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When you’re sweating bullets in Charleston’s heat and see horses pulling wagons full of people on city streets, you’ve got to wonder whether it’s safe for horses’ health. So we asked two people in the know for their views on the city ordinance that protects working carriage horses.

Note: The city’s safe operating threshold is set at 95 degrees or when there is a heat index of 100 degrees. But those metrics aren’t measured at ground level. Rather, there’s a thermometer on the fourth level of the Emeline Hotel of Church Street that is the official gauge for the threshold temperature.

It’s too hot too often for working horses

Ellen Harley, co-founder of Carriage Horse Advocates, says Charleston’s heat can quickly become dangerous for working horses.

“It only takes 17 minutes of moderate intensity exercise in hot humid weather to raise a horse’s temperature to a dangerous level. That’s three to 10 times faster than in humans,” she said.

Horses working on the city’s streets aren’t allowed to be brought in for the day until the temperature or heat index exceeds the statutory threshold four times, said Harley. And if the index drops below the threshold, the readings start over. Meanwhile, the horses stand on steamy asphalt with no shade.

“No scientific peer-reviewed study has been done on heat effects and the working environment for Charleston horses — for-profit operators are giving [that] data to the city,” Harley said. “There needs to be an independent peer-reviewed study to determine what are safe conditions.”

Procedures make it safe for working horses in the heat

Dan Riccio, the city of Charleston’s director of the Department of Livability and Tourism, says the city set up procedures following a 2016 special commission to monitor horses and give notifications on when to halt carriage operations.

“The commission set up in 2016 agreed to set the correct standard based on a veterinarian-[led] study that compared the internal temperature of working carriage horses in the city with more than 2,000 temperature readings within a four-year period from the outdoor thermometer at its current location at the Emeline hotel,” he said. 

“The commission consisted of city Livability and Tourism staff, a carriage industry representative, a Charleston Animal Society representative, two neighborhood representatives in close proximity of where the horses are staging and where [they] go into their zones south of Broad Street, two veterinarians and a member of NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).”

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