Psychologically damaged carriage horses in NYC
At the IAABC conference I attended earlier this spring, we talked extensively about the psychological aspects of animal abuse and neglect. Most people assume that physical abuse or blatant neglect of basic needs (ie. food, water, shelter) are the only ways to screw up an animal.
But did you know that the long-term psychological effects of simply not meeting an animals mental stimulation needs or giving them a basic purpose of existence can be just as destructive? In fact, the general conclusion at the conference was that psychological abuse was actually more damaging long-term than straight physical abuse was, although it’s far trickier to detect to the untrained eye.
Additionally, animals can actually “turn off” physical pain if the psychological comfort they seek is worth it. Dr. Franklin McMillan discussed a study (which I can’t find the name of because it’s so controversial) in which puppies would rather tolerate the physical pain of crossing a floor charged with a minor electric shock to get to their bonded humans then bear the psychological pain of being alone.
Psychological abuse is not always visible to the untrained eye. You need to have a more comprehensive understanding of animal behavior (to that particular species) to asses whether a situation is stressful and thus psychologically damaging.
I bring this up because recently in New York there has been push to finally end the horse-drawn carriages that troll Central Park. (Note that London, Paris, Las Vegas, Toronto and Beijing have already eliminated them!) I signed the petition because I agree that horses don’t belong in the city at the hands of amateurs, not necessarily because I think they are being physically abused or are causing too many accidents. I want to detach myself from the radicals with the loudest voices who seem to be getting it all wrong.
Regardless of whether the stable conditions the horses are kept in are just ample or even luxurious, the fact that horses are working all day in the city under amateur care is what I take issue with. These drivers are not animal trainers or behaviorists. They have little, if any, knowledge of what horses “need” to be happy.
Sure, they may know about basic husbandry and care, but do they know anything about horse body language? Do they know what displacement behaviors are? Can they tell when the horse is uncomfortable in a situation? Do they know how to keep the animal mentally stimulated and balanced throughout the day? Probably not. If they could, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t be doing that job much longer. Add it all up and see what you think:
- Horses don’t like loud noises. They may be habituated and even counter-conditioned to tolerate them, but it’s not hardwired. I also seriously doubt any of the working horses in NYC have been properly (if at all) counter-conditioned to enjoy city noises.
- Horses eat grass. They prefer to eat small amounts of food steadily throughout the day, as they do in nature when grazing on pastures. Not only are they denied that preference as working horses, they never get to walk on grass.
- Horses can be easily spooked by visual stimuli. Wearing blinders every day proves these horses have not been counter-conditioned or habituated to be used to the constant flurry of movement in the city.
- While they can actually enjoy working, if trained continually using positive reinforcement, these horses clearly do not. They all appear to have checked-out – I’ve seen it firsthand.
In my opinion, all of these conditions add up to psychological abuse. Does it even matter to these animals if there is also physical abuse going on? I suspect most of the drivers actually do care about their horse’s general health and wellness (as without them they wouldn’t have a job) so they probably do their uneducated “best.” What they don’t realize is that they have the shell of the animal left, devoid of personality or happiness. That’s what makes me the most outraged and that’s why I signed the petition.