If you visit Central Park during the Westminster Kennel Club dog show, you might wonder why all those pedigree dogs are going for horse-drawn carriage rides. It’s the second annual Canines and Coaches event, organized to show that dog lovers stand united with the carriage operators of New York, whose horses are in danger of being put out to pasture — permanently.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has made banning the carriage horses part of his stated mission. Why? According to animal rights groups, asking a horse to pull a carriage is cruel. Is it? These carriages are not particularly heavy (one person can move one) and the horses are bred and conditioned for the job, get a mandatory five-week vacation at pasture outside the city (most spend three to six months there), are limited to working nine hours a day, take 15-minute breaks every two hours, and can’t work in adverse weather conditions, including temperatures under 18 degrees or over 90 degrees, or in ice, heavy snow, or heavy rain.
The carriage horse drivers believe the issue is really a land-grab ploy. Banning the carriage horses would free up the valuable land their stables sit on, allowing the city to sell it for millions of dollars and collect much more tax revenue in years to come.
The drivers worry they would lose their family income and their beloved horses. The horses might find homes elsewhere, but there’s already a glut of homeless horses. An additional 220 draft horses would be difficult to place.
But at the crux of the matter is the idea that animals shouldn’t have a job — that any animal that works for a living must be unhappy and, as such, is being mistreated. What about the Amish buggy horses? Their plow horses? Would they be next? Can you legislate a religious group out of not only their transportation, but their farm help as well?
If horses can’t pull, then it stands to reason they can’t carry a person on their back, either. No more horse riding. Certainly no more contests, like polo, racing, jumping, dressage, or endurance riding. That doesn’t leave much. Without the ability to drive or ride horses, very few people would opt to keep them; they’re an expensive luxury as it is. Would they be shipped to Canada and Mexico, where it’s legal to slaughter them for food? Would they be let loose to roam with the wild mustangs? We see how well that’s going. Or maybe they would become curiosities, relegated to zoos as their numbers dwindled.
Back to why dog fanciers care about what happens to the carriage horses. The issue begs the question: Why stop at horses? If a horse shouldn’t work, then why should a dog? No more service or guide dogs. No police or military dogs. No bomb or contraband detectors. No dogs to track down lost children. No guarding, herding, hunting, pulling, sledding, retrieving, trailing, or swimming allowed. No field trials, lure coursing, sled races, weight pulls, obedience trials, agility trials, or dog shows. To be fair, dogs would probably fare better than horses, as most people don’t expect their dogs to do much besides entertain and love them. But to some animal activists, even these are exploitive.
If it’s not cruel for people to work, why is it cruel for horses or dogs? I grumble about having to work, but to be honest, I’d go crazy without something constructive to do. Sitting around and watching TV isn’t all it’s cracked up to be — and dogs and horses don’t even have TV or Xbox to fall back on. Anyone with a performance dog knows they are happiest on the job.
Last year, as dog owners became more aware of the impending ban, they realized they needed to show their support. But nobody knew what to do. Enter Randie Blumhagen, a Shar-Pei owner from New Jersey who became interested in the carriage horse situation a couple of years ago.
“A friend who knows how I support the industry said she was coming to Westminster and wanted to arrange a ride,” she recalls. “A light bulb went off, and I said, ‘If she can, why not ALL exhibitors?’ Then I said — wait — why not their dogs, too? So with short notice we created the first Canines and Coaches.”
Last year about 50 people and their dogs showed up to show their support, with about half taking a carriage ride. “A Spinone Italiano who won breed came to the stables and took a ride,” says Blumhagen. She also recalls a Belgian Terverun, Sheltie, Dachshund, Basset Hound, English Toy Spaniel, Tibetan Spaniel, and others, all Westminster champions.
The people and dogs were able to tour the stables and see firsthand the relationship between the horses and their drivers. “They saw the personalities of the horses and how they are just as unique as their dogs,” Blumhagen recalls. “It was also wonderful to see how the dogs, some who had never seen that the carriage horses, were so calm, and seemed to also have a great time.”
Torie Marks and her Tibetan Spaniel, Gibbs, enjoyed a ride. Marks reports that Gibbs was on the edge of his seat, watching the pedestrians from his coach as though he were royalty. “Plus, he just seemed to have a great time!” she adds.
This year, Blumhagen hopes for a greater turnout. It’s not just a good time; it’s a good cause. Explains Blumhagen, “All animal ownership is under attack, and we need to be united. Dogs, humans, and horses have a bond that has endured for centuries. Westminster is just as iconic as the carriage horses, and the people involved with both industries love their animals. We need to show the anti-animal groups that we support each other. An attack on one is an attack on all.”
Want to know more? Visit the Canines and Coaches Facebook page, the NYC carriage horse Facebook page, and the Save the NY Carriage Horses website. The 139th Annual Westminster Dog Show happens Feb. 16 and 17.
Read more about last year’s Westminster show:
About the author: Caroline Coile is the author of 34 dog books, including the top-selling Barron’s Encyclopedia of Dog Breeds. She has written for various publications and is currently a columnist for AKC Family Dog. She shares her home with three naughty Salukis and one Jack Russell Terrier.