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Horse carriage two 2012

Tara Kadioglu/MEDILL

Neither the city nor the Illinois Department of Transportation tracks statistics that might show whether carriage horses are safe roaming city streets.

Animal rights activists call popular horse carriage rides ‘antiquated’

by Tara Kadioglu
Nov 13, 2012

Tara Kadioglu/MEDILL

Noble Horse's Rich Capalbo takes his horse Raven on a carriage ride.

Related Links

PETA's carriage accidents fact sheetChicago's ordinance legalizing and regulating horse-drawn carriagesThe City's page on horse-drawn carriages

Police mounted units also in PETA's cross-hairs

Horse-drawn carriages aren’t PETA’s only target in Chicago. The animal rights group opposes all horses in cities — that includes mounted units for police departments, said Ryan Huling, a representative from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Huling said mounted police units pose similar problems.

“I think it’s another example of an outmoded form of transportation,” adding that people are now “in the 21st century.”

“Unfortunately when it comes to police departments, they often put the animals in harm’s way,” he said.

Officer Joe Cistaro, who trains horses for the Chicago Police Department’s Mounted Unit, said the unit rides breeds of horses that are naturally less skittish, and trains them to not fear crowds. He added that horses are often needed for crowd control, to improve officers’ vantage point in potentially dangerous situations.

Cistaro added that horses are able to travel where cars cannot — an advantage for mobility across beaches or parks.

The Mounted Unit website lists other advantages for its use of horses.

“They are Ambassadors of Good Will and encourage approachability by members of the public, since many people love animals or are curious about horses,” and for crowd management, “eliminating face to face confrontation between a citizen and a police officer, providing a calming effect on crowds in tense situations, and providing a strong police force multiplier since one mounted patrol officer equals 10 footed police officers,” according to the website. 

The approaching winter holiday season, signaled by the first snowfall this weekend, has its romantic moments, one of which is downtown horse carriage rides. The season is the most popular for the rides, said carriage driver Rich Capalbo.

But some animal rights advocates say the carriages are an anachronism that don’t belong on big city streets because of the danger posed to the horses, people and traffic.

“It’s an antiquated and unnecessary business,” said Ryan Huling, a representative from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “Horses don’t need to be used for horse-drawn carriages or any other industry. That’s shown in many progressive cities that have banned horse-drawn carriages, including Key West, Florida; Paris; London; Beijing, China.”

New attention was brought to the industry after an August carriage accident in New York City in which a horse bolted into heavy traffic, injuring three people and damaging two cars before being caught and sedated.

In Chicago, Capalbo said that his boss, Dan Sampson, the owner and operator of Noble Horse, told him a horse has never been hit for his 20 years in the business. Sampson could not be reached for comment.

The city said it has no records of horse injuries.

“We are unaware of any deaths on the street in recent history,” said Jennifer Lipford, spokeswoman for Chicago’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, which licenses and regulates carriage companies and drivers.

The Illinois Department of Transportation does not track how many horses have died or been injured in traffic accidents.

PETA’s Huling said his organization does not formally track Chicago’s horse-drawn carriage accidents, but documents incidents brought to its attention by the public. He cited a PETA document that included three Chicago incidents since 2000.

In September 2000, a horse and a pedestrian were injured when the horse bolted after being stung by a bee, according to the PETA document. In June 2005 a spooked horse reared, overturning the carriage and dumping the driver, who suffered a broken leg. In 2009 the city prosecuted two drivers working for J.C. Cutters Horse Drawn Carriages for mistreating horses based on poor stable conditions.

Capalbo said that there are no tricks to keeping the horses safe.

“Just be a conscientious driver,” he said. “Be a defensive driver when you’re driving a carriage just like you do when you’re driving a car.”

“You’re driving in Chicago traffic, a lot of people think that’s kind of crazy,” said Capalbo. “We’re going really slow, we’re really big, we stick out like a sore thumb. I probably have had some things you would call close calls, but nothing is ever happening too much at high speed with us.”

Of the “close calls,” Capalbo shared one anecdote: “One day a valet drove right into the rear of my carriage.” He laughed about this experience.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, unlike PETA, is not opposed to carriage horses or mounted police units, so long as “all of the animals’ physiological and behavioral needs are fully met,” said Bret Hopman, an ASPCA spokesman.

Chicago has 24 active horse-drawn carriage companies, according to data provided by Lipford. Under her department’s regulations, a prerequisite for a carriage license is passing an investigation by Chicago Animal Care and Control. As part of its investigation, ACC requires quarterly veterinarian reports on each horse certifying that it is healthy, that the horses live in stalls of at least 10 square feet, that horses do not work any more than six hours in a 24-hour period, and get a 15-minute rest and water break each working hour, said ACC spokesman Brad Powers.

Capalbo said his horse, Raven, works five hours a day, from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., when they leave the streets to avoid rush hour. This includes three or four rides a day through downtown and along part of Lake Shore Drive.

Raven’s five hours a day are probably the maximum number of hours that would be healthy for a horse to pull a carriage through the city, said equine veterinarian Scott Austin at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana.

Austin added that horses that work on concrete or asphalt are more prone to concussion-related injuries, and working in the city probably increases the stress on their bodies.

It is just those conditions that has PETA opposing the industry.

“The inhumane dangers and conditions inherent to the horse-drawn carriage industry can’t be corrected,” Huling said. “As we’ve seen for years now it’s impossible to properly monitor horses to insure their health and wellbeing. It hasn’t been done and it won’t be done.”

In defending carriages, others point to the economic benefits the industry provides.

Capalbo is retired and said he only works as a carriage driver part-time because of his love of animals. But he said many of his coworkers rely on the carriage industry for their bread and butter.

“The economy is not good,” he said. “The guys that are working full time, I have a lot of respect for ’em. When it’s time to make money, they’re out here 11, noon ’til midnight, sometimes four, five, six nights a week.”

The Ghirardelli store on Michigan Avenue sits right next to a popular stop for multiple carriage companies—in prime tourist territory. The store’s lead supervisor, Eric Skahill, said his business the carriage rides work in concert with his shop to give tourists a full winter holiday experience, which benefits his business.

“The carriages, the hot cocoa, particularly in winter, help make up our whole season here,” he said. “The carriages make a difference.”

David Tran and Rungsina Byapim, tourists from California, took the first horse carriage ride of their lives Monday night, during winter’s first snowfall.

“We saw the horse. We were cold. We have hot chocolate. So we want a stroll,” Tran said.