Horse Drama

Central Park’s Carriages Saved This Horse

New York City’s mayor says the carriage horse industry is inhumane, but what about the grim alternative for the animals? Meet Roger, the horse saved from slaughter by a carriage driver.

Victor Blue/Bloomberg via Getty

If properly aimed, the slaughterhouse air gun sends a retractable steel bolt through the horse’s forehead and into its brain, rendering the animal unconscious.

But often the horse is manifestly terrified and liable to pitch its head to and fro as its whole body surges back and forth in a vain attempt to escape. It can become all the more challenging a target as its hooves skitter on a killing floor made slick with blood and other bodily fluids.

In one slaughterhouse sample of 150 horses, 40 percent needed more than one shot, sometimes collapsing only to rise again. One required as many as 10.

The goal is for the animal to be insensible but alive when it is hoisted by a rear leg and the carotid artery and jugular vein are cut. That way, the still beating heart facilitates the draining of the roughly 10 gallons of blood even as it hastens its own end.

The hooves are sawn off, followed by the head, from which the tongue is removed. The hide is peeled away and the carcass is gutted.

Such would have been the fate of nearly all the carriage horses in Central Park were it not for an industry that Mayor Bill de Blasio is seeking to ban as inhumane.

Rather than pull carriages through the park with a guarantee of regular days off, five weeks’ vacation, and no work at all when it is too hot or too cold, these horses almost certainly would have been auctioned to “kill buyers.” They then would have been crammed into trucks and shipped to slaughterhouses in Canada, too often without food or water on the rationale that they are just going to die anyway.

De Blasio may be genuinely convinced that it is inherently cruel to have a horse pull a carriage though the tumult of the city, and his view is supported by some veterinarians, as well as animal rights activists, who view it as an onerous form of bondage. The opponents of carriages in Central Park argue that horses are simply not meant for a “nose to tailpipe” existence in the country’s most congested city.

What makes de Blasio’s position seem at least partly suspect is the priority he has given the issue amid so many more pressing concerns of his own species. He started out dubious about a ban in 2007, then supported one in 2011 and initially pledged to ban carriage horses in his first week in office. He has said his daughter caused him to go from neutral to adamant on the issue, but in truth the urgency seems to have arisen less from a newfound compassion for the animals than from a campaign funding hustle.

Before the ad featuring his delightful son, Dante, propelled de Blasio to the head of the polls, there was a $1 million attack ad that helped knock former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn from the lead. The anti-Quinn spot was financed by an anti-carriage group that had itself received $175,000 from a union organization chaired by de Blasio’s cousin. De Blasio might never have gotten a first week in office without it, and he was left with a considerable political debt.

But the carriage issue proved to be both legally and politically more challenging than de Blasio seems to have anticipated. He nonetheless remained firm in his position as he found himself facing a longtime champion of the carriage drivers in the person of Liam Neeson, the Irish-born actor.

The nanny for Neeson’s children happens to be both the wife and sister-in-law of carriage drivers, a calling that is traditionally as Irish in New York as cop or firefighter. Neeson himself rides horses and clearly has a passion for them. He made his views on the carriage controversy known in a letter to a City Council member back in 2009.

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“As a horse lover and rider, I am deeply disturbed by the unnecessary and misguided political and extreme rhetoric against the horse-drawn carriage industry and feel obliged to counter this action,” he wrote.

He went on to say, “The horse-drawn carriage business is an iconic part of this city, employing hundreds of dedicated, hard-working men and women, caring for well-bred, well-trained horses and attracting tourists to New York City for over 100 years.”

He wrote in closing: “The notion that a well-nourished horse pulling a carriage through Central Park is considered cruelty may fit in with animal activists’ extremist view, but not with the rest of us.”

He said much the same in an appearance that year on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

“They’re having a good life,” Neeson said of the horses.

He noted that the animals are given an annual vacation. Stewart laughed.

“It’s true,” Neeson said.

Stewart suggested establishing a meadow in Central Park where off-duty carriage horses can enjoy a more pastoral existence than standing in a stable off a Manhattan street.

“A compromise,” Stewart said.

Neeson did not dismiss the idea out of hand, but it seemed forgotten as the carriage issue heated up again with de Blasio’s campaign. Neeson went back on Stewart’s show after the election, saying he was “a little pissed off about our newly elected mayor” for pledging to ban the horse-drawn carriages.

“These guys treat their horses like their children,” Neeson said.

Stewart noted that his studio is near the stables and he cannot help but feel badly for the horses when he sees them in the street. He again posed the meadow compromise.

“The horses won’t have to walk the streets,” he noted.

He said of the lot of carriage horses in general, “From my perspective…it does not seem to be a particularly fulfilling life for an animal.”

“It is,” Neeson insisted. “They’re trained for this.”

“Unless it’s Mr. Ed, you really don’t know,” Stewart said.

Neeson subsequently caused a small media sensation by publicly inviting de Blasio and all 51 members of the City Council to visit a stable and see for themselves how the horses are treated. De Blasio declined.

”I respect Liam Neeson a lot. I’m a big fan of his work,” de Blasio said. “But the fact is, I put forward a plan and a vision, and the people ratified it in an election, and that’s what matters most.”

He repeated an earlier promise to tour the stables at some point before the City Council voted on a ban.

“I will visit the stables, but I know what I believe on the issue," de Blasio said.

Several council members accepted Neeson’s invitation, and a media mob came along. Neeson took the opportunity to scoff at de Blasio’s suggestion that the horses could be replaced with electric cars.

“That’s exactly what New York needs, more cars,” Neeson said.

