In the comment thread for last week’s article about the horse thermometer controversy, much of the talk is about how Charleston’s carriage tour industry is “getting away with animal cruelty” and guilty of “barbarism.”

I had expected more commenters to come out in favor of Tom Doyle and the other carriage company owners. So, as a bit of leavening for the ongoing discussion, here’s a thoughtful e-mail I received Sunday evening from Steven White of Summerville:

I would like to say first that I hate to see animals treated badly. They are living beings with feelings just like us. We ought to look after and take care of any animals in our charge.

I grew up in the country in the Midlands of South Carolina back in the 1960s and ’70s. My uncle kept a mule for plowing on a small scale (circa 5 acres or fewer). I also did a lot of heavy work in 90-100 degrees-plus temperatures myself. I loaded pulpwood, hauled hay, and worked in the garden. I know what it is to be hot.

On a side note, when I called Mr. White to ask permission to reprint this letter, he had this to say: “Those animals are not under any strain pulling those carriages. If people were closer to their farming roots, they’d realize that. Just because people have gotten soft doesn’t mean the animals have.”

Thirty or forty years before my time, back in the 1930s and as far back before that as you care to consider, mules and horses would do much heavier work in the summer than pulling a carriage at a slow walk. I suppose few now alive have experience plowing a mule all day long. But I heard a lot of stories from the older folks growing up about farming back in the 1930s and before. Turning new ground with a turn plow, with all the rocks and roots, is probably 5 times as hard on a mule as pulling a carriage at a slow walk. And don’t even talk about snaking logs with mules!

For those of you who, like me, had no idea what it means to snake a log: It basically means having a mule drag timber out of the forest.

I’ve seen mules literally get down on their back knees pulling in the traces. Mules and horses used to do such work in the summer from dawn to dusk on a routine basis. Anyone with any sense back then was not about to endanger the health of the their stock, if for no other reason than that they were expensive and their livelihood depended on them. And mind you, they had a much better feel for the animals’ capacity than we do because they worked with them day in and day out. It’s true they used to try to “lay the crops by” by early July (to those who don’t know, “laying by” meant throwing up soil around the base of the stalk with a winged plow and that was the last cultivation that was done). So the mules didn’t have to do the heavy plowing in July and August heat.

So, I can’t really take all this hoopla about regulating the mules’ working environment too seriously except for the fact that I wonder why government thinks it has the need or the right to regulate things down to this level of detail. Why can’t you just trust the owners of the animals to look after their own as well as the animals’ interests?

He raises a point that some of the carriage company owners have also raised: If nothing else, horses are expensive. All humanitarian concerns aside, protecting a horse’s health is protecting an investment. In the end, this debate boils down to whether you trust employers to take care of their employees.

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