Last August, a six-year-old black and white spotted draft gelding named Oreo was working his regular shift pulling a red-and-white carriage with a jaunty flower bouquet near Central Park in the middle of Manhattan, when a bundle of scaffolding at a nearby construction site crashed to the pavement.
Startled by the unusual loud noise, Oreo bolted. Despite the driver’s best efforts, Oreo got away from him, and headed west on Fifty-Ninth Street in the direction of his stable.
The carriage struck several vehicles, the driver was ejected and the carriage broke apart, leaving two Australian tourists in the wreckage. The horse, still in harness but with no carriage attached, continued taking his regular route back to the stable. At Ninth Avenue and West Fifty-Seventh he slowed to a stop right behind the cars and waited for a red light. At that point he was approached by pedestrians and NYPD officers and led to the side of the street.
Not being familiar with horse harnesses, the officers tied Oreo to a street pole in such a way that he was forced to steadily move backward. Mistaking this movement for agitation, the officers shot him with a tranquilizer gun as a precaution and he slumped to the ground. A NYPD Mounted Unit arrived, loosened the harness, got him back on his feet, and led him into a trailer and transported him back to his Clinton Park Stables.
He was checked by a vet and pronounced okay. The driver and the Aussie tourists were not injured.
Oreo stands 16 hands high and weighs 1,700 pounds. Young by draft-horse standards, he’d worked his trade for five years and was destined to pull carriages for at least several more. But his owner decided a mid-career change might be in order. There was concern that when a horse suffers such a traumatic experience something similar might happen in the future.
He was sent to Blue Star Equiculture, a draft-horse sanctuary and organic farm in Palmer, Mass., to rest and recover.
The incident reignited debate over New York’s carriage horses. Several animal rights groups and anti-carriage groups are backing previously proposed City Council legislation that would either ban horse-drawn carriages or replace them with “horseless carriages,” electric cars driven by the former carriage drivers.
They say that subjecting the horses to endless hours treading pavement, exposure to toxic downtown air, subjecting them to the kinds of stresses that frightened Oreo, and the fact that carriage horses often end up in slaughterhouses when their work life is over (a fate carriage horse owners say they try to avoid) are all reasons to ban the use of horses in downtown New York.
NYC mayor Bloomberg thinks the horses are a plus for the city. “In our society, we have, from cave-man times, used animals as part of our economy,” he said. Of the horse-drawn carriages, “I think it’s something that a lot of tourists really love. It makes New York, New York.”
A spokesperson at Blue Star said that someone would eventually adopt Oreo. Probably to do farm work. “For him to stay healthy his whole life, he needs a job.”