Gov. David Paterson, taking on the 150-year-old tradition of horse-drawn carriage rides in Manhattan's Central Park, says the horses need to be treated better or the popular tourist rides should be banned.
His recent comment before an animal activist group, rare from a high-level official, drew praise from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Horsemen, however, have their own high-profile fans, including Irish actor Liam Neeson and others who testified for them at a recent hearing about how well the horses are treated and how important the service is to the city.
Paterson seeks "more humane treatment of horses that have often suffered due to difficult work conditions,'' said Paterson spokeswoman Marissa Shorenstein. "Horse carriages are important to New York's overall tourism industry and to the fabric of New York City's culture, however we must be certain to treat horses and all animals ethically.''
The romantic rides in ornate Hansom carriages have graced Central Park since the 19th century, drawing 800,000 customers a year. They have been featured in tourism ads and in countless movies and TV shows.
But Paterson and animal rights groups say the horses' stables are too small and too cold in winter and that the constant work isn't humane. There are occasional crashes with automobiles, one of which left a horse dead last year.
There are 225 horses hauling 68 carriages in and around Central Park. The animals get a once-a-year veterinarian checkups.
Current law prohibits the horses from working more than nine hours within a 24-hour period, although that's often split between two shifts. They typically work about six hours during the day, then three more at night. They can't start work before 9:30 a.m.
Although the carriages are immense, horsemen note ball bearings in the wheels make the haul easier. Horsemen also recently added a solar powered water trough in the park and a sprinkler system in the stalls.
The horsemen are pushing for changes of their own, including vacations of four to five weeks for each horse and twice-a-year vet exams. Horsemen also note each horse has its own "box stall,'' but protesters have said they think the individual stalls don't provide enough space for horses to move around.
The horsemen, many of whom are Irish-American, say they want to preserve tradition while also improving horses' lives. Steven Malone started in the business when he was 6 years old. His father, an immigrant blacksmith, started his own carriage business in 1967.
"A lot of us grew up in the business and we're doing everything we can in our power to preserve the iconic image, but also to treat the horses with the utmost respect and care,'' said Malone, speaking for the Horse & Carriage Association. "The animals have a fantastic life.''
He said Wednesday that a bill before City Council would make several improvements in the horses' treatment while also increasing the fee to $50 for a half-hour ride, up from the current $34 for 20 minutes.
The city Health Department, which issues permits and inspects the stables and horses regularly, is considering its own reforms.
An advisory board of veterinarians, horsemen and community activists issued recommendations nearly a year ago. They include larger stalls, "hoof branding'' with computer chips to monitor the horses, emergency protocols and emergency contacts in the stables, said Jessica Scaperotti of the city Health Department.
The Horse & Carriage Association supports the ideas, many of which would address Paterson's concerns.