Animal-loving singer draws draft horses back into the limelight

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Animal activists say using horses to draw carriages is cruel, but Stanley Park carriage operator says he uses horses bred for hauling and takes care of them well

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Singer-songwriter Jann Arden thinks having horse-drawn carriages anywhere is, at the least, insensitive, at worst, cruel.

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She wants the practice to end, according to the animal-rights activist’s tweetsthe most recent on Monday showing what Arden says is a crated horse being prepared to be shipped overseas for human consumption.

Arden could not be reached on Tuesday, but as horse-carriage operations get economic traction again in Stanley Park, Victoria, Toronto, Quebec City and other Canadian cities, calls for them to be banned are heating up again.

“Having horses working on city streets is inhumane,” said Jordan Reichert, a life-long Victoria resident who is deputy leader of the federal Animal Protection Party.

“Last week, I received a message from a (former horse-carriage) staff member with one of the companies, who had left the company because of the conditions the horses were being kept in and the way they were treated.”

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Arden is patron of the Canadian Horse Defense Coalitionwhich works to ban the export of horses for food.

“How cruel and unnecessary horse slaughter is,” she says on the organization’s website. “Modern society was built on the back of the working horse, and this is how we repay them. Classy.”

The arguments in favor of draft horses always boils down to economics, Reichert said.

“The problem is always the same, it ends up being about the bottom line,” he said. “Whenever you’re exploiting animals for profit, as horse carriages do, it’s about keeping it profitable and that means working the horses longer hours, reducing feed or care or whatever it is to cut corners and ultimately not prioritizing the welfare of the animal. “

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“No tourist is going to say ‘Let’s not go to Victoria because they don’t have horse carriages’. The tourist industry thinks they’re these iconic holdovers from the past that people come here to enjoy, but in reality if they were not here nobody would miss them.”

At Stanley Park, Gerry O’Neil has run his horse-carriage business for 39 years, and is trying to revive his business after the pandemic.

In 2020, he said, business was five per cent of normal. In 2021 it rose to 15 per cent, and this year he hopes the May-to-November season will be 40 per cent of normal.

A pre-COVID staff of 38 has been reduced to 12, but that still includes regular visits to O’Neil’s Clydesdales, Belgians and Percherons, all bred to be draft horses, by a veterinarian specializing in large farm animals.

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“Jann Arden tweeted it’s archaic and all that, but the thing is they are draft animals, they aren’t ponies, they’re not riding horses.

“It’s OK to me for her to complain, but the least she could … first come and educate herself, come down and say, ‘Hey, I’m curious about it, I’m not happy with what I see, but can I come talk to you?’”

O’Neil’s license with the park board has almost two decades remaining.

The criticism “would be fine if I’d was in breach, but I’ve done everything by the book,” he said. “We treat our horses as athletes, recommend they are well-fed, groomed and trained, with regular visits by a veterinarian.”

At the end of a trip, horses are cooled by two huge fans, one with water spray.

“If you want to take me down, come up with some facts,” O’Neil said.

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His retire horses at 20 and live into their 30s, while in the wild a horse might expect to live maybe eight years because of predators and infection.

He said his staff, which includes his two daughters, wouldn’t work for him if the horses were not treated well, he said.

“They would be all over my ass, including my daughters.”

His horses are fed a mixture of grain, bran, molasses, flax, corn, barley, beet pulp, vitamins and minerals, O’Neil said.

“And they get apple cider vinegar to aid in their digestion and, of course, water and good quality hay.”

Rebecca Breder, a Vancouver animal lawyer, said she understands running a horse-carriage business is O’Neil’s livelihood, but said the horses are overworked.

“It’s cruel, they do not enjoy it regardless of what anybody says, they are not meant to be pulling thousands of pounds of weight while walking on” paved roads, Breder said.

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“It’s really sad, people often have this romantic idea they’re going to go on this horse-drawn carriage and everything’s going to be lovely, but these horses suffer, they really, really do.”

All the dental care, good food and warm, dry shelter doesn’t alter the fact a draft horse’s life consists of pulling heavy loads their entire life, and when they’re not doing that they stand alone in a stall in a barn, Breder said.

“That is their life,” she said. “They don’t get to roam fields munching on hay, they are basically used like machines and horses are not machines, they are living, breathing, sentient beings and we should be treating them as such.”

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