by from a carriage gave me the sense that this was the way the park was meant to be seen. Certainly in Seattle where the Olmsteds designed our park and boulevard system, there had been a reluctance to let the new fangled automobile dominate where views were designed to unfold at a slower pace.

Flash forward half a century from my visit and we hear that New York's new Mayor Bill de Blasio has made it a priority to eliminate the carriages on behalf of the horses. PETA says horse-drawn carriages are an outdated, cruel practice — animals should not be used for "entertainment." PETA has also scolded Seattle for its fish-tossers at the Pike Place Market.

Seattle too has lefty mayors and engages in moral crusades. Back in 2000, Seattle Mayor Paul Schell proposed banning circus animals from the city in the name of cruelty. This city of vegans and animal lovers disagreed, however, and the ban failed. It also became a kind of shorthand for a mayor and city council too often distracted by the over-reach of silly politics. What about helping the homeless who, still, wander the city and our greenbelts from encampment to encampment?

De Blasio has said, "We are going to get rid of horse carriages, period." I fully agree that owners who mistreat their horses ought to feel the lash of the law, but horses have always been a part of our urban landscapes. We no longer rely on them for basic transportation and hauling, but they still carry policemen, for example.

I don't believe a horse pulling a carriage is inherently inhumane. If anything, the animals are in the service of the "creative economy." The work has shifted to something that creates unique urban experiences — a bit of magic you take home in the form of indelible memory. The Central Park carriages are an example of that, and horses haul tourists the world over, even here in Seattle on a smaller scale.

The world's great cities are filled with attractions that serve little real purpose beyond changing the way we see and experience a city — the Eiffel Tower, San Francisco's cable cars, the Statue of Liberty, the Space Needle.

Beyond that, zoos, aquariums and, yes, circuses are opportunities to put city dwellers in contact with animals in a positive way. Yes, it's entertainment and conditions and treatment matter. But it's not inherently wrong.

Horses are heritage too — urban heritage. Their backs are the ones on which our cities were built. Horses were dominant in urban transport well into the first decades of the 20th century. Seattle explored ways to accommodate recreational use of horses even after the automobile arrived in 1900. The system of citywide bike paths, it was suggested, could be converted to bridle trails. In what is now the Arboretum, a harness-racing track was built — we know it now as Azalea Way — and a large riding club was envisioned. Visitors could rent horses for trail rides. All of that came to nought as the auto took hold.

A modern, sustainable city needs street activity, vendors and entrepreneurs. It also relies on people who visit and spend for reasons that aren't entirely rational — tourism fuels modern urban economies. A city needs to embrace this history as well as put on a show. A healthy city needs to be for more than just machines. There's humanity, too, in the relation between humans and horses — workhorses included. Surely cities that aspire to be bike- and pedestrian-friendly can also, in a limited way, be horse-and-carriage-friendly. Streets for all, right?


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.