Study Reveals NYC Carriage Horses Don’t Appear To Find Work Stressful

by | 12.30.2015 | 11:33pm

The presence of carriage horses in New York City continues to make headlines periodically, as city officials, animal welfare activists, and celebrities add their voices to the debate. The argument dates back to 2007, when the first bill to ban the carriages was introduced with the support of several politicians and animal welfare groups, who said the horses were overworked, placed in dangerous, stressful conditions, and not cared for in retirement. Pro-carriage supporters have countered that the horses are well-managed and have a number of city codes in place guiding their welfare.

In research presented at the 2015 American Association of Equine Practitioners Annual Convention, Dr. Sarah Mercer-Bowyer of California's Western University of Health Sciences sought to learn more about how the horses process their urban environment, and whether their lifestyles do indeed cause them stress. Mercer-Bowyer and her research team used three parameters to measure stress at different times of the horses' workdays—glucocorticoids from manure, cortisol from saliva, and thermography scans.

Glucocorticoids are steroid hormones made by the adrenal gland that guide the utilization of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins stored in the body. They are known to have anti-inflammatory effects and are released in response to stress, the idea being that an animal suddenly finding itself in danger needs to tap into its energy resources in order to escape. Cortisol is a type of glucocorticoid, and measuring both in manure and in saliva gave researchers a sense of the horse's overall stress level, as well as its current, more acute state.

Thermography produces the rainbow-colored images often seen of the brain or body, showing areas of heat indicating activity. The researchers in this study used a non-invasive machine to measure the amount of activity around the horses' eyes to look for changes that could be related to stress at different points in the day. The sympathetic nervous system, which manages the body's fight or flight response, would cause an increase in the horse's temperature if activated, easily measured on the animal's face.

Mercer-Bowyer examined five horses vacationing on a farm outside the city and 13 working horses over three days, taking measurements at rest, as they were tacked up for work, returning from work, and one hour after leaving work. The researchers could find no difference between the working horses and those on vacation in terms of fecal stress measurements. There was a slight increase in salivary cortisol immediately after the horses returned to the barn after a day at work, but the levels remained the same throughout the rest of the day and were not considered unusually high at any point. The variation could have been explained by a natural change in metabolism as a result of their time on the clock. There were no unusual findings related to the horses' temperatures during their workdays, either.

The data seems to indicate that carriage horses do not appear to ‘worry' about their shifts, and don't seem to come back from work on the city's streets nervous and overwrought. Mercer-Bowyer added that the horses seemed outwardly relaxed and well-fed, having settled into a comfortable routine with their handlers.

“The results of our study indicate that the carriage horses' lifestyle is not negatively impacting their well-being,” said Mercer-Bowyer. “When you look at these findings alongside the impeccable care these horses receive, it becomes clear that this is not an equine welfare issue.”

  • Rachel

    Where’s the comparison testing with race horses and/or, say, sored Tennessee Walking horses? :D

  • BK

    Any data on how these horses perform after the consumption of Beefarino?

    • Anthony C.

      Kraemer has the stats on Beefarino performance.

  • otterbird

    And in the Obvious News is Obvious Department…

    Seriously, there is a huge difference between domesticated animals and wild animals. A horse’s “natural” habitat is with human beings (even the Mustangs out West are technically not wild; they’re feral. Five hundred years on the Plains doesn’t begin to trump 6,000 years of selective breeding). I used to work very near where the carriage horses line up outside the park. I saw the same horses for years and years, looking relaxed, and maybe slightly bored, but not stressed or worried. Most of them welcomed pats and carrots from complete strangers, and as anyone who has owned horses knows, a nervous and stressed horse doesn’t like being touched, especially by strangers. Their drivers knew them and their personalities, and some of them took great pride in telling you about what the horse had been before becoming a carriage horse. They loved these animals.

