Peter Pringle's America: A Manhattanite needs a horse

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MANHATTAN'S avenues are clogged daily by almost a million motor vehicles. They spew filth into the air, creating unbearable screechings and a variety of human ills, from hearing loss, dry mouth, dilated pupils, increased cholesterol levels, high blood pressure and learning disabilities, not to mention instant deaths and mutilations. So you might assume that the city elders do not have much time or inclination to talk about the problem of horses on the streets. But you would be wrong.

And at the venerable New York Times they have been writing as passionately and almost as often about the city's horses as they have about the homeless.

At issue is the horsedrawn carriage, a form of transportation as old as New York City. It creates only biodegradeable pollution and makes relatively little noise, and what noise it does produce is positively soothing in the irredeemably irritable world of the car.

In an island of quaintness on the edge of Central Park and just outside Mr Trump's Plaza Hotel there can be found, on any day, a couple of dozen horsedrawn carriages, their drivers decked out in funny hats and gaily coloured mufflers. To encounter such 19th- century artefacts amid the 20th- century nightmare that is Manhattan's traffic is to have renewed faith that not all of life must be a headlong gallop into new technologies. The horses and their carriages bring a moment of joy to tourists who take a trot around the park, and also to regular city dwellers out with their children for a Sunday afternoon stroll.

Apart from two cows that occasionally make an appearance in Union Square advertising bottled milk, the horses represent the only regular contact New Yorkers have with animals larger than dogs, unless they go to a zoo.

Why should these jolly drivers and their old mares not be left to ply their trade as they have been doing by law since 1625? Why should there not be a horse and carriage to raise the spirits of the weary Manhattanite at Grand Central station, Madison Square Gardens, Harlem and Wall Street?

These questions are exciting more local passion at the dinner table than murders, muggings, Mayor Giuliani's rambunctious small son, or the record snows of winter. In the horse and carriage debate there is something for everyone. Animal rights groups complain of cruelty, the city's two power lobbies, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Transport Workers' Union, complain of traffic hazards and unregulated fares. Ethnic fervour boils over. The Irish, who own and operate the horses, complain they are being discriminated against, as do the Greeks, the Latinos and the Israelis who make up the contingent of drivers and stable boys.

In its editorials the Times paints a pitiful picture of great animal misery. The horses, poor things, tend to drop dead in high summer from heat exhaustion, get cramps, and sometimes bolt down Broadway. To be a horse in Manhattan is to be under a death sentence, say the animal rights people. Once shackled between the shafts of a modern-day New York buggy, a horse rarely lives beyond five months, and is then cut up into dog meat.

In 1989 the city voted wisely and humanely to regulate the hours the horses could work and the places they could go, which pretty much confined them to the park. But since then, swayed by the pro-horse and carriage lobby, the city elders have twice attempted to weaken those regulations and let the market determine the limits of the carriage operations.

Who are these lobbyists, one wonders? I called the chairman of the city council's transportation committee, Noach Dear. He wants to increase the horses' working week from 56 to 70 hours and let them roam where business beckons, but he strongly denies ulterior motives.

'Hey, look,' he said, on the phone from Brooklyn, 'I'm not one of those who believes you shouldn't eat meat, but I do believe that people come before animals. The carriage owners came to me and I want to help them. They are not my constituents. They cannot help me in any election. I just thought it was the right thing to do. This is discrimination, pure and simple, and being an Orthodox Jew I know what discrimination is all about.

'You know how many horse- drawn carriages there are in the entire metropolitan area? Only 68. Have you seen the editorials in the New York Times? I can't believe it. There are people dying in the streets and all those editorials. If these animal rights people would only put their energies into fighting hunger and crime, we would have a lot better life in this city.'

Another committee member, an animal lover, was equally worked up. 'Mr Dear is an idiot, it is well known,' this person, who didn't want to be named, said outright. 'Do you know how many dogs and cats are killed in the animal pounds of New York every year? 42,000. Enough dying already.'

Manhattan's animal madness is not confined to Central Park, or to horses, of course. Recently, a man whose golden retriever died after suffering heat stroke in the cargo of an aeroplane was told by a local judge he could not sue for anguish and loss of companionship. Dogs are luggage, the judge ruled.

'Beg your pardon?' cried the Daily News. 'Has a garment bag ever brought you your slippers? Has a tote bag ever scared off a burglar? Can suitcases roll over and greet you warmly?' And has a horse ever been known to prefer trotting down Fifth Avenue in the rush hour to galloping in a meadow? In a reasonable society there would be a regulation that kills off neither the trade nor the horses. But then, this is New York.