The Urban Carriage Horse Ride
A 21st Century Anachronism

A horse carriage waits for passengers at Central Park.
Andrey Kravchenko/iStockphoto

February 19, 2014
by Holly Cheever, DVM

Carriage horse rides in urban settings remain popular tourist attractions in many cities, but, unfortunately, they place the horses in inappropriate environments that are detrimental to their health and well-being.

Unequivocally, horse-drawn carriages and motor vehicles should not share the same roadways, as doing so puts the animals and public at risk. With their exhaust fumes, hard road surfaces, and busy traffic patterns, cities are simply not humane—as opposed to survivable—environments for carriage horses. For these reasons, I recommend a ban on city carriage horse rides be implemented in each municipality, unless the horses can be restricted to a park or other area where they will not need to compete with motor vehicles for road space, and where their stabling provides the essentials of comfortable, humane, and safe housing, including the provision of daily “turn-out.”

In debating whether urban carriage horse rides are benign entertainment or an inherently abusive misuse of animals, we must examine relevant aspects of the horses’ lives, care, and use in the hazardous (to horses) and busy city environment, including the horses’ source, health, training, stabling, proper management, availability of veterinary care, rest periods, and final disposition when they are no longer capable of pulling carriages.


To achieve maximum profit with a minimum expenditure of time and resources, horses purchased for urban carriage rides are selected based on prior exposure to carriage use. Those purchased at auctions (often from “killer sales”) in the northeast are typically from one of two backgrounds: the draft breeds come from Amish farms where they served as draft animals performing field work, while the smaller horses are the same communities’ retired carriage horses or are former Standardbred racehorses.1

Due to their previous use, many enter urban carriage horse companies with preexisting injuries (lameness, laminitis, arthritis, strained and bowed tendons,) and illnesses such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD, or “heaves”). These preexisting conditions can have a significant impact on the horses’ well-being, suitability for, and longevity in their new occupation.


Based on my experience interviewing New York carriage drivers, I found a distressingly large percentage of drivers lacked knowledge about horses and had no prior experience as carriage drivers in hazardous urban environments. Many are recent immigrants with no equine background. Thus, it is common to witness these drivers chatting over their shoulders with passengers, rather than focusing on their horses and the surroundings ahead. It’s also common to see drivers who lack control of their horses’ heads due to an improper (if any) grip on the reins, and who may stand in the driver’s box, which is forbidden by expert driving standards and in competitions.

A New York City carriage horse gives tourists a ride in evening traffic.

Respiratory Disease

Horses working in traffic shared with motorized vehicles are constantly nose-to-tailpipe, whether waiting for their next fare or moving with traffic. They exhibit resultant respiratory impairment, as detailed in an unpublished study conducted by Dr. Jeffie Roszel.2 Dr. Roszel’s study analyzed New York carriage horses’ respiratory health in 1985 when they were still limited to Central Park; they exhibited significant lung tissue damage and cellular changes due to their exposure to noxious vehicular emission fumes. For horses with any preexisting respiratory impairment such as COPD, a polluted urban atmosphere is a significant additional health stressor.


A lack of soundness is a major problem for horses who pound the city streets' hard, concussive surfaces throughout long shifts. Many are not given adequate farrier care and since many enter this industry with preexisting injuries or arthritis, their lack of soundness will only worsen. A horse’s hoof is healthiest when left unshod and properly trimmed on a regular basis. The excessive pounding on paved city surfaces makes the use of shoes indispensable, but many carriage horses do not receive the frequent maintenance needed to keep their feet healthy, especially if their stall hygiene is inadequate and they develop infections in addition to sole bruising or cracks in the hoof walls.

Heat Prostration

Horseless Carriages in New York City?

New York carriage horses have many compassionate and committed allies calling for their permanent retirement. Most powerful among them is the recently elected Mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, who while campaigning, pledged to end the carriage horse industry. In fact, both contenders in the recent mayoral race stated their opposition to horse-drawn carriages, as well as their support for a City Council bill that would essentially end the industry in The Big Apple altogether.

Intro.86A would phase out horse-drawn carriages in favor of "horseless carriages,"—new, cleaner, fully electric replicas of vintage cars—and would retire the more than 200 carriage horses to sanctuaries. Carriage drivers could, on a one-for-one basis, transfer their horse carriage medallions to the new electric cars, allowing them to keep their livery jobs. They would also gain the ability to work even more days, due to a lack of the weather constraints imposed upon their former horse-drawn vehicles. All in all, this pending City Council bill appears to be a win-win for both the horses and the drivers.

