One of Chicago’s most famous neighborhoods is Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile, especially the area around Water Tower Place. With the upscale shops, historic architecture and loads of opportunities for people watching, the neighborhood is almost always electric with activity and it seems to be on every tourist’s destination map for Chicago.
Sadly, one of the most familiar sights around Water Tower are the horse-pulled carriages. Although these carriages may have a quaint association, the reality is that these sensitive beings are pulling heavy carriages day-in and day-out in traffic and all kinds of weather. Far from the heart-warming associations people may have with horse-pulled carriages, in truth these horses are captive and forced to work whether they want to or not. Thankfully, the horses have a group of compassionate activists advocating on their behalf and working to end the exploitative carriage trade. On any given weekend, you can find members of Carriage-Free Chicago out by the original Water Tower, educating the public on behalf of these gentle creatures. (The original Water Tower is kitty-corner from Water Tower Place, the shopping center.) Join them to help speak up for the carriage horses.
Thanks to Matt McEwen of Carriage-Free Chicago for taking the time to answer some questions.
Marla Rose: People who see the horses pulling carriages downtown usually think of the practice as kind of sweet and quaint. What have you observed that perhaps contradicts this notion?
Matt McEwen: I think most people definitely see the carriages and the carriage industry as endearing and romantic, but they only see the horses out in the streets. They don’t see that after a long day and night of pulling, sometimes 12 straight hours in sweltering heat or freezing cold, they are sent back to filthy warehouses with no natural light, a standing-stall (a stall so small they cant turn around or barely even lay down to sleep), and feces and urine everywhere. The people on Michigan Avenue just see the carriages go down the street and say they don’t see what the fuss is about, but they don’t see the dark side of the carriage industry. These drivers tell their passengers the horses go to a private farm at night and run free and socialize with other horses. That’s 100% a lie. There is no farm, never has been, never will be. There are no green pastures where these horses ever go to, just dark, dirty warehouses.
MR: Horses have to negotiate downtown traffic in all kinds of temperatures and conditions. How do carriage drivers get apprehensive horses to move if they don’t want to?
MM: The drivers are anything but gentle with these horses. They are all sweet and cheerful when they have a passenger or two in the carriage, but when they don’t have a fare they yank the reins hard, yell aggressively, and even stick-whip the horses to get them to move faster. This is mainly to and from the warehouses that we see this. The drivers don’t care how slow the horses trudge when they have a fare, because a longer ride means more cash, but to and from the warehouse they aren’t making any money, so we see them stick-whipping the horses, yelling at them, and even running them to get to where the tourists are wanting rides. We’ve even seen them blow red lights and do illegal u-turns, putting the horses, the driver, and obviously people driving cars all in danger. Total disregard for the horse’s safety. Anyone who knows anything about a horses is that you DON’T run them on concrete, rain or shine.
MR: How long is the work day for a carriage horse?
MM: By Chicago regulations, horses can work only 45 minutes per hour, with then 15 minutes rest, and for a maximum of nine hours a day working. This obviously is in no way enforced since they offer hour-long rides. We’ve also seen the same horses pulling at 10 a.m. and still pulling at midnight that same day, but with another driver…so the drivers get switched out and get to rest, but the horses don’t.
MR: Have you seen the stable where the horses live when they are “off the clock”?
MM: We did go and meet with Debbie Hay, who runs one of the carriage companies, and she showed us the filthy warehouse where they keep her horses at night. All the windows were painted black or covered so the horses got no natural light, the standing-stalls were cramped and tiny, and the smell of feces suggested it hadn’t been cleaned in some time. We also toured Dan Sampson’s Noble Horse premises and found the same thing….filthy conditions, no opportunity for the horses to socialize with each other or run free, and even cigarette butts in the piles of hay, obviously a huge fire hazard. Stable fires are quite common since most of the stable hands smoke and drink heavily and the stables are filled with hay. In February of 2009, JC Cutters’ carriage company lost their business license because six horses were seized from the falling-apart skeleton structure of a stable they slapped together. There were basically no real walls or a permanent roof, just plastic “protecting” the horses from the bitter Chicago winter. The horses were so underweight and suffering from hypothermia that Animal Care & Control simply had to seize the horses. When I asked for records of all the citations of abuse and neglect AC&C had given the horse’s owner Michelle Goudie, there were DOZENS. How does someone get DOZENS of citations for abusing and neglecting animals before someone steps in? Appalling.
