Driver Natalyia Esperson, 22, takes passengers on a ride through Central Park. (By Rachel Bryson-Brockmann)
Driver Natalyia Esperson, 22, takes passengers on a ride through Central Park. (Photo by Rachel Bryson-Brockmann)

The horse-drawn carriage ride through Central Park has long been romanticized as a truly New York experience, where marriage proposals are made and tourists on holiday vacations take in the winter scenery. But the dream may be over soon for the workers employed by the industry.

The industry is at imminent risk of being shut down come January: both mayoral candidates plan to ban the industry, and Bill de Blasio, the probable winner, said he will abolish the “inhumane” industry on his first day in office and replace the horses with electric cars.

The horse-drawn carriage industry, comprised of about 300 drivers and more than 200 horses, is harshly criticized by animal rights groups who say the horses are mistreated, don’t belong in city traffic, and could successfully be replaced with electric cars. But the drivers say they are animal lovers who work with very healthy horses, the industry wouldn’t survive if electric cars took over, and tourism could suffer.

Tourists pay upwards of $150 for an hour-long ride around the park. These carriages play an integral role in the city’s tourism, said Christina Hansen, a carriage driver and spokesperson for the Horse and Carriage Association of New York.

“We get many international tourists, a lot of people who have seen us in the movies, and there are also people from the tri-state area who come around the holidays,” said Hansen. “It’s a tradition. They see the tree, the Rockettes, the store windows on Fifth Avenue, and they take a carriage ride.”

Hansen added that the horses bring tourists who spend money around Central Park. “The hot dog guys hate it when it’s too hot and we have to go home,” said Hansen. “No one is there to buy from them. We have an economic impact that is more than just us. A lot of people rely on us.”

The industry has enjoyed support from the city despite intense criticism thanks to Mayor Bloomberg. “Horse-drawn carriage rides are an iconic part of New York City,” he said in a statement in 2010 when he increased rates for rides. “Tourists visiting the area have made carriage rides one of the top ten local attractions and oftentimes rely on suggestions from their carriage operator on where to eat, shop or spend the day.”

And the official tourism arm of the city continues to support the industry.

“NYC & Company believes a safe, properly regulated horse-drawn carriage industry is a great draw for Central Park and part of the New York City visitor experience,” said a spokesperson for NYC & Company.

But animal rights activists from NYCLASS said despite city support for years, the industry will be gone come January. “We are confident that Mayor de Blasio will stick to his word, he has been a friend of animals for years,” said Allie Feldman, executive director of NYCLASS.

Feldman said that NYCLASS has spent three years creating a prototype for a vintage-looking electric car that has more amenities than a carriage ride and will offer a better tourist experience.

“It is cleaner and safer,” said Feldman. “It doesn’t smell and it doesn’t poop.” Feldman said the car can fit more passengers, has air conditioning and heat, a sound system, an unobstructed view of Central Park, and the ability to drive in inclement weather (horses cannot work above 90 degrees or below 18 degrees).

According to a study released by NYCLASS, the electric cars will bring in $33 million annually, compared to the $19 million the horse-drawn carriage industry brings in now. Feldman said the current drivers would be the first people offered jobs driving the electric cars, which they would lease from the city.

But carriage drivers are calling foul.

“We are out here because we love horses. We don’t want to drive an electric car or a taxi,” said Hansen. “If it were abolished, I would go do something else. There are a few drivers that might drive an electric car, but why would we lease the cars from someone who has maligned our jobs?”

Hansen says these horses get the regular care, veterinary check-ups, and meals that many horses around the country go without. “Horses that have jobs get taken care of first. They survive the recession,” said Hansen. “I have been around all types of horses and these are the healthiest and best adjusted.”

But animal activists disagree. “The drivers see the horses as a commodity,” said Feldman. “If they truly treated them well, they wouldn’t be parading them around Midtown traffic.”

For the drivers, January is just around the corner and they see their jobs being eliminated on the horizon. The drivers and other workers associated with the horse-drawn carriage industry joined Teamsters Local 553 in 2009 in hopes of getting some support and having their voices heard. But this union recently announced its support for Bill de Blasio.

“Teamsters Local 553 is not only carriage drivers, and de Blasio is the labor-friendly candidate, except on this issue,” said Hansen. “On this, he is anti-small business.”

“I’m very worried,” said Nataliya Esperson, 22, a carriage driver and equestrian who is Pre-Vet at Rutgers University and whose mother is also a carriage driver. “I’ve paid my school tuition through this job, and it is my mom’s main source of income.”

For the tourists, the quintessential New York fantasy remains – for now.

Juliana Boccia, visiting from Paraguay, said she had long heard about horse-drawn carriage rides in Manhattan. “It’s the typical thing that all tourists have to do when they come here,” said Boccia as she stepped off a carriage ride with her family. “It was a lot of fun!”

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