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Jennifer Graham

The carriage horses are fine

New York mayor Bill de Blasio has proposed replacing carriage horses, like this one near Central Park, with antique cars.

AFP/Getty Images/file

New York mayor Bill de Blasio has proposed replacing carriage horses, like this one near Central Park, with antique cars.

In the parlance of equestrians, a “bomb-proof” horse is one that will calmly perform all tasks asked of it, will cross streams and intersections without hesitation, and will stay quiet and docile even if a firecracker explodes near its face.

The bomb-proof horse, like the unicorn, is a myth. Permanently stabled on the lowest rung of the food chain, horses are controlled not by people, but by their ancient brains, which constantly scan the landscape for danger — be it a wolf, a plastic bag borne by a breeze, or a New York mayor threatening their jobs in a perilous economy.

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Believing that the horse-drawn carriages in his city are inhumane, Bill de Blasio is vowing to shut them down. In doing so, he divides two constituencies that should be family. Both sides consist of people who care deeply about horses, but sharply differ on what’s in the best interest of the animals.

Though horse-drawn carriages have been less controversial here than in New York, the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has strong feelings on the subject: “These horses are forced to work in an unnatural and dangerous environment. Countless horses have been injured or killed by cars, or died prematurely as a result of the strain. Domestic horses need the mental and physical stimulation of having a job, and things like hay rides or weddings away from congestion are fine. But these scenarios are nothing like those faced by horses used to pull carriages in major cities.”

In contrast, the American Horse Council says this: “Horses are involved in a great number of diverse activities and work. There is no reason to believe pulling a carriage in an urban environment is in itself harmful to the welfare of a horse.”

To all this, the average Bostonian might say, “Who cares?” There are millions of people out of work in this country. By comparison, the fate of 200 carriage horses in Manhattan is like a fly on a mare’s withers, an insignificance flicked away with a shrug. Horses, once the nation’s over-the-road truckers, are a shrinking demographic. There are 9.2 million horses in the nation, of which about 2.5 million are gainfully employed in jobs such as racing, farming, rodeos, and law enforcement. Most are pleasure horses. Yet even as such, only 1 in 63 Americans has regular contact with horses, according to Horse Council data.

This is why to encounter a horse-drawn carriage on a city street is a visceral delight, a sight (and smell) uncommon to urban senses. This is why, to many of us, it’s still a thrill to see them. When anti-carriage lobbyists show pictures of horses lying dead or injured on city streets, they necessarily omit the snapshots of delighted children nuzzling the big beasts — sometimes the only horses an urban child will encounter.

In this capacity, the carriage horses are as useful as they are in ferrying brides and tourists. The child who strokes a draft horse in harness becomes a child who wants riding lessons, and who watches “The Black Stallion” and reads “Black Beauty,” and grows up to lobby with PETA against carriages — or, just as likely, to drive a carriage horse herself. Never do abusers outnumber the caring, and it’s not wise to govern at the whip of extremes.

Moreover, while there are miscreants in the carriage industry, and regulation is necessary to keep both animals and the people around them safe, there is no guarantee that an idyllic life at pasture will in all ways be better. Two years ago, a horse was set deliberately set afire while at rest in a Pennsylvania field. As Hobbes famously said, life in the state of nature is nasty, brutish, and short, and an abundance of clover may not change that basic fact. Meanwhile, there’s a solution to the problem that de Blasio seems to have overlooked, but which I would support: Keep the horses in our city centers. Expel the cars.

Jennifer Graham writes regularly for the Globe.
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