MR: Horses are known for their sensitivity and those pulling carriages are subjected to loud noises, vehicle exhaust, extreme temperatures and more day in and day out. Yet those who support the carriage trade claim that if they weren’t used in this fashion, they could be killed for horse meat. What do you say to this?
MM: This is a typical response from people who support the carriage industry: “Well, if we didn’t work them, they’d just end up horse meat, so this is better, right?” This is rather hard to address since its so illogical. Debbie Hay, who owns Antique Carriage Company, told us without blinking an eye that she doesn’t really care what happens to the horses when they are too old or injured to pull anymore. Horses die all the time after crossing the finish line in horse races, in fact, over 300 horses died this past year due to being raced and drugged. Over 300 horses. But the people who support horse racing say the same thing, that if they weren’t raced, they’d just end up as dog food or as glue. So I guess their attempt to justify racing or carriage pulling is that you may as well work the hell out of them and give them barely enough food and room to sleep, and never let them behave as a normal horse would, interacting with others and such, because we’d just kill them if they didn’t have a use for us. The obvious final response to these people is that the horses who die racing or are “retired” from the carriage industry are STILL sold to slaughter anyhow, and they still end up as pet/zoo food. Debbie Hay went on to hint at the fact that she saw no problem with horses going to slaughter, as this is after all the final time she can make a buck off them.
MR: Where do the horses used in Chicago’s carriage trade go when they are “retired”?
MM: Nobody knows. The carriage companies keep no records of who they sell the horses off to when they are too old or weak to pull anymore. They will tell you that they sell them off to private owners who give them a nice few final years in the sun roaming free on some lovely farm, but when pressed for names or addresses or records of these sales, they offer none. The horses are sold off to slaughter and turned into dog food. They are killed with a bolt-gun that goes into the forehead, not killing them instantly, but often taking several minutes where the horse is in blinding pain we probably cannot even fathom. This is the horse’s reward for a lifetime of serving man and pulling lazy tourists up and down the Magnificent Mile. The horse then makes its final monetary contribution to man, where the pet/zoo food companies or even eateries that serve horsemeat to people make one last buck off them.
MR: How can local people support your work advocating for the carriage horses?
MM: The very best thing people can do in Chicago for the horses is to support other ways to see the downtown area. Pedicabs (people pedaling bicycles with carts attached to give you a tour) are emerging all over downtown and other parts of the city, and they are just as fun. The rider gets a workout, you get to see the city, and nobody loses a job. We don’t want to see carriage drivers out of a job, but there is no reason they can’t do the work the horses currently do. Get them a pedicab of their own, and get them out there earning their daily pay just like everyone else does, with some hard work and some exercise. The horses aren’t in their natural environment in the city. All the honking cabs, loud CTA buses, and crazy driving is too much for them. They are peaceful, easily-spooked animals, and the urban environment is really scary to them, not to mention their hooves aren’t made to walk on concrete day in and day out. If people want to see a better tomorrow for the horses, spread the good word on pedicab rides, and please, take a minute to call or email Alderman Brendan Reilly at 312-642-4242 and tell him or his staff what you think about the awful carriage industry.
MR: Anything coming up that readers should know about?
MM: We are planning a pretty fun event that should get people out in the streets for some exercise and some sunshine, all the while advocating for the horses. It’s going to be in early June, and people can learn more about it by “liking” Carriage-Free Chicago on Facebook. I hope to see many horse lovers out there, and I really do feel blessed for all the people I’ve met over the years that have shown support and helped out with past events. All of them make me hopeful that we will see some real changes in the way horses are treated and respected in our lifetime.
Thanks, Matt! The weather’s starting to get warm and tourist season is going to be kicking into high gear soon: now is a perfect to take a stand for Chicago’s carriage horses.