The Faces of the Central Park Carriage Horses and Their People
by Kim Sanford
My daughter Jilliane has been commuting to New York City in pursuit of her Master's in Business Administration since November 2013. I have never been to the city, even though I have lived in New York State all my life. There was never a real desire to go before. I decided to take advantage of this small “window of opportunity” and go to see the sights. If I ever had the chance to visit, at the top of my list was to take a carriage ride in Central Park. So last Saturday Lisa Sprague and I hitched a ride with Jill so that I could interview some of the drivers of the carriage horses to talk to the drivers face-to-face and hear their side of the story about what they are going through today, fighting for their livelihoods and most of all the horses.
Lately I had been seeing a lot of chatter on Facebook regarding the mayor of New York City's campaign pledge to abolish the use of the carriages and horses that provide tourists with rides through a portion of Central Park. Apparently this issue is something the owners and drivers have been dealing with for about twenty years. Behind the mayor in his effort to outlaw an iconic part of New York City for over a hundred years are animal rights activists…most strident being P.E.T.A. and N.Y.CLASS...which is not surprising given the way these organizations are funded. Politics, real estate interests, etc. play a huge role in their motivation. You see, the stables AND the plaza where the carriages stage, sit on valuable real estate. One only has to follow the money to see the true motivation behind these attacks.
However, there seems to be a proverbial silver lining to the cloud created by Mr. de Blasio’s actions. The mayor, having in effect “kicked a hornet’s nest”, is receiving attention from all over the country as well as internationally, overwhelmingly in favor of the horses and drivers staying in the city. The threats to the horse’s and driver’s livelihoods have even spawned an interest in some New York City youth to form a group…iconicNYC.org. I wanted to know more about the horses and the people who would be most affected if this ban were to be implemented.
I had planned on going to the city two weeks before we actually made it there but life happened…sick barn kitty needed intensive nursing, so I had to postpone. We were able to visit on April 26th, 2014. I sent an email requesting permission to do some interviews, but was unable to connect with anyone. Since my daughter goes to the city anyway we decided to keep to the plan. So this visit was pretty much impromptu and no one was expecting us to be there. The transparency was very apparent and appreciated. We showed up at the stables, unannounced and were taken through the morning steps in preparing to go to the park by the first driver we met, Frank Rodden, as he was getting ready to head out.
His horse was already harnessed and hitched; there were others in the process of being readied for their day. Frank’s horse’s name is Phineas and he has only been working in New York City for a month. Phineas stood quietly but kept his attention on his owner while Frank stepped into the office where he showed me some of the checks and balances put in place to monitor the welfare/usage of every horse.
Frank offered to give us a ride to the park with him and Phineas which was great because we got to see exactly what the horses deal with on their way to work. I have had someone tell me that it is appalling that the horses have to walk through busy streets to get where they need to be. Well…OK, let me say that in the morning the traffic was not bad and the horse handled it like a pro. Now mind you he has only been doing his job in this city for a month. At one time when he started at a noise made by a passing vehicle…his reaction was to raise his head, look at the distraction, and calmly bring his head and neck back to level, continuing on his way. Phineas did not miss a beat. He contentedly settled back into the harness and kept on with his job. Although I am sure traffic patterns are different in the afternoon/evenings and on weekdays, my gut tells me that these teams handle it just fine. Frank and Phineas are a true team, one drawing confidence from the other.
While spending time with Frank during our ride to the park I was struck by his passion for the horses and his frustration with the image that P.E.T.A., N.Y.CLASS, and their ilk are trying to portray…one of callous disregard for the horses which could not be further from the truth. While I know that Mr. Rodden is a staunch supporter of his brother/sister drivers, he as well as the rest of them will be quick to step in to help or call out one who is not maintaining the standard of care they all aspire to for the horses.
He is on the defensive when talking about the fight he and his cohorts are engaged in and who could blame him? I suspect that when pushed he will “tell it like it is” and I think that is admirable and understandable. He has been a driver for twenty-eight years in New York City. At this time he is an owner/operator who has a farm a bit Upstate. In fact he still has his first carriage horse, Finn (sp) who is now twenty-five years old and retired living on the farm. Frank has two working horses and two retirees who he takes care of every day. Frank’s wife and children are involved with the horses daily and that relationship with the horses starts at young ages. He carries a picture of his young son who recently won a couple of blue ribbons at a horse show. The pride in dad’s voice was evident and I suspect that he will be proud to hand the reins over to the boy one day if there is interested on his son's part to continue the business.
