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Holiday carriage rides: a tragic tradition

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By Jennifer O’Connor

Determined to get an early start on my holiday shopping, I headed to the mall with list in hand, but I never made it inside. I was stopped in my tracks upon seeing a tired, dispirited horse hitched to a carriage and trudging through the chaotic parking lot giving “festive” rides. The folks inside the carriage were bundled up in a blanket, but the horse’s legs were covered in slush and filth, and his head was hanging low to the ground. I watched as car after car jostled for a parking spot and barely missed hitting him.

Every year between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, malls, neighborhood associations and chambers of commerce offer horse-drawn carriage rides in a misguided effort to add an element of old-fashioned flavor to the season. Crowded mall parking lots and busy city streets are no place for horses any time of the year.

Horses are herd animals who like to live with large numbers of other horses, graze in meadows, trot great distances, play and court. Domestication has certainly not benefited horses, as they’ve long been exploited as beasts of burden and used as tools to make a profit. Horses are sensitive animals who tend to be skittish. Being in the middle of busy holiday traffic and exposed to startling noises such as car horns and charity bell-ringers can make them anxious and afraid. Horses and humans alike have been seriously hurt—some fatally—when horses have spooked and bolted or when collisions between cars and carriages have occurred.

Fourteen people on a holiday ride in Virginia last year were hurt when a car slammed into the carriage, ejecting the driver and causing the horses to run for 100 yards before hitting a pole. All 14 people were taken to the hospital, including one who had to be airlifted. At a 2008 Christmas tree–lighting ceremony in Wisconsin, two horses pulling a carriage bolted after being startled by the display and ran over a spectator, who had to be hospitalized.

In December 2001, a 4-year-old Indiana boy was killed when the horse pulling the carriage he was riding in during a city-sponsored Christmas party was spooked by a passing car and bolted. On Christmas Eve 1999 in Delaware, one person was partially paralyzed and two others injured after a truck ran into the horse-drawn carriage they were riding in. A week earlier in Sarnia, Ontario, a woman was killed when the horses she was using for Christmas carriage rides bolted and dragged her to her death. Many horses have also been killed.

Tragic incidents involving horse-drawn carriages routinely occur wherever these rides are allowed, not just during the holidays.

Many working horses suffer from lameness and hoof deterioration from walking on hard asphalt surfaces all day long. Horses’ noses are at “ground zero” for breathing in noxious exhaust fumes, which can cause severe lung damage, emphysema, cancer and accelerated aging. When tack rubs against a horse’s skin for hours on end, it can cause sores and abrasions that may be difficult to see when covered by harnesses.

Even the strongest horse will quickly become debilitated when forced to haul oversized loads in often treacherous conditions for hours and days on end. Once “retired,” these horses are often sold for meat. Take Chance, whose hooves had been worn away to nothing after a lifetime of pulling and who was hours away from being killed in a slaughterhouse. Chance got a second chance when a horse rescue group saved her, but most spent carriage horses aren’t so lucky.

This holiday season, please remember Chance and all the other horses like her. We can extend a compassionate hand to the horses who toil for the 12 Days of Christmas and beyond simply by refusing to patronize carriage rides.

Jennifer O’Connor is a research specialist with the PETA Foundation, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510;


Written by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

December 3, 2010 at 7:05 pm

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