By Jason Guarente
In a city that stays in constant motion and a world that has never spun faster, the horse-drawn carriages in Central Park still run at the same speed. They’re a connection to an old-fashioned past.
For more than 150 years, they’ve served as a tourist attraction, a romantic getaway, a means to celebrate one of life’s landmark events.
Men tuck diamond rings into their pockets before climbing aboard. Patients stop by after undergoing cancer treatments. It’s a chance to escape. For 20 minutes or maybe more.
“It’s old New York,” said Pat Turner, who works in the business. “It’s an all-around beautiful thing. It doesn’t move fast. It moves slow. Everything else in New York moves fast.”
The industry has faced closer scrutiny in recent years. It has become a target for animal rights activists who argue pulling carriages is cruel to horses.
Chicago banned the practice at the start of last year. Former New York mayor Bill de Blasio, boosted by donations from the animal rights group New Yorkers for Clean, Livable, and Safe Streets, said he’d do the same when he ran in 2013. De Blasio’s second term ended in January with the carriages still operating.
Cornelius Byrne, whose family business has been carriage rides for more than 50 years, said they remain as popular as ever.
“People really enjoy it,” Byrne said. “I’ve had so many people tell me, ‘That’s the nicest thing I’ve done in New York.’ When you can get that type of a comment from a passenger who visited Broadway and all the museums and the other attractions, that’s a pretty nice compliment.”
A commentary written by Marty Irby, executive director of Animal Wellness Action and a lobbyist, appeared in the December edition of Mid-Atlantic Horse and called for the abolition of horse-drawn carriages. The article sparked outrage within that community.
Byrne, Turner and others dispute Irby’s claims that horses are mistreated.
“There’s an awful lot of expertise in this carriage business,” Byrne said. “We hire the best people to do the work. They’re very well-fed and everything else that goes along with it.”
Richie Fountaine, who has a carriage business in Oak Ridge, New Jersey, said the industry is highly regulated. All the horses are required to have a five-week vacation outside of the city. There are nine-hour work limits with mandatory veterinary care and vaccinations. If the heat index is too high, the horses aren’t allowed to work. They’ve been moved from city streets and placed in the park to get them away from traffic.
“Some of the owners have 3 or 4 horses for a 2-shift carriage,” Fountaine said. “These horses only work 4-to-6 months a year.”
Byrne said many carriage horses are rescued when they’re in need of a new purpose. This job provides them a home and a life.
“The horses are not overworked,” Byrne said. “As a matter of fact we use older horses in our business and they stick around pretty good compared to other industries that only want a really young horse. Our demand is low demand. They’re only asked to walk.”
Most of the business is run through Central Park Carriages. Each carriage is independently owned and operated through a medallion system similar to the one used by taxis. Owners must purchase a permit to operate in the city.
The website, www.centralparkcarriages.com, indicates a ride lasting 50-60 minutes costs $149 plus fees.
Byrne said calls to abolish the industry have a motivation that extends beyond animal wellness. The stables on 37th and 38th streets that house about 150 horses are located on valuable New York City land.
“We’re the absolute envy of the real estate industry,” Byrne said. “They use these animal activists to try to advance their own positions about taking over our properties. It’s the heart of what goes on here. Where the criticism comes from.”
The horse-drawn carriage industry is closely connected to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Medallion owners make regular trips there to have carriages repaired. They buy horseshoes, harnesses and grains to feed the horses.
Witmer Coach Shop and Sensenig’s Feed Mill in New Holland, Zimmerman’s Harness in Ephrata and Good’s Feed Mill in East Earl are some of the businesses frequented.
Turner said he comes to the Lancaster area twice a month, stays in hotels and eats at restaurants.
“We work very hard,” Turner said. “It’s a blue-collar job. Horses are a lot of work. They’re a lot of expense. We provide a great service for the public out there in New York City.”
Despite the regulations and increased scrutiny, Byrne said his business thrived over the holidays. The pandemic has actually helped carriage rides because it’s an outdoor activity that can be done safely.
Horses will always be an attraction, particularly in an urban setting. People love to visit with them and give them attention. That’s part of the appeal of carriages.
“It’s bringing people together once again,” Fountaine said. “One of the people that I had in my carriage was bragging about how his brother had recently gotten engaged in a carriage in Central Park. They said it was one of the most positive experiences they’ve ever had.”
The carriage industry relies on those moments. They never go out of style.