A few days before Lisa and I arrived a horse fell and was freed from his harness before he was allowed to rise. This caused a furor. His name is Spartacus. His story was sensationalized by P.E.T.A., and erroneously so. It appears they went so far as to fabricate an eyewitness account. In a nutshell Spartacus’ carriage wheel tangled with another and was tipped. This pulled him over as well. The alleged “public outrage” stems from the fact that the drivers reacted calmly (no histrionics) which is a necessity since horses pick up and react to the energy their humans generate. They made him stay on the ground until the harness could be released. He was then able to rise to his feet with no difficulty and no injuries. After being looked over he was hitched to the carriage and taken back to the stables. P.E.T.A.’s interpretation of this was to scream to all who would listen that the drivers cared more about preventing damage to the harness and cart than to the well-being of Spartacus. He was examined by the veterinarian and deemed unharmed. The biggest take away for me was the fact that these are knowledgeable horsemen/women who handled the incident as pros…knowing that it is paramount to keep your energy calm and soothing in order to help the animal in distress. For more information about this incident, google “Spartacus carriage horse” and several articles and blogs will pop up.
We were blessed with wonderful weather for this trip to New York City. When we arrived at the plaza outside of Central Park the sun was shining but it was still chilly if you sat long enough in the shade. Lisa and I took the time to just stand back and observe. There were about 15 carriages parked around the square with their drivers tending to the horses. All the horses...every last one of them (we were in the plaza for the entire day) were relaxed and unstressed...EVERY...ONE. I cannot recall seeing any with that ugly look; you know the one I am talking about, that a horse will put on when they do not want to be bothered. They all were approachable and eager for attention and yes…the goodies. Even when mugging for treats I did not see one horse become aggressive or too demanding. As someone who does not do the “goodie” thing very often that was great to see. One of my pet peeves is the rude mugger who I KNOW is a spoiled individual…not the horse’s fault, it is always the owner’s fault. No child or adult was in danger of being shoved or nipped while a horse was looking for snacks. To me that speaks to good horsemanship.
The pigeons were flocking around the spilled feed, cleaning up what the horses dropped as they were eating. The plaza was also taking on life as the morning wore on. Horses stood with their forefeet up on the curb and the line of carriages moved like a conveyor as tourists loaded up and headed out, making room for the other carriages on the square. Looking around I got a sense of time passing. With the Plaza Hotel looming over the square, the carriages decorated with flowers and many of the drivers dapperly dressed, it was not a stretch to imagine what it might have been like when the city was young. Even with the crowds growing by the minute, in this area there is a peaceful, even tranquil quality…and we were not even actually in the park. The horses were relaxed and content while doing their jobs, showing no tension and all were willing to interact with the people on the sidewalks.
While waiting in the staging area the drivers do not stand idle or just solicit riders. They are constantly attending to the horse’s requirements whether it is feed, grooming, etc. Of course they are looking for fares, but it does not take precedence over their horse’s needs. The vast majority of the drivers seemed to go above and beyond in presentation as well as tending to the horses. Thier appearance often reflects the attitudes of the drivers towards the horses, equipment, and the job itself. So many other industries lack this pride from the owners/employees. They were engaging and very open to talking to the people in the plaza and almost all of them were either being photographed with the customers as well as acting as photographers when asked. They are approachable and as such, valuable ambassadors for New York City.
As I was in the plaza I decided to speak to the driver of a beautiful black horse with a white plume attached to his bridle. It turns out the horse’s name is Murphy, a ten year old Morgan cross. Murphy is partnered with Inde Moran who has been a driver for five years and is employed by another owner. Although Inde does not own Murphy, he is the horse’s primary driver. The carriage companies apparently assign drivers to specific horses ensuring a bond is formed. Inde may not own Murphy but there is a tangible connection between the two. As I stood next to them, Murphy was very interested in me and what I might have for him...think goodies. He is not rude but you know he would be grateful if you could hand him a treat. I found myself wishing I had brought a few carrots with me. Me! The one who is not into handing out the goodies! Murphy was disappointed but he didn’t hold it against me.
This horse was so attuned to his driver and responded to his voice often, either by cocking his ear or turning his head to him. It was almost like he was part of the conversation. If Inde said his name, Murphy immediately turned his head to make eye contact. One of the things Inde does for the kids that I found incredibly charming is to let them pretend to drive the horse if they want to. He does this by letting them hold the reins with him. I know that if that kindness were offered to me as a horse crazy kid I would be in Heaven for days.
I have to say that I was impressed with all the drivers, especially those I got to speak with, but one stood out for me…and his name is Angel Hernandez. His equine partner’s name is Shaggy, a twelve year old Percheron cross. Angel and Shaggy were turned out to perfection. Angel was dressed in top hat and formal coat, his carriage was tastefully decorated and Shaggy had been recently body clipped. Here is a true horseman, someone who is willing to go the extra mile to see to the comfort of his horse.
