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Carriage Horses Health & Welfare, Hoof Condition

Introduction -- Carriage Horses spend most of their lives in environments contrary to what nature intended. When they are not "working" the majority of them are stabled inside city limits. This subjects them to a wide range of conditions which threaten their overall health and well-being. Because carriage horse operators -- or "whips" as they are traditionally called – have a relatively low profit margin, horse abuse investigators routinely find improper care ranging from long periods between shoeing to intentionally ignoring recommended vaccination and worming schedules. Horse rescue organizations estimate that the majority (83%) of "retired" carriage horses are sold to slaughter.

By design, nature intended horses to survive on medium to medium soft ground. However, the majority of horse-drawn carriages are found in cities with high tourist appeal such as Central Park, New York, and Aspen, Colorado -- conditions that are incompatible with the natural design of the horse. Being driven on hard pavement and dry conditions quite often result in two of the most debilitating foot problems for carriage horses: Laminitis and navicular disease. Laminitis is an inflammation of the laminae within the hoof, and is caused by stress response. The primary cause of this painful and often irreversible condition is driving, or riding a horse on hard surfaces, such as pavement, for prolonged periods of time.

Carriage horse operators will argue that their horses are not driven faster than a walk thereby minimizing risk of laminitis. Carriage horse operators count on their patrons' ignorance of horses, which is generally the case. Hoof stress response can be triggered in any gait (walk, trot, canter, etc.)1 Navicular Disease is a circulatory problem arising from dryness, improper trimming and horse-shoeing methods. This disease can cause lameness, yet its symptoms can subside when a horse rests overnight. This is dangerous to the horse. An operator can stable a lame horse overnight – long enough for the symptoms to subside – so he can be worked the following day. The horse will begin his work feeling minimal discomfort, but as he continues throughout the day his condition deteriorates, and he will be slightly more lame than the previous day.

As long as they can stand up, operators will continue to drive their horses in this condition. This is abuse, yet extremely difficult to prove to lawmakers because most are unfamiliar with equine health care. So, too, are the patrons of carriage horse rides.

Other foot problems resulting from driving horses on pavement, or from poor environmental conditions are:
Side-bone :
The ossification (hardening) of the two lateral cartilage of the "wings" of the coffin bone. Riding and driving horses on hard surfaces are two causes of side-bones.
Ringbone :
The accumulation of new bone growth on the joint and joint surface due to extreme trauma. These bone deposits interfere with the normal function of the tendons and other structures of the hoof. Ringbone is painful, and in most cases untreatable.
Contracted Heels:
The lateral diameter of the heels has been reduced due to shrinking of the tissue in the hoof. Contracted heels are caused by improper shoeing and trimming, and leaving shoes on too long, which is common with carriage horses.
Toe & Quarter Cracks:
A toe crack simply means it is in the toe area of the hoof. A quarter crack is in the quarter, or side of the hoof; a heel crack is in the heal area. Cracks can also occur in the quick (soft tissue), and are painful. In carriage horses, cracks are almost always associated with their being driven on pavement.

Considerations for Prevention, or Elimination:
Carriage horse rides continue to be a popular target for animal rights groups. However, traditional activist tactics for ending them have not been in the best interests of the horses. Carriage horses are stressed from sore feet, hot and inclement weather conditions, and breathing exhaust fumes from buses and automobiles -- not to mention having to tolerate people getting in their faces. Loud protests with waving banners and shouting at people increases the horses' stress. A recommended plan is to educate lawmakers about equine health, and humane and natural horsemanship. A sympathetic farrier, equine veterinarian, or horse trainer who can educate city council members or legislators is recommended. A public education campaign which should include advertising oriented towards boycotting horse-drawn carriage rides can be effective if carefully planned and budgeted for. Many states now have horse councils. Although most have never addressed humane issues, if you are interested in the welfare of horses, joining your state horse council and requesting their input can be an effective way of building support.

Charles Owen, master farrier and hoof pathologist Recommended Reading: The Natural Horse: Lessons From The Wild For Domestic Horse Care, by Jaime Jackson, Northland Publishing

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