At the Reins: the Life of a Carriage Driver

Carriages line up on Central Park South, waiting for customers.

Video by Poonam Patel, Article and photos by Victoria Merlino

Christina Hansen’s day begins at 9 a.m., when she tips a stableman to groom her horse and put the horse in a harness. She then waits until 9:30 a.m., when government regulations allow carriage drivers to leave the stable for the day. Depending on which stable she starts at that day — on 52nd, 48th, 38th or 37th Street — it takes 20 to 30 minutes to reach Central Park. From there, she will spend nine hours in the park. Most of her day will of calling out to tourists and curious passersby as she waits in the line of colorful carriages that stretches down Central Park South, offering rides.

“This is a cushy job for a horse,” said Hansen, wearing a red peacoat and a black bowler hat adorned with a red feather, matching the  color scheme of her carriage. Of average height and build, Hansen seems larger than life, seemingly transported from a turn-of-the-century New York City.

Oreo, one of the three horses Hansen drives for their owner, relaxes at the front of the carriage. “There is a misconception about horses working in harness that I think people got from as a kid maybe reading Black Beauty? And misremembering it,” Hansen says, alluding to the cruelties faced by the titular horse of Anna Sewell’s novel.

Horse-drawn carriages in Central Park remain a controversial issue in New York City. Called everything from inhumane to animal abusers, the carriage industry and the roughly 220 horses within are the subject of constant protest, news articles and activism. Critics argue that horses should not be among cars and in the cramped, fast-paced, polluted environment of the city and say they are often mistreated by carriage drivers seeking a quick dollar.

One of the industry’s biggest opponents, the animal rights organization NYCLASS, catalogues the list of incidents surrounding carriage horses on its website in support of these claims, with the list of horse deaths and accidents from carriage work stretching back to 2006.

A carriage makes its way through traffic. Many animal rights activists have expressed concern over the safety of the horses as they pass by cyclists, taxis on midtown Manhattan’s crowded streets.

NYCLASS claims that over 30 incidents have taken place over the last few years, ranging from horses colliding with cars to horses being spooked and running through the street. NYCLASS also levels claims against carriage drivers, citing reports of drivers forcing injured horses to work and of beating the horses.

Hansen asserts that this is an unfair and untrue portrayal of the industry and its drivers.

“So much of what the animal rights people do is they try to dehumanize us,” she said. “You know, that we’re all thugs who abuse our horses and they love the horses as if, you know, their utter ignorance about horses — the fact that they love them makes up for all of it.”

A horse waits at the hack stand. Its owner waits in the shade nearby, speaking with other carriage drivers and passing tourists.

As she speaks, Hansen has the air of a seasoned tour guide—cordial and informal, but with an underlying professionalism and confidence. She chuckles often and uses small hand gestures and winding anecdotes to illustrate points.

Hansen knows a lot about horses. Growing up in Lexington, Ky., she had always “liked horses,” she said. After realizing she did not want to be a history professor, she dropped out of the master’s program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and moved to Philadelphia. There she became a carriage-driving tour guide, combining her love of history and her love of horse, and has been committed to the role ever since.

In her first week on the job, she found a calling in advocacy for carriage drivers. She recounts a run-in with a woman in front of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, where the woman rolled down her car window and shouted “animal cruelty” at Hansen and her carriage horse.

“I think it was just being offended at how little people knew,” Hansen said, that led her to become a spokesperson for the carriage industry. She often complains about journalists and the news media, and can deftly switch between explanations of how activists misunderstand carriage horses to calling to passerby with a practiced ease.

Hansen also runs the website carriageon.com to advocate for drivers and is active on social media. A driver for over 10 years, she has been working in New York City for the past five.

In her advocacy, Hansen has come in direct contact with animal rights activists, including NYCLASS. In 2014, she received negative coverage in the media when a NYCLASS executive director filmed Hansen giving a carriage ride in above 90-degree weather, which is against city law. Hansen said in the press that she did not know at the time that the ban has gone into effect.

“It shows the lawlessness of this industry. They have no regard for doing the right thing for these animals. What kind of person would do that to an animal?” Allie Feldman, the NYCLASS executive director, told the New York Post at the time.  NYCLASS did not return a request for comment for this story.

Criticism from animal rights groups, including street harassment, is something all carriage drivers must deal with. Hansen recounted a time where she and the driver next to her on the carriage line, Adrian Marrs, were approached at a parade. The man tried to convince the two that carriage driving was damaging to the horses for nearly an hour.

“They’re smart and they’re curious, and they’ll get into trouble,” said Marrs about horses. He, too, was dressed in a peacoat and top hat, with goggles around his head serving to complete the effect. Hansen insists that pulling a carriage in fact makes a horse safer—it’s under constant supervision and less likely to hurt itself than out in a field.

Regulations from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene address equine health issues. Stables stalls must be a certain size, horses are required to take “furlough” or vacation days on farms and horses must be properly maintained with periodic trips to a veterinarian, along with other precautions, according to on the department’s website.

Yet political figures can be swayed by the animal activists. Mayor Bill de Blasio famously pledged to ban horse-drawn carriages on his first day in office, an idea that collapsed after proposed measures to limit the industry were rejected by the New York City Council in February 2016.

A carriage driver rides through Central Park. Rides can last for up to 60 minutes and cover about 3/4 of a mile.

It’s unfair, Hansen explained in a matter-of-fact tone, that animal rights groups portray drivers as “bad actors” when many drivers—including her own boss—have had their families in the carriage business for generations. These drivers know horses—and know the conditions that they work in the year-round business.

“The animal rights people don’t care about people either. They forget that —‘Oh, the horse is out in the heat or out in the rain or out in the cold’—well okay, we are too,” said Hansen.

After her shift is finished, Hansen will return to the stable, unharness Oreo and let the horse eat hay. Though controversy continues to swirl around them, horse and handler take it in stride.

 

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