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At home with a New York City carriage horse

A visit to the Clinton Park Stables on West 52nd Street
A visit to the Clinton Park Stables on West 52nd Street
Linda Covello

In Andrea Peyser’s column in the New York Post on January 10th, the actor Liam Neeson made the suggestion that some of the celebrities who have been vehemently speaking out against NYC’s carriage horses, stars like Miley Cyrus, Alec Baldwin and Leah Michele, to name just a few, pay a visit to the stables “to see for themselves how comfortable the horses are, and talk to the drivers.” Conor McHugh, Stable Manager of the Clinton Park Stables on West 52nd Street, was more than amenable to welcoming this photojournalist into his place of business, and provided a guided tour throughout the establishment. I was given free reign (pun alert!) to photograph anything and anywhere I wished.

Rocky at home with his owner at the Clinton Park Stables
Linda Covello Photography

A big part of the argument to abolish the industry here in the city is the accusation that the conditions the horses live in are miserable, filthy, cramped, and, in short, inhumane. For that reason, I decided one recent morning to see for myself, an offer that new Mayor Bill de Blasio has yet to accept from the managers of the four stables on the West Side of Manhattan, where all the city’s carriage horses reside. McHugh accompanied me throughout the stable, explained what everything was about, such as the massive funnel like grain tanks, the complicated looking machine used to repair carriage wheels, how the carriages are handmade by the Amish, and then walked me up the ramp the horses use for every trip in and out of the stable.

On the second level I encountered nothing that I am not used to seeing in every private stable and barn I have ever been inside of. The layout is pretty much the same, just much bigger. All the stalls are on this level, as well as the hay storage, the washing area, the tack, and a network of fans and hoses mounted to the ceiling to keep the horses cool during the hotter temperatures. There was plenty of hay in each stall, in fact, it was so profuse and thick, I had to resist the urge to lie down and go to sleep in it. Little birds flitted through the stalls and soft light filtered through windows. The off-duty tenants in a few of the stalls were greedily munching hay and slurping water as I photographed them. The horses I checked out seemed docile, friendly, healthy and contented. A few stable hands bustled about, pitching hay, cleaning food bins and sweeping the floors.

I paid attention to a sign that reminded drivers to “protect our horse friends” by refraining from smoking, as well as a sign on McHugh’s office door that listed all the remedies for common equine complaints available for the asking. Chinese “Year of the Horse” decorations were pasted on the walls, and a giant banner proclaimed this as the domain of Teamsters Local 553. A couple of colorful carriages were parked in the deserted first floor and silk top hats hung on the wall next to huge black overcoats. I visited Rocky, a gentle brown horse, and his owner Joseph Cirnigliaro, and photographed the two of them together in Rocky’s stall, which was tidy and spacious by NYC standards. I have been in studio apartments not four blocks from Rocky’s stall that are not as large.

The slideshow that accompanies this article is my attempt to accurately document the conditions I encountered at the Clinton Park Stables.The carriage horse industry employs over 300 men and women, many who have worked the trade for years. The cost of supporting a horse annually can be upwards of $24,000, when factoring in cost of feed, hay, veterinarian bills, supplements, heating during the colder months and the time and energy involved in grooming them and cleaning their stalls and paddocks. It is not an easy task to find farms willing to take on this expense for an out of commission horse that needs a home. And if certain parties have their way, these carriage horses will effectively be homeless. There is no question about that.

Melissa Mark-Viverito, the Speaker of the New York City Council, said in a statement in early January, “it’s long past time we end these practices which treat the horses so cruelly.” I’m not sure what specific cruelty Ms. Mark-Viverito is referring to. The horse has been, historically, mankind’s biggest ally in our evolution toward technological greatness. The perfect combination of strength, temperament, and, most importantly, speed, the horse made possible the spread of language, culture and ideas. From Bucephalus, the mighty black steed of Alexander the Great, to Brown Beauty, who bore Paul Revere on his famous ride to warn the Colonial militia of the approach of the British Forces before the battles of Lexington and Concorde, the horse is, alone among the 6.6 million species of land animals, our real best friend.

As far as cruelty toward horses goes, a look at thoroughbred horse racing might elicit greater outrage. In 1991, at Arlington International Racecourse, He Knows Mother, ridden by jockey Perry Compton, was running fourth in the seventh race, when early in the second turn he broke his right front ankle. The injured horse hobbled out into the path of Curia Regis, who was ridden by jockey Garrett Gomez. Curia Regis had his left front hoof hit in, which caused him to cross his legs. Gomez and the colt were driven into the turf. The jockey rolled off the horse, chest up, and was trampled by Three Raises Only and rider Don Pettinger, who could not avoid the fallen rider. Leading rider Shane Sellers was also thrown to the track when he and his mount, Prince Randi, could not avoid the fallen horse. It was an epic racing disaster that resulted in the grisly sight of a horse agonizingly hobbling across the race track on the stump of its bloody leg, the hoof flailing backwards. The animal was euthanized. And who will ever forget poor Barbaro, who won the 2006 Kentucky Derby, only to shatter his leg two weeks later in the 2006 Preakness Stakes, which ended his racing career and eventually led to his death?

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