    A plain or a field is no more a horse’s natural habitat than an alley is for a cat, or the woods is for a dog. Is the city too stressful for some horses? Sure; it’s too stressful for some humans, too! But those horses aren’t the ones who end up as carriage horses. And the ones who end up as carriage horses are also not ending up on a truck en route to a slaughter house. They get to live a full life doing honest work, rather than get auctioned off for slaughter when they are still young and healthy.

    I get why the real estate interests are so eager to get the horses out of the city- they want the stables on the West Side for development. But I don’t understand why so many well-meaning animal lovers don’t understand that we have an overpopulation with horses in this country and that all domesticated animals are healthier when they have something to do (how many highly intelligent dogs end up in shelters for “destructive” behavior that is just due to the dog being left home alone all day with nothing to do)? Carriage horse work, as long as it is regulated and care is taken to make sure the horses are kept in clean, safe stables and get regular vet checkups, is a great way to give former farm horses and trotters a second career with easy work, and to give folks in the city a chance to connect to our agricultural roots. It’s a win for everyone except the real estate developers.


      Well said–You covered all the issues. The carriage horses in Central Park bring smiles to thousands of children of all ages and character to the city. They represent a small glimpse of NY in an earlier time. Perhaps at the turn of century, there were horses that did not receive the best of care and were expected to pull excessive loads. The carriage horses of today have easy occupations as exposed by this well done study. I’m sure they appreciate the predictable care that they receive as opposed to the alternative.

  • Thinker

    We get positive feedback about carriage horses in one of the largest cities in the world and you want to compare it and dissect it. Seriously? Say thank you for the caretakers, monitors and the study. Positive feedback is crucial and becoming rare, to the horse industry.

  • Donwanna Behere

    Please don’t confuse animal welfare with animal “rights”. Animal welfare is the proper husbandry to support an animal’s good health and contentment. Animal “rights” seeks to remove all animals from society, including food, work, and ultimately pets. Animal “rights” is almost always inconsistent with the welfare of domestic animals. Groups protesting the NYC horse carriages are animal “rights” groups who object based solely on the premise that “horses don’t belong in the city.” There is no objective evidence for such a position. The carriage horses very content working in the city, the carriages are the safest mode of transportation, and statistically, the horses have a lower incidence of accident and injury than horses hanging out in pastures, where most horse injuries occur. Animal welfare experts, including many veterinarians who have examined the horses, as well as trainers, horse councils, and even the American Veterinary Medicine Association and American Association of Equine Practitioners, support the industry for the good health and contentment of the horses.

    • juleswins3

      Absolutely 100% correct!!

    • Africaine

      Blah, blah, blah. “animal welfare” according to you is the ability to exploit animals, particularly to make a buck off their sweat and toil. You have no idea what you are talking about and do not even live in NYC. Those organizations you refer to agree with you because they support the exploitation of animals also…such as tail docking, declawing, foie fras, devocalization, horse racing, which results in many a dead horse on the track and at the kill auctions.

      • AngelaFromAbilene

        And here again. For Christ’s sake, get a clue or take it somewhere else.

      • Bein

        My horses get fed off of my sweat and toil. Is there a whacko “rights” group available to me?

      • Donwanna Behere

        Well, I certainly hope you don’t have a pet, since you’d refuse to take it to a vet since you obviously don’t respect their opinion. When you get your own DVM specializing in equine medicine, maybe you can have an objective opinion about the carriage horses. Until then I’ll take my cue from people who actually know what they’re talking about when it comes to the health of horses.

  • B

    There are 4 stables where these horse are kept 2 of them are easily seen by the public however the two of the ordinal stables have no access for the public.
    The horses were kept in straight stalls unable to turn around or lay down, no ventilation and no outside light. The new stables are nice but someone needs to see the original stables.

  • B

    The real torture for these animals is not working in the street it is being kept in the straight
    stalls were they are tied standing in one spot while not working. In summer it can be over 100 degrees with no ventilation in these barns.