Angel came to the United States from Mexico City and had been around horses most of his life. He has been a part of the New York City carriage scene for eight years. Beginning as a stable hand and then becoming a carriage driver. He was constantly wiping Shaggy down paying close attention to where the harness was in contact with the horse’s body. Shaggy’s coat reflected the sunlight like a mirror. It is so evident when you clip a horse and his coat is in excellent bloom that he is getting adequate nutrition. While talking with Angel, I learned that he often takes on the grooming of Shaggy as well as picking up a fork to muck/pick the stall if needed. My understanding is that the drivers upon returning will see to the horse’s immediate needs…but the bulk of the maintenance is done by the stable hands. Angel chooses to take on as much of Shaggy’s care as he can.
What I found most compelling about Angel is that he is someone who makes his living with the horses and still feels the enchantment of the horse strongly…in his bones. I have worked in barns for a lot of years in the past, everything from mucking to management and through the daily grind; many times it is difficult to remember what that “magical” feeling you have when around a horse feels like. This man is the real deal…a true horseman who walks the walk instead of just talking about it.
Honestly, after talking to him and watching him with Shaggy I felt the need to go out to my barn and spend some quality time with my horses, something that has been lacking in the rush to just get chores done lately. He made me remember the captivating feelings I had when as a kid, I would go to the fence where the local vet pastured his horses (this was before I had one of my own) so I could pet them. Then I would return home and refuse to wash my hands for at least a day so I could preserve the smell of the horses. For a little while I was taken back to that charmed existence of horse obsessed child…so this fifty-four year old woman thanks you Angel Hernandez.
Lastly Lisa and I took a ride through the park on Adrian Mar’s carriage. Adrian has been a driver for about four years. As an eleven year old kid growing up in the U.K., he wanted to be a carriage driver if he lived in New York City after seeing a television show where the job was showcased. He came to the city and worked an office job in the import/export business. When that job went away, he took the plunge and learned to drive a carriage. As he explained to us, he sure isn’t getting rich doing this but for right now, it is what he wants to do. So here is this guy, choosing to be out in all kinds of weather with a horse and carriage. He obviously could be making more money in another field but this is what he chooses to do. Most people would shake their heads unable to understand; but I think I do, especially after this day spent in the vicinity of a group of people who are genuine in their passion for the industry and all facets of it. They are undeserving of the harassment they have been dealing with for too long.
Our last “mission” for the day was to have a tour of the stables so we walked back to the barns and waited in the offices for someone to be our guide. Ariel is an owner/operator who arrived after his shift in the park and he offered to do the honors. Ariel made sure his horse was being seen to before he turned his attention to us. He has been doing this for thirty-three years and he said it is “heartbreaking” to be accused of abusing his horses. I could see the pain in his eyes and hear it in his voice. He told me that they are constantly updating their skills through what would be called in-services in the world of business. They attend classes on issues pertaining to the care of the horses including equine emergency often.
Life’s experiences has made me pretty good at sifting through the half-truths rampant within the equine world…the posers and pretenders, the ones who can talk a good game but have no follow through, no substance, no real appreciation for the horse. Honestly my impression is that these people are the salt of the earth; they truly care about their horses and love their jobs. I guess I should also state that I went to NYC on a mission to see for myself what the fuss was about. While my heart was with the drivers I was also looking for iffy practices…that might justify questioning the welfare of the horses and their right to be in the city. I saw nothing to give substance to the mayor’s and the AR group’s claims of abuse or lack of safety and trust me, I was looking for something but I found nothing…zero…zip…zilch.
The other thing I noticed and I applaud them for this, is that the carriage drivers are not willing to throw other horsemen “under the bus” in order to deflect the rabid attentions of the animal rights groups away from them. The overriding philosophy was communicated to us that “we (horsemen and women) are all on the same side” and need to look out for each other especially where Animal rights groups are concerned. In spite of the heaps of abuse this group of men and women take from AR activists, and well-meaning people who have bought what these radical groups are selling regarding the “abuse” of the horses BY the very people who care the most about them they show remarkable restraint. They are keeping it together as a whole and handling a lot of crap thrown at them with grace.
As we drove home that evening and I was sharing our experience with my daughter I discovered that I felt a connection to the drivers. Is it because we love the horses? I think yes, but it was more than that. Dare I say it…the magic was making a comeback of a sort for me. The day had its elements of fairy-tale feelings, something I have not experienced in a long time. So I want to thank the drivers…all of you but especially Frank, Inde, Angel, Adrian, and Ariel.
I want to go back again, I probably will, and I bet I will spend time in the plaza just sitting on a stone bench drinking in the atmosphere. Watching the wonder on kid’s faces as a carriage horse stretches its nose out to a little hand or seeing an adult’s face soften while looking into a horse’s liquid eyes will be what I am looking for if only to remind me why I love horses. I am more convinced than ever that those horses and their people belong in the plaza, taking people on rides into Central Park.