By Hannah Bizick
It's 90 degrees outside, the sun is blazing, and the humidity is at 85%.
A typical summer day in Charleston, South Carolina, seems inhospitable for either man or beast - including horses.
To local advocates and a great deal of the general public, these conditions seem abusive for the horses who pull nearly 2,000-pound carriages with 16 tourists aboard on the blistering hot pavement.
But carriage companies and equine specialists often insist that the highly regulated industry is doing everything it can to keep these horses safe. Horses receive special care before even being allowed to get in front of a carriage and trot along the roads of downtown Charleston.
“The carriage operators downtown are among the best as far as the care goes,” said Derek Evenhouse, an equine manager at the Old South Carriage company in downtown Charleston.
Horses have been providing transportation for people and goods in Charleston for over 50 years.
And with a city full of old history and charming buildings, the horse carriage industry thrives for both locals and tourists to experience the beauty of the Holy City.
Yet there is still a great deal of controversy surrounding the industry. Some animal advocates believe the horses are not receiving the proper care they need, while those in the industry stand by their efforts to keep the horses in great care.
Equine veterinarian Dr. Justin Miller knows locals and tourists are interested in understanding how the horses are taken care of and what safety measures exist to keep them healthy.
But he knows there will always be some who are not satisfied with the answers to their questions.
“A lot of the controversy stems from the belief of some that a horse pulling a carriage or carrying a rider is exploitation of that animal,” Miller said. “There are people that have that belief, and so they'll never be happy as long as this activity exists.”
Whether it be how much rest they get or their food and water intake on a daily basis, the level of care these horses are given is of great interest to many animal advocates.
Evenhouse believes their horses are receiving the best possible attention they can get due to the large number of staff providing what they consider a high level of care.
Temperature always an issue
One of the most debatable concerns within the industry, and especially in downtown Charleston - is the temperature at which the carriage horses are allowed to work.
“At the end of the day, a horse overheating is the overall fear,” Evenhouse said.
According to the Charleston Code of Ordinances, each horse must have at least a 15-minute break in between each carriage ride. Evenhouse says Old South exceeds this requirement, giving each horse 30 minutes to rest before its next job. On hotter days, they build in additional buffers to give the horses even more time to cool down.
Further, in accordance with the city’s ambient temperature rule, if it is 95 degrees or higher, Old South completely stops operating tours for the remainder of the day.
But by taking the horse's internal temperature, Old South is able to know whether a horse is actually in danger of overheating.
Evenhouse again emphasizes that they exceed the minimum regulations. He believes this is a unique precaution that Old South takes - and it does it often.
“I think what we are doing here in Charleston is unique where we are monitoring the horses individually,” Evenhouse said. “It is something that we monitor day by day.”
Evenhouse says they do the daily monitoring specifically to be aware of each horse’s internal temperature at all times.
“When they take off on a tour, we always know their internal temperature before they leave and we know their temperature when they come back, and that's on a horse-by-horse basis," he said. "If a horse's temperature is higher than expected, we would take them off the carriage."
Another primary concern is how the hot pavement affects the horse’s hooves.
Each horse wears steel shoes to protect its feet. Between the ground and the steel shoe, the horses wear “a tire,” a rubber shoe bolted onto the steel shoe. The tire protects their feet from the asphalt while also providing extra cushion.
“It serves both purposes,” Miller mentioned. “Their feet themselves don’t actually touch the ground.”
Old South has a farrier on staff to check the horses' shoes, while also bringing in a separate farrier once a week just to make sure they are in good condition and still protective.
Moreover, the Charleston Code of Ordinances requires all carriage companies to have a government-provided specialist check on the health of each horse during bi-annual checkups to deem them fit enough for service.
The City of Charleston also has an equine manager, Shannon Tilman, on staff to oversee the city’s horse carriage industry and handle any issues or complaints. According to Evenhouse, Tilman and a third party vet visit each company annually to do their own grading and evaluation of the facilities and current state of care the horses are receiving.
“So it's not just our own vets,” Evenhouse pointed out.
Activists still opposed
While the industry is monitored much heavier than many think, there are local animal activists who still believe the horses are not receiving appropriate care.
The Charleston Horse Carriage Activists organization claims on its website that the “animals are permitted to work eight consecutive hours connected to wagons or ten hours with a ninety-minute break in a 24 hour period.”
The group has published a litany of unofficial charges against carriage companies on its website, but has not updated it since February 2021.
No one from the CHCA would return calls to discuss their claims against the carriage companies or how incidents were reported.
But Tilman confirmed that CHCA is a private organization completely unaffiliated with the city, and the incidents the organization reports are through their own observations.
“They file freedom of information requests from us all the time, but I don’t have any connection to them,” said Tilman. “The numbers they have on there could be correct, but they aren't required to run anything by us, so I just don’t know.”
However, Tilman noted that an official accident report from her office would be written if there was any damage or injury to a horse or person. A written incident report from her office could contain anything from a horse stumbling to somebody stubbing their toe in the barn.
“So there is a very wide range, but anything other than an accident would basically be considered an incident,” Tilman said.
Carriage weight another concern
In addition to taking the necessary precautions for general safety, Old South also takes into consideration how the weight of each carriage affects their horses.
Many people wonder, how can a horse pull 16 people on top of the carriage itself?
Evenhouse explains that it takes between 150 and 250 pounds of force to get a carriage rolling. With a fully loaded carriage, the average 2,000-pound horse can make that happen in just a couple of seconds.
“Consistently, our horses average 75 pounds of force to keep the carriage moving. So, downtown Charleston is flat and for a 2,000 or 2,100 pound animal, it is pretty easy for them,” Evenhouse explained. “Basically it is very minor for the horse to be able to do what they do for us.”
Criticism toward the industry
Despite the various efforts taken by the carriage companies, there is still a great deal of criticism toward the industry here in Charleston, including violent dialogue toward carriages as they drive by.
And Miller points out that yelling things at the carriages can have the opposite effect than what activists are hoping to gain.
“You know, you can almost say, wow, it's good that you care so much about the horses and you're worried about them, but then it's like, you're almost doing the opposite when you're doing violent things like that, you're not helping them, you're making it worse by scaring them,” Miller said.
While they appreciate the concern for the horses, Miller and Evenhouse believe public education is an important part of understanding the care the horses receive in the industry.
“Just certainly asking questions is important. And education,” says Miller, who believes the lack of understanding about the carriages is harmful to the animals and people should take more steps to educate themselves before coming to any conclusions. “I think that there's this feeling that the end justifies the means somehow, and the horses kind of get lost in the mix.”