Hyperthermia has been found to be a leading cause of death in the carriage horse populations of New York, Atlanta, and Boston. Horses in harness on hot streets, denied sufficient access to water and time to cool down, often collapsed on the streets or in their stables. For this reason, equine experts recommended that horses should be kept off the streets when the combined temperature-humidity index (THI)—which is the sum of the temperature in degrees Fahrenheit and the humidity in percentage points—exceeds 140; for as the THI increases, so does the horses’ heat stress risk. One expert source states that a THI above 150 represents a serious threat to horses’ health, especially if the humidity value is more than half of the combined sum.3

In the critical temperature range of 89-96 degrees Fahrenheit, a large horse is greatly challenged in its ability to dissipate body heat into a hot environment, especially if high humidity is a factor. In a hot environment, a horse can lose 8-10 gallons of fluid with exercise, but if the air is saturated by high humidity, evaporative cooling cannot occur and the horse’s core temperature continues to climb. If the horse becomes dehydrated and cannot produce sweat, life-threatening anhydrosis ensues; keeping a horse well hydrated on urban streets is a challenge in these modern times with no public horse troughs.

Since New York City's asphalt surfaces have reached temperatures of 200 degrees Fahrenheit4, it is evident that keeping horses sufficiently cool on hot summer days in the humid northeast is virtually impossible. To add to the challenge these horses face, the U.S. Weather Bureau’s cited temperature readings are significantly lower than the temperatures within the carriage horses’ microenvironment (ground level to six feet off the pavement). A study conducted by Cornell’s Urban Horticultural Institute revealed the temperature at street level in New York could be as much as 45 degrees F. higher than that recorded by the U.S. Weather Bureau.5 This makes it critically important to measure the ambient temperature at horse elbow height to determine when the animals should be returned to their stables, rather than relying on the temperature reported in the media.


The horse is an animal with a highly developed and effective flight drive triggered when startled by an unexpected or threatening stimulus. Spooking can happen to even the best trained and well-mannered horses; their evolution as herbivores (prey animals) has conditioned them to bolt immediately when startled, dictating the need for carriage drivers to be in constant contact with their horses’ heads. It is unlikely that novice drivers will be able to fully anticipate potentially threatening stimuli in order to control the horses before they attempt to flee in panic. The possible result of a horse spooking while pulling a carriage in congested traffic is a tragic collision between the horse and the vehicles crossing at the next intersection the panicked horse gallops through, resulting in both equine and human fatalities. Such accidents are less likely to occur if horses are restricted to areas with no operating motor vehicles.


The essential provisions for appropriate stabling for horses, often of draft breed size, whose daily shifts are spent between the extremely confining shafts of their carriages, can depend on many variables. However, to ensure a humane existence for the horses, the stables must include: box stalls (not tie stalls) that are a minimum of ten by ten feet (twelve to fourteen foot square is better for the draft breeds); constant access to clean, potable water in each stall; good quality hay and grain secured in rodent- and moisture-proof containers; bedding that is sufficiently absorbent and deep to provide comfort to the animal when resting; and proper ventilation and cooling provided by fans to minimize ammonia fumes.

In addition, each horse should have—and rarely gets—daily turn-out in which he/she is given a period to relax with a compatible stable mate in a large enclosure where they can roll, mutually groom one another, lie stretched out, and generally obtain relief from their arduous shifts and the discomfort of tight-fitting harnesses. In so doing, they satisfy natural behavioral and physical needs. New York has no such space: Philadelphia, in 2000, had two stables with turn-out paddocks for their horses, but these are rare exceptions for carriage horse stables within city limits.

Learn More About Carriage Horses

The following websites provide information about efforts to promote the welfare of carriage horses and to ban the industry:

Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages»


Although carriage horse training and driving can be done with due attention to making the experience both humane and pleasurable for horses in a proper setting, the tourist trade in contemporary urban settings cannot provide a safe and healthy environment as long as the horses are threatened by motor vehicle traffic and physically injurious environments. The urban carriage horse ride is a nostalgic form of recreation whose time is long past.


  1. Personal communication with New York owners, 1988-92.
  2. Personal communication with Dr. Jeffie Roszel, 1989.
  3. Mackay-Smith, M. and Cohen, M. 1982. Exercise physiology and diseases of exertion. In Mansmann, McAllister, and Pratt (eds.), Equine Medicine and Surgery, 3rd edition, Santa Barbara CA, I: 125-129.
  4. New York Times, 7/9/89.
  5. Bassuk, N. and Whitlow, T. 1988. Environmental stress in street trees. Arbocultural Journal 12:197-200.


Dr. Holly Cheever has been the primary veterinary advisor to 2 states and 15 municipalities that have sought to either ban carriage horses from operating in their cities or devise protective legislation to prevent the equine abuse common in this industry during the past 25 years. She was involved with the campaign to ban carriage horses from New York City streets, initiated by the American Society for the Protection of Animals (ASPCA) and the New York-based Carriage Horse Action Committee during 1988-1996, and continues as an advisor to New York’s Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages. Dr. Cheever graduated from Harvard University, summa cum laude, in 1971 and from The College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University in 1980 with a class rank of #1. She has been in private practice ever since. After being an employee for 30 years, she recently opened a new practice—The Village Animal Clinic—in September 2010, in Voorheesville NY. In addition to her carriage horse advocacy, Dr. Cheever is also involved in efforts to prevent animal cruelty and educate the public about this issue and she is a regular lecturer at veterinary schools on various animal welfare issues. She is a member of the HSVMA Leadership Council.