Veterinary care of carriage horses

Veterinary care of carriage horses

Working conditions spark controversy, but DVMs see their role as advocate and educator
Aug 01, 2009

Uphill climb: A carriage horse works on an incline in Helen, Ga. Uniform national carriage-horse rules are difficult because of widely varying conditions.
You are on a well-deserved vacation with your family — East Coast, West Coast, it doesn't matter. You're walking down the street enjoying an art fair or browsing a line of quaint shops when all of a sudden you hear that all-too-familiar clip-clop, clip-clop.

You thought you were taking a break from horses, but you look around anyway and there it is — a draft horse slowly pulling a loaded wagon full of tourists through a busy downtown area.

Because summer is the prime time for tourism, it often is hot and humid, and maybe you've wondered about the health and well-being of these horses or had to answer a companion's questions about the horse's workload and how the weather might affect it.

Cushioning the blows: This carriage horse wears boots that protect its hooves from repeated pounding on hard street surfaces.
While you may be on vacation, there is no doubt that these special equine laborers are working. And their care, handling and management constitute a unique and often emotionally charged sector of equine veterinary practice.

Carriage tours and carriage rides are a common sight in many locations, from the large urban centers of New York, Boston, Atlanta, San Francisco or Denver to smaller cities like Charleston, Savannah and Sun Valley. These rides are big business and often represent a multimillion-dollar stake in the revenue for each location.

Charleston, S.C., alone has numerous carriage firms that will hitch up to 30,000 carriages a year. "Tourism councils love horse-drawn carriages," says Dr. Jay Merriam of the Massachusetts Equine Clinic, "because they bring in tourists and add considerably to the ambiance of a downtown."

Merriam has served as an expert consultant to carriage groups, city councils and humane societies from New York to Boston to Charleston.

Animal-welfare groups and other coalitions work with intensity to ban horse-drawn carriages. They try either to ban them outright because of concerns for horses working in weather extremes, poor air quality and traffic congestion or to devise codes to prevent animal abuse.

Almost everyone agrees those are worthy goals, but debate arises about one group's right to affect another's livelihood.

Veterinarians are put somewhere in the middle, in that vets must care for these animals.

"We are not the police; we are protectors," explains Merriam. "It is within our purview to help make their (carriage horses') lives better and assure humane standards are developed and applied."

It is also the duty of veterinarians to educate the public about the ability of these horses to perform their jobs and to separate the science of electrolyte physiology, heat stress, pulling capacity and rest/recovery from the often emotional arguments and appeals.

To that end, a look at the major problems and concerns of carriage horses seems warranted, including a review of some information on the physiology of performing or working horses. This should help equip veterinarians to aid these animals and inform them about both sides of the debate.

Most problems seen in carriage horses occur in these main health-care areas: bone and muscle injuries, tack-related problems, shoes and feet and heat/cold stress, along with some management/husbandry concerns.

Dr. John Malark owns Edisto Equine Clinic, a general and referral practice whose clients include all five carriage companies (about 90 percent of the equine population) in Charleston, S. C., as well those in neighboring Savannah, Ga. He's seen his share of orthopedic disease, reporting that foot abscesses, laminitis and ringbone are the problems most often seen, though the percentages in carriage horses are not very different from what occur in his general practice.

Back-sore or muscle-sore carriage horses occasionally are seen. Causes of these conditions may be improper shoeing or handling. Some of the staging areas, where horses wait their turn to take the next trip, may be inadequate for a level start. When a carriage horse steps into a load, it must get enough leverage and momentum to move the carriage. If the horse and carriage are not on the same plane when the pull begins, the forces on the horse's back are unevenly applied and muscle problems can result.

It is important to note that concerns and issues about staging areas come up frequently in carriage-horse debates. Carriage horses often do not fit easily into cities, and their very existence draws more people, further contributing to street crowding and ultimately making it harder on the horses.

Animal advocates argue that staging areas should be large enough for horses and carts to be on level ground and that optimum locations also should provide shade and water access. The realities of city congestion do not often allow for these locations, but every effort should be made to pay attention to such simple details.