In the carriage trade, heat safety makes horse sense

Posted: July 12, 2007

Hershey had just finished his first ride of the day, pulling three passengers in a large black carriage in front of Independence Hall. He seemed contented, chewing on a carrot that driver Jay Chlebuch offered.

"He's not even sweating yet," Chlebuch said yesterday of the 6-year-old bay Belgian draft horse gelding he affectionately calls "my baby."

But if the temperature hits 92 - as it did in the early afternoon Monday and Tuesday - their workday is over.

City officials concede that the temperature guideline is arbitrary, not based on science but rather an attempt to placate both animal rights activists and carriage companies.

Some, like a PETA director, want a total ban on horse-drawn carriages in urban areas. That's simply more chaff than wheat, argue carriage company officials, who insist that their business is being singled out. Heat considerations don't limit competitors at Philadelphia Park Racetrack, they note.

Indeed, said Joe Brauckmann, a Philadelphia Park official: "I'm not aware of any regulations to cancel races due to the heat. The only ones I know about are for wind and cold."

Philadelphia's 92-degree limit falls roughly in the middle for U.S. cities with carriage rides. Washington, for instance, has a limit of 90, while Charleston, S.C., has set 98 for its top end.

"I'm not aware of any heat-related deaths of horses here," said Vanessa Turner Maybank, a Charleston City Council clerk who noted the city based its decision "on a comprehensive study and the recommendation of veterinarians."

Philadelphia's temperature rule - in the winter, the cut-off is anything below 27 - was adopted seven years ago when Councilman Frank DiCicco led the charge to lower the heat limit from 94 after a carriage company was convicted of animal abuse and required to close.

At a 2000 hearing in which opposing sides and experts argued their points, the 92-degree rule was adopted as a compromise, said Carmen Paris, the city's acting health commissioner. That figure, she said, was not based on any specific science about heat thresholds for horses.

"We're not opposed to regulation and we abide by it. But in an average season we lose 25 to 30 days," said Michael Slocum, the owner of 76 Carriage Co. "In peak season, that's quite a bit."

Said Bashir Ahmed, owner of Philadelphia Carriage Co.: "They are very, very strict with us. They are going to drive us out of business."

That's the point for Debbie Leahy, director of captive animals and entertainment issues for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which wants to ban horse-drawn carriages in cities.

"These laws don't take into account that the pavement is much hotter than the reported temperature outside. If you walked around barefoot on a day like that, you'd burn your feet," she said.

Michael Kates, vice president of operations for 76 Carriage Co., said temperature limits can cause more harm than good because inadequate ventilation systems in some stables - not his company, he added - make the barns hotter than outside temperatures.

"If the horses aren't on the street working, some companies can't make enough money to improve their facilities and stables, which is the real issue," he said.

Susan Cosby, chief operating officer for the Philadelphia Animal Care and Control Association, which is contracted by the city to enforce the equine restrictions, said the carriage companies have been cooperative.

Said Slocum, the owner of 76 Carriages: "We don't wait for the police to drag us off the streets. We police ourselves. When we have 90-degree days, we only send out a few horses in the morning, and when the temperature approaches 89 and 90, we start bringing them in on our own."

That's just dandy with the drivers.

"When it's that hot out, we don't get a lot of rides and we don't even want to be out in the heat. So why would the horses?" asked Sarah Brown, who drives for Philadelphia Carriage Co.

And Chlebuch, who has spent the last year with Hershey, said he knows his horse well enough to spot any sign of distress.

"I'd rather be safe than sorry," he said.


Contact staff writer Katie Stuhldreher at 215-854-2601 or kstuhldreher@phillynews.com.

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