The New York Daily News took up the carriage drivers’ cause, running a column by Neeson and calling on its readers to sign a “Save Our Horses” petition. The paper ran a series of pro-carriage stories that told touching tales of particular animals and offered the testimony of a respected vet about the excellent care the horses receive. A front-page story this week pegged the evolution of de Blasio’s position to increasing political contributions from the anti-carriage proponents.

“REVEALED; Why Blaz cha-ching, er, cha-changed his tune on horses,” the headline read.

The number of signatures on the News’ petition exceeded 18,000, but that was not an overwhelming number in an age when a man who tried to find a lost dog in Central Park via Twitter gained 400,000 followers. But the News is still the voice of the city’s working people, and it was not likely to back down, particularly when it had an opportunity to demonstrate in a highly visible way that a newspaper can matter in this digital age.

The question that remains is what de Blasio will do in the face of the combined power of the News and Neeson. He cannot consult Mr. Ed, but he could take some guidance from a horse that shares the same ancestry.

This other American Saddlebred mix was just a day from the slaughterhouse 17 years ago when a New York carriage driver named Ian McKeever saw him in a Pennsylvania barn. McKeever noted that the horse had open sores and cuts, along with other signs of abuse. The animal was so underfed that his ribs were showing under his lusterless chestnut coat.

“When the horse looked at me, I saw sadness in his eyes,” McKeever would remember.

The horse hardly seemed up to pulling a carriage through Central Park, and McKeever declined to buy him. He was heading toward home on the Pennsylvania Turnpike when he found himself pulling over. He could not shake the image of that forlorn, mistreated horse.

“If I didn’t buy him, he’s going to slaughter right away,” McKeever later said.

McKeever bought the horse for $1,400 and named him Roger, after the first horse his mother owned at the family farm outside Dublin. The new Roger spent several months on a Philadelphia farm, filling out with good feed, his wounds healing, his coat taking on a healthy gloss. A lifetime of abuse had left him distrustful of all humans, and McKeever sought to make himself an exception.

“Being gentle with him, talking to him, giving him treats,” McKeever would recall. “It took him a long time to trust me. But once he did, that was it.”

After nine months, McKeever gradually began to introduce Roger to the bustle and noise of New York. A horse that otherwise would have gotten the bolt in a slaughterhouse not only adjusted to his new life but became a kind of star, appearing in Sex and the City along with Law & Order and a half-dozen movies. A doorman at the Ritz-Carlton took to serving him carrots on a silver tray.

When de Blasio assumed office, Roger was nearing retirement, looking healthy and fit and relaxed after 17 years of pulling a carriage in New York. His last day was March 25, and McKeever allowed The Daily Beast to ride along as the horse he affectionately calls “Rog” set out from the stable just before 10 a.m.

The other drivers working in the park that day included McKeever’s brother, Colm McKeever, who first met his wife where the carriages line up on Central Park South. She worked as Neeson’s nanny.

In the midafternoon, Ian McKeever’s wife arrived with their three children, 13-year-old Jack, 11-year-old Kacie, and 7-year-old James. The kids had known Roger all their lives.

“Before we had kids, we had Roger,” said their mother, Geraldine McKeever.

Jack was the one who had suggested that the family go on Roger’s last ride. He and his siblings and mother climbed into the back of the carriage. The father took the reins and off they went along the park.

“I always say he’s our family pet,” the mother said. “He just happens to go to work with Ian.”

His working days done, Roger was then transported to a farm on Long Island a short drive from the McKeever home where he will spend his retirement. He continues to be considered a member of the family.

“He’s doing great, he’s doing fantastic,” Ian McKeever said on Wednesday. “Actually, I’m going out to see him this evening.”

McKeever figures that in two or three weeks the weather will be perfect for training. He plans to then get a new horse that likely would otherwise be bound for the slaughterhouse. There is little other purpose for work horses these days.

“If they weren’t doing that, most likely they would all be dead,” McKeever said of the horses pulling carriages in Central Park. “That’s just the way the world is.”

Those who favor the carriage ban contend that many of the carriage horses only receive a reprieve and end up in a slaughterhouse anyway. The carriage drivers insist that a great majority of their horses live to enjoy a pastoral retirement.

As for the day-to-day life of the horses, pro-ban veterinarians such as Holly Cheever describe it as “survivable, but not humane.” A different view comes from Janine Jacques, founder of the Equine Rescue Network, after observing the horses in the street and paying a surprise visit to a stable. She describes the animals as healthy and content.

Both sides agree that the conditions at the slaughterhouses as well as during the journey there are unconscionable. Dr. Nicholas Dodman of Tufts University—whose Web site offers videos taken surreptitiously in a Texas slaughterhouse before all such facilities in America were shut down—notes that this barbarous fate awaits horses of all kinds, including by his estimate 70 percent of racehorses.

“Major winners, and where do they end up? On a hook,” Dodman said this week.

Even show ponies are not exempt from ending up in a narrowing chute that feeds the condemned in single file into the “stun box.” Amid the sounds of terrified horses and the concussions of the bolt guns and the din of dismembering machinery is the macabre contrast of piped-in pop music.

“You see one in a line with a little pink bow and you know a little girl was riding it in a show two weeks before,” Dodman said.

In the meantime, maybe de Blasio should consider the compromise that Jon Stewart proposed. The original designers of Central Park created a meadow that was stocked with 200 sheep. The animals proved to be a great attraction as well as a handy way to fertilize the grass and keep it short. The arrangement continued until the Great Depression, when the city parks commissioner, Robert Moses, moved them to Brooklyn and then the Catskill Mountains, ostensibly because he feared the poor might steal them for food.

The horses would have become food even before they reached Central Park. Maybe the horse de Blasio should visit is Roger, who otherwise would have gone to slaughter 17 years ago and now seems the most content of animals.

“Hey, Rog,” McKeever says when he sees him.