For longer than we have relied on cars, horses moved people and goods across our city. For some today, the clopping is a genteel reminder of antebellum Charleston. But now in 2020, it is time to end the use of horses to haul tourists through our streets.
Yet another reminder of the harsh reality of using animals on downtown Charleston streets came July 19, when Ervin, one of Old South Carriage Company's draft horses, ran away from its barn. Video showed Ervin running through Ansonborough with an empty carriage still attached before he was corralled on Anson Street. Pedestrians and a rickshaw driver watched from feet away — thankfully no humans were hurt. Doctors later euthanized Ervin after they determined surgery was not an option to repair injuries to his legs from the ordeal.
It is only a matter of time before Charleston leaders will be forced to clamp down seriously on horse-drawn carriages. Tourism destinations from Key West to New York have banned horse carriages.
Right now, regulations limit the total number of carriages downtown and shut down operations when temperatures remain above 95 degrees for an hour. Calling these vehicles "carriages" is a misnomer. Antebellum carriages carried two or four people and a driver. The modern wagons require horses to pull the wagon, driver and up to 16 tourists — loads can approach 5,000 pounds.
So far, Charleston has mostly ignored questions about the issue aside from tortured discussions in 2017 about where and how to confirm that it is certifiably hot as hell outside.
Accounts from last Sunday "raise more questions about the enterprise of using horses in an urban environment," said Charleston Animal Society President and CEO Joe Elmore in a statement. He's right in saying the Animal Society has not staked out an extreme position on horse carriages, pushing instead for a comprehensive review of the city's policies and local companies' practices. So far, it's gotten nowhere.
Review or none, the paltry rules that do govern horse-drawn carriages do little to protect these animals and more to codify exactly how much potential exploitation and abuse we are willing to tolerate. How much is too much? We don't know. There has never been a full study.
Regardless of the rules, our social media feeds still fill with not-so-quaint videos and images of horses being treated for their injuries on Charleston streets a few times a year.
National groups have spoken out too.
"Forcing a skittish animal to pull an oversized carriage, breathe toxic exhaust fumes and risk serious leg ailments by pounding the pavement all day is a recipe for disaster," said Dan Mathews, a senior vice president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Charleston officials have seen fit to make sure short-term rentals don't gut downtown neighborhoods. But even Airbnb's standards ban "experiences" in which animals are used to pull carriages in urban areas or work in extreme conditions. It seems our city leaders' virtues only extend so far.
The next few weeks will bring more 90-plus-degree days and thousands of more COVID-19 cases, making carriage tours unsafe for horses and humans alike. There has never been a better time for Charleston to press pause and seriously reexamine whether horse-drawn wagons should remain in operation downtown.
Charleston is a postcard-pretty tourist town with an opportunity to show the world how to do it right. The very least we can do is to study it and make changes or, better yet, send the carriage horses out to pasture.