    If any are truly concerned about horse welfare they would look inside the rental “hack” stables in Brooklyn and Queens and see the horrific conditions these poor animals must endure. Standing in straight stalls tied up unable to move their entire working lives
    standing in their own urine and feces on hard wood and concrete floors.

  • B

    Many are unaware that until NYPD built the new barn on the west side of Manhattan (which is a true showplace, a top notch facility) their horses were kept in deplorable conditions on 42nd St. in straight stalls for decades!
    Many people donated their beloved animals to these clowns thinking their animals would have a good life not realizing it was in these horrendous conditions.

    • AngelaFromAbilene

      The key word in your comment can be found in the first sentence: UNTIL. So B, are you chiming in with more PETA propaganda or do you have a valid point to make?

  • Bryan Langlois (ShelterDoc)

    This is one of the more comprehensive studies that I have seen done on the topic so far. It is nice to see multiple parameters looked at instead of just one measurement. It of course will never satisfy the ones that want the whole industry done away with, but I do agree that there is a big difference between animal rights and animal welfare. Sadly, it is so much easier to sway the public opinion with a 30 second video of an isolated incident than it is to make them understand it is not representative of the entire industry or treatment of all the animals

    • Donwanna Behere

      Too often, the 30 second videos are not even an accurate representation of the original incident. A horse that collapsed on the street in NYS in 2011 is still plastered all over protest signs as an example of the “cruelty” of the carriage industry, when in fact the horse was young, new to the city, had passed a vet inspection a few weeks earlier, was just starting his shift, and simply died of natural causes. No overwork, abuse or cruelty involved. But sadly, he has become the poster boy for the anti carriage activists.

  • Africaine

    What is wrong with all of you? I will bet most of you have never been to NYC and have no idea what you are talking about – but you just want to flap your gums. This “study” only tested a handful of horses and was paid for by the carriage drivers. That is a huge conflict of interest. Between 60-70 horses do not get their licenses renewed every year, which is about 1/3 of the horses. They do not go to a nice home but head on down to the kill auctions. This is 2016. Please grow a brain before you give your opinion.

    • AngelaFromAbilene

      What is wrong with YOU?! Most of us are equine professionals in one capacity or another. You on the other hand sound like a PETA person. Do us all a favor and take your yammering nonsense someplace else.

    • Donwanna Behere

      Because of course, a nationally known expert in equine internal medicine is going risk his professional reputation and academic career, as well as fly three people out from California to NYC for a week and test a large sample of the horses which he picked himself to create a bogus study which he would then present for peer review and to multiple professional symposiums all for a measly $5000. You are nuts.

  • Africaine

    Stop lying. These are not box stalls. They are referred to in the regulations as “standing stalls” and are only 60 square feet. This is an inhumane business and needs to end.

    § 17–330 Regulations – c. Standing stalls for carriage horses shall be sixty square feet
    or larger, with a minimum width of seven feet, and shall be configured
    to permit a carriage horse to turn around and safely lay down within
    the stall. Horses shall be un-tied when stabled. A halter shall be on
    the horse or hung outside each stall at all times.

    • AngelaFromAbilene

      More of your yammering nonsense…

    • thedrafthorse

      I believe that is the definition of a box stall: one where the horse is not tethered and can turn around and lie down safely.

  • Bein

    The only people who say life is stressful for carriage horses, are those who want the real estate their stable sits on and the various useful idiots who believe anything they are told.

  • JustHoldYourHorses

    Happy to see this fact-based information. There’s been so much misinformation spewed out by activists* that may are confused about what really is best for the horses.

    * “Activists” push AGAINST situations they don’t like from a negative prospective, with a hostile approach, and usually offer no good alternative. “Advocates” work FOR improvements that are needed, using a positive approach, and move forward toward a good outcome with solid plan for improvement. In this particular debate, “Activists” seem to all be against the carriage horse business remaining in NYC. “Advocates” for horses seem to all be for the carriage horses remaining in NYC.

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